1000 words on making (and eating) the artichokes

I make the artichokes about once a year. They’re messy and just for me, so. 

But worth it as an annual treat! And I found a recipe that’s pretty much what Mom did so I just follow that, with a couple very minor changes. 

Do you know about eating stuffed artichokes, people who aren't my brothers? It's a little performance you put on for yourself in sensuous leisure. You pull off the outer leaves and scrape the breadcrumbs and bit of soft interior with your teeth. As you go farther in, there are fewer breadcrumbs, but more interior to scrape and enjoy, and you can squeeze a little lemon juice over them if you wish. When you get to the center, where the purple leaves are, you can eat those, but the ends are slightly prickly. Purpleheart
Then! You have an alien encounter that really quite put me off when I was a child. I wish I'd had the opportunity to eat artichokes with my mom when I was an adult so I could tell her I understand now. Mom had a trick of pulling the purple bit up so the next paragraph tells a slightly different story, but I always just eat that part and make myself deal with what comes next.

You see, you next encounter fur. I expect there's an official name for it, but it's fur. It's just a camouflage, though, because beneath it is all good eating, straight to the bottom of the plate. That's where the heart is, and when you scoop up your first taste with a fork or spoon, you'll understand why it is considered a delicacy. Mom managed to pull up the fur with the purple bit, but I always have to scrape it away. I have put the picture of this in a separate link because it's a little off-putting, and if you have the bizarre problem I have with pictures of holes where it feels, rightly or wrongly, that holes ought not to be, you might not like it. 

Now I’m going to tell you about those recipe changes and give you a couple tips in case you want to make them, too. So this isn't the recipe, okay? You click on the link above or below for that. This is just more chatter and a few not-very-good pictures.

First, I just use two artichokes instead of the three called for in the recipe, but the same amount of filling. This is because I can eat one and save one for the next day. A third would be too extra. 

After I stuff the outer leaves, I put some more filling on the top before drizzling oil over them, because Mom did that, plus the filling is delicious. There’s just a little left over to eat greedily while doing the final cleanup. And so that’s why filling for three works for two, for me. 

Mom used a pressure cooker, but I don’t have one of those. The artichokes do need to be snug in the pan and I used to just bake them in a glass dish, but I like this steaming first method better. So since my pan that fits two really wants three to be snug, I just tuck them to the side and add a placeholder. Panchokes
Then I have to switch to a different pan for the oven, but you might have one you can use which doesn’t have handles that would melt. 

As to the ingredients, you can leave out the lemon zest, but I agree with the recipe that it adds a nice brightness, so maybe don’t. (Do not leave out the rubbing lemon juice over the cut areas step.) However, my microplaner adds so much volume to the cheese, I know 1/3 cup isn’t enough. I really add more like 2/3. So it depends, and that’s why many recipes tell you how many ounces to use instead of volume. But if you’re using preshredded cheese from the deli dept. (Not The Can,) maybe just nudge it to 1/2 cup.

Also, Mom used parsley flakes, but I grow my own parsley so I don’t. Well, you may certainly still use parsley flakes, just use only a couple tablespoons that you crush lightly between your fingers, and if it’s very old, please throw it out and buy more. 

To be honest, I tend not to bother with the stems, but they do make good eating if you would like to bother with them. 

Finally, this is a very messy Thing to Do, so now I’m going to tell you about how to proceed so you can stop and tidy and not become overwhelmed.

Following this good recipe, be sure to get out everything you will need and prepare it for use. Well, first you wash your hands—lava le mani.* You can chop your garlic and parsley while the breadcrumbs are browning if you are sure you can keep an eye on them and stir them. They seem like they won’t brown and then all of a sudden are browning like mad, so watch out. Ingredients
While the breadcrumbs are cooling a bit (so the cheese won't melt when you mix it in,) you can clear the garlic and parsley debris, then trim your artichokes. Then, before you make the stuffing, clean up your artichoke mess and rearrange everything neatly, with your pan and lid ready nearby. 

Set your artichokes on a cutting board or wide plate to catch the filling that falls as you stuff. Use that filling to add to the top. Stuffing
Next, if your olive oil bottle seems like it’ll get away from you for the remaining tablespoon, pour just a little oil into a cup and then drizzle it onto the artichoke tops from the cup. 

Then while the artichokes are coming to a boil, which will happen quickly since there’s only a little (well-salted) water and you have the lid on, finish your cleanup, and if you eat any remaining filling greedily, well, that’s just a teaser of what’s to come.
 *Yes, random pedant, that's just how Mom said it. 

risotto meditations

At some point in the past few years when people were eating a lot of risotto and talking about eating risotto, I decided to find out what the big deal was about making it. 

