22 April 2010

Artichoke Flowers to fill and eat

Here's an easy way to jazz up serving whole artichokes the next time you want to impress your significant other or dinner guests. It's so easy you don't need to wait for company to try this simple. I'm currently in web site revamp purgatory so haven't had much time to write posts, so I thought I would get this easy and eye appealing way to serve artichokes, before they are finished here for the season.  So many artichoke recipes so little time left, even if they are in season from December to the beginning of May. I still have several recipes I haven't gotten to. In the mean time, pick up some fresh artichokes. We have a wide range of varieties here, but the best one for this trick are the ones that are long and pointy. That is not what are in these pictures, so don't let that stop you, but the longer ones will make a more dramatic presentation.
You can use a variety of fillings for the filling of your artichokes, but a simple home made mayonnaise with garlic is always a classic favorite. I also made a filling that is sort of like a pesto mixed with a bit of tomato paste that makes a tasty alternative to the mayo filling, but haven't been able to find my photo of it. I haven't added a formal recipe for mayo, but here are a couple of links to a classic mayo recipe here, which is made by hand whisking  and a video from Chef John's Foodwishes series, using an immersion wand to make it in a flash. I make it both ways, but find the wand method so easy especially when I just toss in my garlic to boot and faster than I can type up this post, you've got mayo to go on anything.
Artichoke Flowers

Start first by preparing 4 artichokes.
I start by trimming up the stem, making sure to keep as much as possible as the stem is quite tasty. You just remove the bottom part that is dry or very tough. them peel the outer tough skin off of the stem. Leave the stem attached to the artichoke while you steam them, as it makes them easier to handle. 
Remove  a few of the outer leaves, by gently pulling back on them till they snap off. Remove a couple of rows around the base of the artichoke.
 These were early season artichokes and therefore fairly tender, but you may need to remove more of the outer leaves it they seem too tough.  Do take care, as the spiny varieties are fierce and will put up a fight when you attempt to remove them.
Take your knife and cut at an angle to remove the outer leaves tapering towards the tip. It will pronounce the taper and make them very pointed. You are removing the bits that you wouldn't normally eat, and still have some leaf to pull them off with.
Bring enough salted water to a boil and either steam the artichokes above the water or plunge them into the water and cook until tender.  You will know they are done when a knife inserted at the base in towards the heart feels easy to pierce. Remove from heat and cool enough to handle.
Take the artichokes by the stem, turn point towards the work table. Gently splay the leaves out from the middle and press the artichoke directly on the table to fan the leaves out. Use enough force to open  it up.  Trim the stem from the base making sure the artichoke will sit up on it's own. Turn right side up to make sure it is suitably opened. If not them repeat the pressing directly o the table till it is open. Take a small teaspoon and remove the choke part in the very enter of the leaves. Now you will have a small cavity to fill with garlic caper mayonnaise, or whater ever combination suits you. Chives or other herbs are a nice addition as well.

My pesto concoction consisted of chopping garlic, basil, and pine nuts together. Then adding a small amount of olive oil to make a bit of a paste. Then added some tomato paste to achieve  a pliable  paste. Then I added ground parmesan and and bread crumbs to make a crumbly texture and a bit of salt if needed. I just keep adjustig the amounts as I go along to achieve a moist crumbly and flavorful paste that I plave in the middle of the choke and  sprinkle around. I'm sure you can come up with a few other filling was well. Bagna cauda comes to mind as well, warm garlicky  anchovy sauce comes to mind too.

