Archive for July, 2012

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Artichoke Love: You Gotta Have Heart

July 30, 2012

“Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”

That line is delivered by Bette Davis at her sarcastic best in the 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film All About Eve. It’s aimed at her director boyfriend after he tells the conniving actress Eve about the time he “looked into the wrong end of a movie camera finder”.

Davis’s insecure Margo never does tell the story, and I remember as a teenager waiting until the end of the film for some wonderful revelation about  artichoke hearts so I could look at them differently the next time my mother cooked them.

It’s almost the end of the artichoke season, so I’m cramming. My favourite way of cooking them is stuffed and braised, sometimes with peas, but there’s many other ways to enjoy them: fried, shaved in salads, steamed and marinated. I recall having a delicious artichoke omelette (frittata di carciofi) in Florence in 1983 but my attempt at recreating it back in Sydney turned out a chewy, spiky, overcooked mess. Too many leaves, not enough heart apparently.Cooking with artichoke halves

If you don’t pray at the alter of the globe artichoke, if the thought of eating a thistle makes you bristle, here’s 10 things to know:

. ancient Greeks and Romans considered artichokes a delicacy and an aphrodisiac

. they act as a diuretic, improve liver function and reduce cholesterol levels

. fresh artichokes should squeak when squeezed

. Marilyn Monroe was the first official ‘California Artichoke Queen’ in 1948*

. Cynar, the Italian after-dinner ‘digestivo’ contains the bitter extract of artichoke leaves

Think I’ll skip the other five and segue to a cocktail I’ll be drinking as a substitute until their appearance next winter.Cynar liqueur bottle

I love a ‘Spritz’, the classic northern Italian drink made with many types of bitters – Cynar (Padua); Campari (Trieste and Venice) and Aperol (Treviso) – in equal parts with Prosecco and sparkling water, as well as orange slices or olives.

Cynar has Sicilian origins and has been sold since the early 1950s, often promoted in Italian ads as a cure for the stress of modern life.

More artichoke information is included in the excellent ‘Artichoke Blog’. It’s been on hiatus since last year, but has everything you need to know about traditional Italian regional recipes, history and fun facts.

Here’s a nice recipe for Roman-style artichokes from SBS’s Italian Food Safari with Maeve O’Meara and Guy Grossi.

*Apparently, the title was bestowed upon Norma Jean when she was spotted promoting diamonds in a store in Castroville, CA and invited to tour its famous artichoke fields. A sash was thrown over her shoulders, and bingo, she was the first Artichoke Queen.

Cynar image: Shabbychef

♦ I welcome your thoughts or retorts. The Comments button is only a click away…

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The Revenge of the Mandarin Stinkbugs – or How I Learned to Love the Broom

July 18, 2012

I’m on all fours in the kitchen, scrubbing sugary orange blobs that have splashed from the stovetop to the floor and cursing the day I rescued my mother’s mandarin tree from a disease-ridden death.

Two bumper mandarin crops and many batches of marmalade later doesn’t quite make up for three years of pruning, regular feeding and watering, weed control and scrutinising for caterpillars. But I can’t go back now …  I’ve become the mandarin marmalade queen and there are expectations. I have orders to fill.

Home-made mandarin marmalade

Now, where’s my crumpet

I’ve come late to the world of gardening, and no-one warned me to look out for the scourge of the citrus grower:  stink bugs.

These nasty sap suckers appear in summer and you’ve soon got yourself a nice part-time job protecting young shoots. They are almost indestructible and will multiply overnight just when you think you’ve won the battle.

Whacking them into semi-consciousness seemed too brutal, so last year I squirted them individually with soapy water. Sure, it dazed them, but their revenge was a crazed kamikaze swoop towards my eyes before I ducked for cover. There’s a stylish Italian travel accessory company called ‘Mandarina Duck’ and I wonder if they’re named after a similar manoeuvre. Nah, probably not.

Nodding off on the bus a while ago following another session at the killing fields, a voice from behind whispers, “Excuse me, I thought you’d like to know there’s a bug on your head”. Panic can’t describe my reaction as I start swatting the pest, hoping it will move along without any fuss. The stink beetle, who’s enjoyed a free ride without a valid ticket flies off my head and releases such an acrid stench that I jump off the bus red faced – and well before my destination.