It’s not a super big deal. It requires time and attention, and a few good ingredients. I learned a simple method that I enjoy the results of from a Better Homes and Gardens recipe, and have modified the process just slightly to suit my taste. 

What you do is cook some onions and/or garlic in a little oil for a couple minutes, then add Arborio rice and stir it around til it starts to brown, then you add broth that is boiling in readiness, one ladle at a time. You watch it cook and maybe adjust the heat if it seems too high, and you stir it as you watch, but you don’t have to stir constantly like with Hollandaise sauce or custard, and in a few minutes you add another ladle of broth and go again.

One ladle at a time, this rice cooks, until, if you like, just before the last ladle is poured in, you add some chopped sun-dried tomatoes or dried mushrooms that you plumped when you first set the broth to boiling.

At the end, you stir in some good parmesan cheese (you could get a bag or tub pre-shaved or shredded from the grocery deli area or buy a wedge and grate some, but don’t use the shelf-stable paper can one) and add a little freshly cracked pepper. 

You need to use good broth, though it doesn’t have to be homemade. Make sure you’ve tasted and enjoyed it before using it in the rice, and make sure it is just a little salty but not very salty. 

And you need, absolutely, to have everything ready and in place before you begin the cooking. This is the meditative thing; you arrange nice ingredients that will taste good together so that they’re to hand when you need them. And as you add and stir and adjust, you have nothing else you need to think about until it’s ready to serve in nice bowls you have set out for it. You define what nice is your own way. 

For two hearty servings, I use the following:

1/3 cup chopped onion

2 cloves garlic, finely sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil + 1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed, but those would be okay*) or dried mushrooms

2 1/2 cups chicken broth (if you do not use dried tomatoes or mushrooms, you need only 2 cups)

3 tablespoons shaved parmesan

black pepper, preferably that you grind yourself

two saucepans, a wooden spoon, and a 1/2 cup sized soup ladle or ladle substitute that won't burn your hand

Make sure your work area is clean and clear. Pour yourself a nice glass of ice water or tea or wine or soda, and set out two bowls you like, or a bowl and a leftover container. Maybe you should play some quiet music if you like to do that while cooking.

Chop the onion and slice the garlic, then heat the oil and butter in a saucepan on medium. While that’s heating, add the broth to the other saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Saute the onion and garlic for a couple minutes, letting it soften but not burn. When your broth comes to a boil, add your sun-dried tomatoes (or mushrooms) if you are using them, to the broth, put a lid on it or mostly on it, and turn it down to simmer at a low boil. 

Add the rice to the pan with the onions and garlic, and stir it around, letting it cook for a few minutes until it starts to brown. Then add a ladleful of broth to the pan; do use enough to cover the surface, but not any more than that. It will sizzle at first. You might need to turn the heat down to medium-low for a gentler boil. Stir it, then watch as the rice begins to soak up the broth. Stir again every minute or so.

In a few minutes, when the liquid is mostly soaked up, add another ladleful of broth and stir again. By now, the dried tomatoes or mushrooms will be softened; strain them from the broth and set them on a cutting board to cool for a few minutes. 

Keep adding ladlefuls of broth, stirring and watching the process, making sure you maintain a low boil. Chop the cooled tomatoes or mushrooms, then when there’s about one ladleful of broth left, and the rice looks soft, stir those in, add the remaining liquid, and wait a little longer til the liquid is finally absorbed. The process slows down as the rice cooks, but you will enjoy being patient and watching it happen, because you are making a simple but groovy dish for yourself. With regular ol’ rice, all you do is put a lid on and set a timer. 

Stir in most of the parmesan cheese, then divide the risotto between the two bowls or bowl and container, and add a little freshly ground pepper on top with the remaining bit of cheese. 

Sit at your dining table if you have one, or a nice spot you like if you don’t, to enjoy this food you created.

20190225_135741_HDRAnd then next time, think of what else you might like to add to it for something new.

*If you use oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drain them well, chop, add at same point. I think they'd be more pungent, though.

Lasagna: more of an art than a science

This isn’t quite a recipe, just some directions, for putting together lasagna. Basically, you have sauce, into which you might add ground beef or sausage. I always use sausage if I put any in at all. And you have your creamy cheese and your other cheese, and your noodles. But you need to know what to use, so those parts are in bold color. Options are italicized.

I hope this doesn't just seem too hard to understand. I wanted to go through the process as though you're here. And I think if you read it over, then go back to what you need, it will be easy to do.