15 April 2010

Visit to the "Shroud of Turin" or "Santa Sindone 2010" di Torino

 Ever since I ever had any recollection of Turin or Torino (as is known in Italian, Turin is the local Piemontese dialect name, pronounce Tour- reen) I've always associated it with the Shroud. Over the years I have read the differing opinions on why it is or is not authentic.  All quite plausible, but the fact of the matter is that whether it is medieval or prior to that it, is fairly difficult to be definitive about, but it is indeed old and quite a fascinating relic, at least to me. To have a simple stained piece of cloth survive hundreds of years is in deed quite astounding.  Wikipedia claims "The Shroud of Turin is one of, if not the, most studied artifacts in human history."  This site makes the case for the Shroud's authenticity. A compelling mystery indeed. 
The House of Savoy, Italy's former royal family whose kingdom stretched from France through Piedmont and Valle d''Aosta, acquired the shroud in the 15th century, and brought it to eventually reside in Torino since that time.  In 1983, upon the death of Umberto II,  owner of  the shroud, bequeathed it to the Pope and his successors, with the proviso that it stay in Turin.
Living in the province of Torino I have been quite fascinated by this relic and naturally wanted to see the real one as I have seen the copy numerous times when friends and relatives have come to visit. The Duomo (or cathedral) is rather modest by Italian standards, even overshadowed by the many grand cathedrals scattered though out the core of downtown Torino.  I am always struck by the somewhat casual atmoshpere of this particular church, whenever I have visited. There is a permanent display on one of the side chapels although it is still in the main part of the church and they have people stationed there to help you with information and to help you to remember to keep a respectful silence when you are visiting the shroud, although I have also visited when there has been weddings taking place along side all of the visitors milling about. It's just not so reverential as one might expect.
This visit was quite different. I rolled up to Piazza Reale about 9am noting all along my stroll under the covered porticos from Porta Susa train station how clean town seemed and definitely with a bit of a buzz.  The round about in front of the train station had numerous buses spinning around mostly sporting Italian plates, with some Austrian and German plates as well. Hadn't really seen this much activity since the 206 Olympics. It was rather exciting.  As I made my way toward the Duomo, I noticed  groups of tourists scattered about taking in all the different angles and sites in of the heart of downtown Torino. It warmed my heart, especially as it was so early and the high street stores hadn't even opened yet.
Rocking up to the front of the Duomo I was surprised at how low key it was as far as people and no checking tickets, just lots of emergency vehicles, a few Carabiniere(police), and Alpini military guys(the mountain edition) to keep the peace on a beautiful spring day.  I sauntered on through the front door, no one even asking about a ticket, to find myself in central part of the softly lit church facing the Shroud, front and center, elevated up high enough for all to see. I made my way forward and only then realized that there was a moving line wrapping around the perimeter of the church and across the center affording much closer viewing, but not accessible from this part of the church. Ah ha, there is a different line for the closer viewing. There quite a few people around me, but not crowded. Most were respectfully observing and a good portion were earnestly praying. It did not have the feel of seekers for miracle just perhaps seeking some connection to the divine. I'm not really quite sure. I could have easily finish my journey there, but felt compelled to get a closer look. I had my free ticket, which I booked the night before on the well organized, multi-language site that was quick and easy. I was quite surprised it was completely free, as were other friends and family members who had paid to visit it on other occasions when it has been on display.
 So off I set in search of the line to make my passage closer to this object of great interest. It was a bit of a stroll around the back of the palace gardens to find the serpentine line snaking around through the back gardens. As bus after bus pulled up to deposit or pick their passengers, I realized it was set up to accommodate great throngs of people that have come on a pilgrimage. The people that had been missing from the front were all here in the line snaking around the grounds and through the old Roman ruins before you made your way into the church.  The day was nice, the ground were lovely the views pleasant and canopied walkways made the time spent making your way into the church pass quickly in a line that steadily continued along. The atmosphere was calm with quiet conversations going on between teachers and their pupils and priests and their parishioners, small groups of family and friends and a few solitary individuals like myself moving along the path. I wanted to query people about where and why they had come, but it just didn't seem like the thing to do.  People were in good spirits,  quietly reflective it seemed, not necessarily speaking about the usual mundane things we often find ourselves chattering on about. There was just a pleasant reverential mood.
There were a variety of posters  of religious art depicting Jesus at various times surrounding his Crucifixion , that helped to set the mood as well. We passed though some underground passageway, where there were back lit busts on display and Gregorian chanting, creating a mood so peaceful and lovely, it begged for you to linger, but we continued on our steady progress. Pellegrini. Pilgrims progress. 
Next, 300 hundred of us at a time were given a brief slide show pointing out the markings on the shroud, accompanied by titles in 8 languages with sacred background music. It definitely helped you absorb what you were actually seeing when you finally arrived at your brief moment of contemplation in front of the Shroud. After the slide show you were asked to proceed in silence. What was before a quiet murmur, now became a reverential silence. The hundred or so, 10 year old children in front of me were completely quiet. Everyone was. It was quite amazing, only broken a little later by a few of the volunteers chatting about going to lunch and seeing each other tomorrow.  I think they were a little hard of hearing. Then when we finally entered the hushed atmosphere of the Duomo I was surprised to see women covering their heads, like I remembered from so many years ago, but had forgotten that it was ever done, as it is seldom the case anymore. Then we were grouped into three lines that made their way in front of the Shroud on three levels so there is excellent viewing on each level. If you make sure you are on the far left, you will find yourself closest to the shroud. 
Once you are there, there is someone softly telling you all of the points of the cloth. the face, the shoulders, the hands, the nail wound, the chest wound and so on. I don't know if it is all the preparation, the atmosphere, the energy of the people, or the face and the obvious imprint of a person, but I did feel tears roll down my face. Because for me, no matter what the truth may be about this ancient cloth, there is a distinct human imprint on the cloth and it does look like that person suffered and in that moment I felt an empathy for all of our human suffering focused there looking for release. It was a touching moment that I appreciate having had the opportunity to experience. Perhaps you would find it different, one can never know, as we make our individual journeys together. 