It got me thinking if you’re going to have something flapping on your head in a public place, it may as well be a bigger statement. Like a pigeon. In the 1995 film Forget Paris (directed by and starring Billy Crystal) Debra Winger makes contact with an unwelcome feathered friend:

This year I reverted to the broom ‘n’ bucket method, wielding my weapon of torture while wearing industrial strength goggles, gloves and a fetching hat. I’m atop a ladder while my aged mother waits below with a bucket of metho for the bugs. (It’s the least she can do for making me inhale the fumes of her home-made Italian mandarin liqueur in the early 1960s.)

Any good suggestions for disposing of the bugs are welcome. Apparently Clint Eastwood, in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales, has a habit of spitting tobacco juice on them, but I don’t know how effective it was. And I’m not willing to try it.

If you’re wondering what the Musgraveia Sulciventris looks like, here it is – quite the looker when young, somewhat uglier when mature.

the offending bug

For my delicious AmbraJAMbra, I used Stephanie Alexander’s Seville Orange marmalade recipe from her Cook’s Companion It can be adapted for all citrus fruits successfully.

Related post: Buddha’s Hand Citron-Lemon with a Twist

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Tiramisù: a Nora Ephron pick-me-up

July 2, 2012

When Nora Ephron died in 2012, my first thoughts turned to dessert. 

A respected journalist, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, producer and director Ephron also loved good food and the Italian dessert tiramisù was a favourite. In her DVD commentary for 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle she says, “It hardly seems possible there was a time when all of America didn’t know what tiramisù was.”

There’s always much debate regarding tiramisù’s origins. Most roads lead to the Beccherie restaurant in Treviso, northeastern Italy. The restaurant’s pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto claims to have invented the dessert in 1970, naming it “Tiramesu”- or ‘pick-me-up’ – in the regional dialect. Sydney-based journalist David Dale has written that it may have been invented in Trieste in the 1950s with the recipe then taken to Treviso. I hate to admit I’ve scoured my mother’s old Triestine cuisine cookbooks and there’s no reference to it, just zuppa inglese (trifle). So much controversy.

Well, I think MY family invented it. In the early 1960s, we made our own Sydney inner-west version with Arnott’s Milk Coffee biscuits (the ones with the three rows of pinholes and the scalloped edges.) We called it “Torta Fredda” (Cold Cake). Not a sponge finger or Savoiardo in sight, just standard issue Oz biscuits that produced a more solid, tightly compacted cake than the tiramisù.

 

The building block of our 1960s-style tiramisù (left)

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the real deal (right)

 

I loved helping my mother soak the biscuits alternately in coffee and Marsala, while my father made large vats of chocolate buttercream* to spread between the biscuit layers. He’d then thickly coat the cake with cream after filling the cracks with more cream as if repointing a brick wall. I think this cake may have been influenced by the squillion layered, artery blocking Hungarian Dobos torte, as Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire for over 400 years.

I tasted nothing similar until the late 1970s when I ordered a tiramisù at one of Sydney’s best Italian restaurants – Darcy’s in Paddington, and a little later at The Mixing Pot in Glebe. From there, it featured on every Italian restaurant menu for about 30 years.

Back to Sleepless in Seattle, and I must quote from one of the film’s best scenes … Widower Tom Hanks is getting ready for his first date in 13 years when friend Rob Reiner explains things have changed and his date will probably pay for her own meal and if sex is likely, he’ll use a condom. But, most importantly, “There is now tiramisù.” Hanks has no idea what tiramisù is and Reiner replies, “You’ll find out.” Panicking, Hanks shouts, “You better tell me … some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is.”

*Ephron once said “you can never have too much butter”, so I feel much better.

http://www.yum-recipes.com/Recipe/Italian/175434_Nora_Ephrons_Tiramisù.html

And on New Year’s Day 1965, we celebrated with “Cold Cake”.

The official Tiramisù site:

http://www.tiramesu.it/

The Beccherie restaurant:

http://www.anticoristorantebeccherie.it/

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