Obviously you can use a good jar sauce, or you can make a full-on simmering sauce from top to bottom. Usually I take a middle path. For meat sauce, I use a pound of sausage without the casing/casing removed, cook it on medium in a little olive oil with some onions and peppers if I have those, then I add three or four garlic cloves (depending on size,) which I like to thinly slice, but you can mince, and 2 ounces of tomato paste,* stir it around for a minute, splash in a half cup of wine if I have that, or chicken or beef broth or water if I don’t, and then two large cans of tomatoes, squished by hand. This is enough to do a 9x13 pan. Obviously, you can just do half. Try to get tomatoes grown in Italy if you can. There is a difference.

In these photos, note that I first softened the onions and peppers in olive oil , then let them cook more while browning and attacking the sausage. When the sausage was nearly done, I stirred it together, then made room for the tomato paste. Choppedstuff
Tomatosauceif you are adding 1/2 cup water instead of wine or broth, put it in the can, swish around, then add.

*The tomato paste makes it all richer. Toasting it before adding liquid makes it nicer.

After you squish in the tomatoes, add a little oregano; crumble a couple of teaspoons with your fingers, or a couple of teaspoons of mixed Italian seasonings, and salt and pepper as you like. You could put in mushrooms once that’s all accomplished; 1/2-1 cup chopped, but not too finely. This makes a plain sauce good for baked pasta. Add a couple of pinches of dried red pepper if you like.

If you are using ground beef instead of sausage, you need to cook it first, seasoning it well with two teaspoons dried seasonings and s and p, drain and remove it, then cook the peppers, onions and garlic (add that after the other two have cooked til softening,) in the same pan with just a little olive oil, then add the meat back in and proceed.

If you are using jar sauce and you don’t want extra peppers and onions, cook your meat, season if it’s ground beef rather than sausage, add in your mushrooms if you wish, splash in a little wine, then add the sauce and simmer it while you do the rest. If you do want extra peppers and onions, follow the first set of instructions, and add the sauce when you’d add the canned tomatoes.

If you want directions for longer-cooking sauce, okay, but otherwise, I will address that on meatballs day.

I think you need three-four cups of sauce for an 8x8 pan, about six-eight for a 9x13. If you included meat, you’ll want more, if not, you’ll want less. We like it to be pretty darned saucy here at our house.


While that is simmering on low (you might need to put on a lid,) cook your lasagna noodles if they are the cooking kind, for two minutes less than done. Make sure the water is pretty salty. And while that is happening, mix your ricotta. Now, no one asks for as much of this as I like, unless they are correct. So for an 8x8 pan, use a 15 ounce container, to which you add an egg, or for 9x13, 30-32 ounces to which you add two eggs, and then add 3/4 or 1.5 cup of parmesan or romano cheese or both if you want.* Sprinkle in a little salt and pepper. Some people also add a tiny bit of nutmeg, like 1/4 teaspoon. It’s nice to do, but don’t add more than that. Add a half cup of fresh chopped parsley, or a couple of tablespoons of dried parsley. You can also do a combination of basil and parsley. Add half as much for 8x8 pan. I'll be honest here; I mix this by hand. I just like to. You can use a spatula, though, and then divide the mixture in the bowl into two or three equal parts, depending on your layers. See below.

If you are going to be using spinach, there are two ways to add it. First, loosely chop a pound (or half) as you like, cook it for a couple minutes in salted boiling water, drain it really well, squeezing out the moisture, then add some pepper and a dash of nutmeg (instead of putting that in the ricotta.) Then you’ll either layer it with the other ingredients, or you can mix it into the ricotta, but I wouldn’t. Just layer it.

Then you want shredded mozzarella, and many Italian-American ladies will use provolone, either instead of or in addition to the mozzarella. I made it yesterday with one pound shredded mozzarella**, and a half pound sliced provolone. For the top you want another half cup of the parmesan or romano. I think it’s four ounces per cup. Cheeses
*I like romano (pecorino) for this better. Somehow I usually end up using some combination. I buy wedges and grate it myself, but for this trial, I bought it pre-shredded. It was on sale.

**If I see whole milk mozzarella at the store, I will buy that instead of shredded, and shred it myself. Sadly, that’s not easy to get around here. If you are not using provolone, use 1.5 lbs of mozzarella for a 9x13 pan.


How many layers of noodles do we want? Three is easiest. You have a little sauce in the bottom, noodles, stuff, noodles, stuff, noodles, topping. If you are using spinach, stick with that, I think. But you can do four otherwise, which I like to do.

Don’t, for the love of Raphael, rinse your noodles, even though they’ll stick a little.

