May 21, 2010

Happy Talk

My mom’s name is Ann Marie, and my name is Anina Marie. In Italian, “Anina” means “little Ann”.  It’s like my parents knew upon my birth that they had just cloned my mother.  I accepted at a very young age that if I hadn’t already, one day I would absolutely turn into my mother.  I was right. And guess what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Among the many qualities we share, one in particular drives the men in our lives crazy. We have the ability to watch the same movie over and over again, year after year.  We also like to categorize our movies, based on seasons. Some make perfect sense, for example White Christmas and Meet Me in St. Louis can be watched the day after Thanksgiving (over and over again) until January 1st. Others seem a little random. For instance My Fair Lady is definitely a February movie, Anne of Green Gables is a September-October movie, and Parent Trap (starring Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills) can be played anytime between Memorial and Labor Day. I have taken this categorization one step further. I have developed an interesting habit of pairing movies to what I’m cooking…  Sense and Sensibility is played when making soup, Sabrina when I’m baking. More on this curious practice later.

Another trait that I inherited from my mom is a zealous love of artichokes.  Given the opportunity, we could probably eat our combined weight in artichokes. We are that passionate about this vegetable.

During artichoke season, we make them lots of different ways. Sometimes braised, or poached, with lemon aioli or maybe some toasted breadcrumbs on the side for dipping. But our preferred preparation is Nonna’s Stuffed Artichokes. Hands down, it’s the best way to eat an artichoke. 

I get unbelievably excited around mid April when the purple and globe shaped artichokes start showing up in the produce section.  Not only does this mean artichoke season has sprung, it means it’s time for South Pacific. South Pacific is the perfect length for an afternoon of artichoke making.  It will carry you through the trimming, the soaking and the stuffing with time to pause for two replays of “Some Enchanted Evening”. Nothing makes me happier than stuffed artichokes and South Pacific.

Stuffed Artichokes

I got a little carried away a few weeks ago and decided to stuff the really big globe artichokes. This resulted in having to take out every pot I own to find one large enough to fit all three globes, which incidentally ended up being the largest stockpot I possess. Yes, they were that big.

I asked Nonna if Great Grandma Tocco ever made stuffed artichokes.  I mean the lady had twelve kids. Who on earth would try and cook twelve stuffed artichokes? Well, certainly not Great Grandma Tocco. She never made less than twenty-four.  To be fair, she did have two ovens to work with. But still. Twenty-four stuffed artichokes would definitely require a double feature.

2 lemons, halved
3-5 garlic gloves
Italian breadcrumbs
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Fill a pot cold water. Squeeze two lemon halves into the water.

To trim the artichokes, begin with chopping off the stem as close to choke as you can so that the artichoke can stand up. Rub cut surface with lemon halve to prevent discoloration. Then, peal off the bottom outer leaves and any leaves that look tough or unhealthy. With scissors, trim 1/2 inch off the top of the remaining leaves. Again, rub cut surface with the lemon halve. Put both stem and artichoke into the bowl of lemon water. Let soak for 45 minutes to an hour.

In the meantime, season your bread crumbs with salt and pepper. Maybe throw in some grated Parmigian-Reggiano, some minced garlic or even some chopped anchovies for some real flavor.

Remove the artichokes from the water and proceed to fill the leaves with your bread crumb mixture. Place them back into the drained pot, along with the stems, so that they are standing up straight. If you need to, put some potatoes in between the artichokes to make sure everyone stays straight. Then at the end, you get artichokes and potatoes!

Drizzle the olive oil over the stuffed artichokes so that the mixture is moistened and won't fall out during the cooking process. Toss in the whole garlic cloves.

Submerge the artichokes in cold water, adding an additional few chugs of olive oil. Add a few pinches salt. Cover and cook on medium high until you can stick a fork through the stems and the leaves are starting to fall off, for at least an hour. Probably more, if like mine, your artichokes are on steroids. As the water cooks down, make sure you baste the artichokes every 20 minutes or so to ensure even cooking.

May 15, 2010

A Charmed Life

Hello. I feel like I’ve been neglecting you (and by “you” I mean the four or five readers I have who are not related to me or make a habit of drinking wine with me and Tom on our back porch).  I do however have an excellent excuse. Tom and I recently returned from a much needed vacation to Ireland.

I know. Ireland? Really? We neither one of us is even a little bit Irish. And I don’t like beer.  But we needed a get-away that was just for the two of us. No family, no friends, somewhere that was completely unfamiliar and strange to the both of us. I wanted to go somewhere where I could smell the Atlantic Ocean; Tom wanted to go somewhere where he could spend hours taking thousands of scenic pictures. And so Ireland it was. We were so excited. I bought pink flowered wellies, Tom rented a lens for his already decked out camera. We were so ready.

Then Eyjafjallaj√∂kull happened. Thank you Iceland. We were stunned. What are the odds your trip to Ireland is threatened due to a volcano acting up in Iceland?  A blizzard in April? Yes, good chance in New England. But a volcano? Apparently, also very good.

My dad often boasts that he lives a charmed life, from always finding a parking space in downtown Boston, to having a happy, healthy family, to falling out of a moving truck and somehow not getting run over, it does seem that my dad is one lucky guy. Well, recently we decided that charmed lives run in the family. As our departure to Ireland approached, Tom and I waited out the hundreds of canceled flights to Europe with crossed fingers. In the end, we were the first flight from Boston to Shannon and, as it so happens, the last flight from Shannon to Boston before Eyjafjallajökull started throwing a fit again. Be it charm or perhaps the luck of the Irish, we got there and back, safe and sound.

When visiting the Emerald Island I should think most people look forward to the Guinness. I know Tom did. Nonna put me under specific of orders upon landing in Ireland to find a pub, order a nice cold beer and think of her. I ordered a pint, took exactly three sips, gave it to Tom and replaced it with a whiskey.  It turns out that even in Ireland I don’t do beer. That’s okay though. Because I didn’t go to Ireland for the beer- I went for the oysters.

Our first day in Ireland, we stopped at a little oyster house, just outside of Galway.  We ordered one platter of raw and one platter of garlic grilled Edulis oysters. So fresh, so meaty, so filled with salt air and sea breeze.

When we returned home my dad, the seafood enthusiast, helped me to replicate the garlic grilled oysters we had so enjoyed that first day in Ireland.

He also shared with me his broiled oyster recipe. Like me, my dad loves raw oysters. My mom however, absolutely does not.  But, she does love my dad. Just to prove it, when they were dating she ate her first and last raw oyster. After that my dad started fixing them with bacon and cocktail sauce so that my mom would like them better.

I would say that my dad is absolutely right. When you get to spend an afternoon in the kitchen with your family  playing with oysters, and enjoying clams and lobster, you do, very much so, lead a charmed life.

Dad’s Broiled Oysters with Bacon

I know that for many people (Nonna included) oysters just aren’t their thing. I understand that texture plays a big role in this. The recipe I’m about to share with you, I believe helps with that. Also, when experiencing oysters, I think it’s essential to have the imagery right. Think “taste of the ocean”. And, a dash of hot sauce always helps.  I think Mr. Hemingway says it best:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans.” -Ernest Hemingway

A dozen oysters

1 slice of bacon, roughly chopped

This cocktail sauce

I’m not even going to attempt to explain how to go about shucking an oyster. That’s what dads and EHow are for.

Place a dab, and I do mean a dab, of cocktail sauce on each oyster. Top with a piece of bacon. Broil until bacon is crisp.