I would say, if you are going to be in the Torino area before the 23 May, you might want to consider booking in to see the Shroud. It took about an hour and a bit more to get through the whole line and viewing, before enjoying the rest of what Torino has on offer.
This exhibition runs from 10 April-23 May 2010 . 7 am -22:15 daily
It is a free event and open to everyone.
You can find the Shroud official site here and the online ticket booking site here.
Here is a short clip about the Shroud going on display

08 April 2010

Anise Orange Biscotti

I always try to have a stash of cookies lurking in my assorted cookie tins for that unexpected drop in visitor that makes it seem that we were just waiting for them to visit. Home made cookies always seem to delight everyone, elevating the shared drink from pleasant to memorable.  I often have friends asking me to bring those cookies around again that they had at our house or that I brought round for Christmas, you remember them don't you? Oftentimes I don't as I like to cycle through a variety of cookies and by the time someone is reminding me about them, I am on to the next round of new favorites, or wading through some of the old favorites scribble on the various scraps of paper tucked in to my various notebooks. These anise orange cantucci, if you will, is still one, my neighbors, ask for longingly. Cantucci is what the twice baked cookies that we generically call biscotti in America, are actually called in Italy. They are most well known in Tuscany as basic almond variety that are usually served with  a sweet vin santo (blessed wine) at the end of a meal, for a light ending to a meal. Biscotti to Italians, just means what American s call cookies and the Brits call biscuits. I just call them delicious and think you will as well.

These biscotti are just the right sweet fix you might want to  indulge in after all the Easter excess of chocolate bunnies and eggs.  Simple and satisfying, cut into tiny dippers for your espresso or large batons suitable for dunking in your caffe latte or milky tea and you will probably find they are so irresistible you might need to hide the cookie tin somewhere to make it difficult to polish off the whole batch at one sitting. Flavorful and yet, not too sweet or rich that dunking them into your favorite hot beverage will have you heating up the kettle at all hours of the day and night just to dunk these delicately flavored numbers again and again. I don't go over board on the the anise flavor as I prefer a more subtle note that leaves you tasting the various flavors and not hidden by just one. Do feel free to add more to suit your taste if you will. If you remember to form them into 4 narrow logs instead of two fat ones, you will be rewarded with small bites that fit well in an espresso cup or a platter of various other bites. You could also dip one half in white or dark melted chocolate to up the decadence, but I preferred to have them as their humble self, suitable even for breakfast in the traditional Italian way. What ever way you prefer, I think you'll be adding this to your treasure trove of cookie recipes.

Anise Orange Biscotti
yields about 48  or so small bite size
or about 30 large batons


150g (2/3c) butter, room temperature
325g (1 1/2c) sugar, I used a blond cane sugar, but regular sugar is fine
3 eggs
5g (2 tsp) anise seeds
2 tsp anise extract
12g (2 T) orange zest
pinch salt 
11g (3 tsp) baking powder
630g-650g (4 1/2c) flour, plain/all purpose

Cream butter and sugar together in a medium large mixing bowl.
I use a flat whisk by hand but an electric mixer is fine. Just don't mix too long.
You want it light, but not whipped like a frosting.
Add the eggs and blend well.
Add the anise seeds, orange zest, anise extract, pinch salt and blend.
Add the flour and baking powder.
Stir to form a dough.
Dust your table surface with flour.
Turn the dough onto the table.
Dust your hands with flour and divide dough into 2 or 4 even portions.
Form the portions into long even logs the length of your baking dish.
You can either lightly butter and flour a baking sheet or use baking paper to cover the tray.
Place two logs on each tray.
Pat them to be fairly smooth on top and even widths.
Make another tray the same way so you have two trays and 4 logs.
Bake the logs in a preheated moderate oven 325*  for 20 minutes or so until the logs are a light golden brown.
Remove from the oven and cool slightly. If you press the top middle log and it seems not cooked all the way through, return then to the oven and continue to cook till completely cooked all the way through.
Remove and cool slightly to be able to handle.
With a serrated knife cut each log on a 45* angle into 1/2" slices. The more angle the longer the finished cookie will be.
When you have them all cut, turn the slices on their side and return to the oven to bake a second time to bake completely through and light golden brown.
Cool before storing or dipping in melted tempered chocolate if desired.

Cooks notes*
Do cut the biscotti while they are warm for the best results. Too cool and they will crumble when you try and cut them if over baked.
Better to under bake the biscotti slightly the first time baking them, so they are easier to cut.
Too under cooked and the center of the cookie will be hard when you bake them the second time.
Still delious, but not ideal.

02 April 2010

Dreamy Chocolate Easter Eggs

I sure hope the Easter Bunny finds his way here with one of these!

It's that time of the year again where not only are the spring flowers and buds starting to spring up, but  Italy has been hit and blanketed by a tidal wave of chocolate eggs of every persuasion. This area is known for its chocolate and this time of year chocolatiers are still hard at it. The eggs you find here are quite an art form and almost a shame to eat.
But most people manage to soldier on...

 It really is quite a sight.

Almost to beautiful to eat.....
well almost...
Then we have the colorful wrapped ones. They come in every size with trinkets for all, to amuse for a day or two till they fade into another memory of an Easter egg treasure from yet another year.
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