Put a little sauce on the bottom of the pan, just enough to cover it. Fit a layer of noodles in, overlapping them a little. Spread, if making three layers, 1/2 of ricotta mixture, then 1/3 of the mozzarella with 1/2 of the provolone, then 1/3 of the remaining sauce. If you are adding spinach, put 1/2 of it between the cheese layers. Repeat the process. Put a final layer of noodles on top, the remaining sauce, the remaining mozzarella, a little more parmesan, and then you can add a little crushed oregano over it to look nice. Put it on a flat cookie sheet or pizza pan, or put one beneath it in the oven to catch drippings. Stations


If you are doing four layers of noodles, you’ll divide the ricotta and provolone in thirds, and the mozzarella and sauce in fourths. In the above picture, you can see I used three noodles on my bottom layer, but my pan can handle four. You can decide that for yourself. Setup
In my oven, it cooks for 40 minutes at 375º, covered in foil. Then it takes another 15 minutes to brown. That’s for the 9x13. For an 8x8 pan, figure more like 35 minutes and 10 minutes. Then it must rest for at least half an hour; an hour is better, before cutting.

You’ll have some noodles left if you cooked the whole box. I always do because they can be eaten a day or two later with other food; you can roll things in them or chop them and cook them with leftover food and put eggs on top. Baked

Cooking DNA

I started Italian-American Sunday last week on a whim. You can see my Google Plus collection about that; read the post at the bottom first. I am missing that part of my background so hard as I grow older, and don't know how to get any of it back except by cooking.

[I want to apologize for all this text before the cooking part; I don't like that very much as a rule. But I had a thought process going.]

This past week, as you know, Central Italy was upended by an earthquake. Amatrice was hit very hard. And so I thought I would make spaghetti all’amatriciana on Sunday in honor of the people there. I went to Jungle Jim’s on Thursday for Smoking Goose guanciale and a couple of other ingredients. I learned Jungle Jim's had the guanciale by asking them at Twitter. And here it is:

You’ve probably seen this dish with bucatini; the hollow spaghetti. I read this is because that’s how it evolved in Rome, but in Amatrice, they still use spaghetti. Hopefully, they can rebuild and continue to do so in the future.

I pretty much always use linguine. If a dish wants angel hair or something, generally it doesn’t appeal to me anyway.

So I Googled some recipes, found several that claim to be the most authenticest at all (try amatriciana ricetta tradizionale in the search window,) and decided to use two as influence for my dish today. I added the Serious Eats suggestion of white wine for deglazing the pan to this recipe I found which is charming in its English translation. I did not remove the guanciale before warming the tomatoes, as some other sites suggested.

Apparently, one important aspect in the original version is using a different pecorino than Romano. Romano is strong and salty, and according to the self-appointed authority, the sauce wants a milder one.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.43.54 AM
However, I couldn’t find the right pecorino at Jungle Jim’s, not because they don't have a jillion cheeses, but because it's made in small amounts and isn't widely available.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 11.43.20 AM
So I stood there and sniffed all the cheeses made with sheep’s milk to guess what might work, then ended up choosing something I decided would just be right because it’s what I’d have to use.

That’s how it works, you know.

The other aspect is whether to use fresh or boxed tomatoes or tomato sauce. I speak with someone on Google Plus occasionally who tells me that where she lives in Italy, the tomatoes and tomato sauce come in boxes instead of cans. So, I bought boxes at Jungle Jim’s when I shopped for the cheese and the very important guanciale. I do have fresh tomatoes, but all the ones coming in now are yellow, which we don’t want for this sauce.

Finally, I read today that people are encouraging restaurants to serve Bucatini All’Amatriciana and send the proceeds to the Italian Red Cross. You might see if a restaurant in your city is participating, or donate directly if you are able.

Ingredients for last night's Linguini All'Amatriciana:

8+ ounces (225-250 g) guanciale cut into small strips
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium heat chili pepper (you could use a few flakes)
1/3 cup (80 ml) dry sherry (when it calls for white wine, what I have for it is dry sherry or dry vermouth)
750 ml box Italian tomatoes (I used strained, but I think chunks would be better, or a large can of San Marzano tomatoes, squished with your hands like Lidia does.)
1 lb dry linguini
1/2 cup grated (microplaned) Pecorino Romano mixed with 1/2 cup Trugole
(I think that's 50 grams each, maybe don't quote me.)

And here's what to do with it:

Heat olive oil in wide pan large enough to hold all of the above. Add the guanciale and the chili pepper, and stir around until the guanciale is starting to become translucent. Serious Eats recommended medium high. I heated to medium high, then turned it down a little when I added the meat. This took about five minutes, but you could turn it down more after the oil is heated, and go more slowly. Guanciale
Turn it back up to medium high and add the sherry or white wine, and scrape the pan with a nice flat wooden spatula. Or what you have. After a minute or two, add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt. When it bubbles, turn it down to simmer. If you put in a whole pepper, take it out now. Pomi
Cook the linguini about two minutes short of done. Be sure to add plenty of salt to the water. Then take the pasta right out of the water and add it to the simmering tomato sauce. It's better to do that than draining it, but if you have one of those cool pasta pot inserts, yay, just be careful adding it all at once. Then add a half cup or so of the pasta water, stir it in, and add the cheese, stirring some more. Let it cook for a few minutes to thicken the sauce and finish the pasta. Cheesepan
You might be used to sauce just put over pasta at the very end, and this will have a different texture. You will love it, but it will thicken more as it cools, and be less nice later on. So eat it right away, and if you aren't going to eat this much at once, cut the whole recipe in half.

Serve with more cheese for the top. You will just love the guanciale, and it will have been worth seeking it out. Other recipes will tell you it's okay to substitute pancetta or something, and I'm sure you can make something nice with it, but it won't be the same food at all.

Olive Scaciati

Amusingly only to me, this favorite food of mine is composed almost entirely of garnish. I do it mostly like Mom did, but have the advantage of some better ingredients and tools. I smash the olives with a mortar and pestle instead of a heavy glass. 20140611_135831

I have divine wild Sicilian oregano from Jungle Jim's, even though I grow perfectly nice Greek oregano in the backyard.  20140611_140748Here is Sicilian oregano. Can you smell it?

I have good olive oil; she just used her vegetable oil. And I smash a few peppercorns to add in.

But Mom knew the olives weren't fantastic unless you let them marinate for at least a couple weeks. When I was a child, this was the only way I'd accept celery. Now I know it's just a spectacular seasoning for all kinds of things.

I have no recipe. It's a quart-sized deli container of large Sicilian olives, smashed open but not beaten up, a cup or so of chopped celery with leaves, half a dozen sliced garlic cloves, a few beaten black peppercorns, a couple tablespoons dried oregano, and olive oil drizzled over it until it's all just coated. 20140611_140546
I keep it in the refrigerator until I can't bear waiting any longer. With olive oil, that means it will look semi-solid. But it can just be left out until warm. Mom sealed it in a jar and put it in the back of a cabinet. I was unlucky with that, though, so I did it only once.

People add things. Carrots, red pepper flakes, vinegar. I can't get with any of that. I guess you can put it in if you like, but to me, it's just in the way of the olives and celery.

Theoretical spaghetti sauce...

Sometimes I wish pasta salad hadn't become a thing in 1978 or whatever. Everything has been pasta pasta pasta ever since. But my 2nd gen mom and aunts called it all noodles, macaroni, spaghetti, maybe sometimes there'd be manicotti, which didn't sound remotely like how you say it. For them, it essentially rhymed with ricotta, which they also did not say like you say it. And there was lasagna, of course, contents of which were argued over every time it was made for Christmas Eve, which was now and then. When I grew up, I realized I was now putting my vote in for Aunt Helen's way, with just sausage, but actually, I still prefer all these dishes with the meat on the side, not inside. I've never been a ground meat sort of person, if that's a sort to be. So usually when I do eat it, it's for separate, not for mixing into things and screwing up their texture.

Anyway.  This Google search I just did is absurd, of course. First, because I know how to make spaghetti sauce 18 different ways and counting. Every time I make it, that's probably a new way. But I was looking for this particular one, cooked like a ragù, but without all the ragu in it. Second, because if I typed pasta, maybe I'd have found more of what I wanted, but I wasn't thinking of pasta, even though I'm actually going to put the sauce on ravioli later. And there will be sausage on the side, and salad from my garden.

And so whatever. This is what I plan to do. Chop vegetables, garlic, and a little salami, sauté it, add some tomato paste and red wine and let it reduce, then beef broth and smushed-up canned tomatoes, and some herbs from the garden. That's a fairly basic process. And let that simmer way low the rest of the afternoon. Then I'll see how it tastes later, finish it up, add a splash of cream, and serve it over the ravioli, which I got from Jungle Jim's pasta bar yesterday. Along with the sausage and mixed salad greens.

What's a cooking blog page post without photos, though? Hmm. Here is a linguini dinner I made for the boys recently, with a light chunky tomato sauce, sausage, and zucchini, and two photos of a very good gibson martini I enjoyed a few weeks ago. When the slow sauce is reality rather than theoretical, I will post instructions and pictures. 20140506_191152