I finally ate my Fusco’s gourmet penne rigati. My friend Carolyn and I had it for supper with a tomato sauce – rich with fresh basil from my garden – and a little grated cheese.

It was scrumptious. The pasta tubes were huge – much bigger than I expected, and had just the right resistence to the tooth, truly al dente!

This evening is a cultural melting pot for me. Carolyn is dealing with her brother’s death and all the mess and upheaval a family death brings. We talked a lot about funeral customs and other very culturally determined concepts. Then I made us true Italian comfort food…

Next we’re going to watch some old West Wing episodes. These are our friendship’s cultural comfort food. I’m “petting her” this evening, which is southern Appalachian for fussing over her and giving comfort.

Gotta go… President Bartlett, Josh Lyman and treasured friendship rituals await.

Quick Post about a Quick Meal

I’ve written about arancini, or Italian rice balls, before.  The way Nonna made them was a big production — they were things of beauty, perfectly round and evenly browned. They were also only made on rare occasions for those very reasons.  Works of art and love. 

I made a quick, down and dirty version from leftover yellow rice — yes, the bagged stuff with the seasonings already in, just add to boiling water and 20 minutes later, tasty, saffron infused bright yellow rice. I love it with chili (that recipe another day). But I made way more than I needed.

Yesterday I took about two cups of the chilled leftover rice, mixed an egg, some herbs, and a handful of grated cheese in; formed small (1-1/2 inch balls);  rolled them in breadcrumbs, and browned them in olive oil.  Yum!

They were small, lopsided, irregularly browned, and had no “surprise” filling. They were also quick, delicious and easy to make.

Voilá, a new favorite: yellow-rice arancini!

Mid-April Madness

Just a few days ago I took the picture of the magnolia tree in flower that I posted. Now the flowers are all spent, the tree has greened up, and the next stage of Spring is here.

Mid-April madness is a mind-set that always comes upon me at this lovely pause in Spring’s sweet progress.

Spring in the Blue Ridge

Things are green, but still slightly golden around the edges. Flowers are still tender — not yet having achieved the profusion and brilliance of a southern summer.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are not yet deep green (they are still pale along the high ridges, where Spring is running a week or so behind).

Misty mornings still hold a touch of frost behind my house, though the birds wake me earlier each day.

I’m still filled with the enthusiasm of Spring. Once Summer arrives in earnest, I wilt way too easily to enjoy the gardens I plan at this time of year. I will soon seek the cool dimness of air-conditioned rooms, instead of baking in the garden’s heat.

For now, though, grandiose plans are the order of the day.

last summer's garden

I visualize spilling containers of herbs, brilliant pots of petunias and zinnias, hot pink roses, and climbing trumpet vines with dancing hummingbirds.

I imagine cool, deep green shadows under arbors heavy with grapes… my magical garden that needs more sweat and muscle than I can provide.

But, I’ve got a plan!

I cook.  In fact, I cook really really well. 

So, I’ve lined up garden and yard work on the barter system for this year. 

One friend to mow, one to trim hedges, one to weed and mulch, and so forth. I’ll make gallons of red sauce, quarts of chicken in wine sauce, pots of vegetable soup, pounds of artichoke salads, baked ziti, casseroles, stews, stir-fries — you name it, I’ll cook it. 

My garden elves will be well-fed, and I’ll finally have the garden my mid-April madness and imagination dictate.

Buon Appetito, garden crew!

Artichokes? Really?

LOTS of artichokes

My lasting contribution to blogging seems to be artichokes. No. Really.

As many of my fellow-bloggers do, I track the number of visits to my site, and the search terms most frequently used to find my entries.

Hands down, the winner is some variant of “artichoke” — pictures of, photos of, recipes about, артишоки, globe, heart, artyčoky, Italian….

So on the theory that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…. I herewith give a short version of the history of my favorite vegetable (if you don’t count olives as vegetables).

Wild Artichokes are still found in north Africa, where they are said to have originated. According to Wikipedia, the “Arabic term Ardi-Shoki (ارضي شوكي)…means ‘ground thorny.'” While lot of other cultures ate them, naturally, it was the Italians who perfected their use [from the history of the universe, according to ME].

Globe artichokes are like the gorgeous guy pictured at right. They are a real pain to prepare, but are worth every pricked finger. Select heavy, compact heads, without a lot of discoloration. 

Wiki also points out that “When harvesting, [artichokes] are cut from the plant so as to leave an inch or two of stem. Artichokes possess good keeping qualities, frequently remaining quite fresh for two weeks or longer under average retail conditions.” 

Artichokes have been on the expensive side for the last few years, and thus fresh ones are something of a luxury around here. Maybe more home gardeners will begin to grow them — it would be lovely to pick them up at the local farmers’ market this summer!

Two real beauties

“Apart from food use, the Globe Artichoke is also an attractive plant for its bright floral display, sometimes grown in herbaceous borders for its bold foliage and large purple flowerheads (Wiki).”

And, as you can see, they are also attractive with cats.

One of Nonna’s ways of making artichoke frozen hearts (when fresh were out of season) was to batter and fry them.

I never made these, but I remember them well from my childhood. 

these look like Nonna's

Cook a package of frozen artichoke heart according to directions.

Pat them dry, then dip in an egg batter (I believe this was nothing more than an egg beaten with a little flour, grated cheese & breadcrumbs).

Fry in medium-hot olive oil, drain, and serve with lemon.

Happy eating!

A Wintry Mix

Penne Rigati

Just a quick post today. 

The plumber and his assistants are working under the house, replacing the water heater.  

The snow is spitting down, not enough to stop things, just slow them down and make it messy out there.  

I’m happily wasting time here while waiting for the plumber to finish before I head off to work 

I got a gift a couple of months ago of a special bag of pasta (pictured here). It’s “Fusco Pasta” made in Italy! My family’s name, of course, is Fusco. 

Carlos Fusco, Pasta Maker


Way back in the fifties, my father owned a company that imported Fusco Olive Oil. The story is that the groves burned down, and we lost the company. Now there’s a pasta bearing the family name. 

How fitting and fun.  I wonder if Carlos Fusco is a relative?  Either way, I just bet it’s delicious pasta!

Resuming Ordinary Life

I had a great outing today. It’s the first spontaneous fun-day I’ve shared with Carolyn (one of my two best buddies)  since I starting having health problems back in November.

We started out to just see a movie, but the lines were too long…. So we detoured to a bookstore…. Then on to an Italian bistro with antipasto, wine, tiramisu and espresso….  And, finally, the early evening show of the movie. 

So here I am, home again.

Even though we only had to walk about two blocks, I’m ready for bed! It was a lot of fun, though, just getting to browse and laugh (and cry a little).

Removing yourself from ordinary day-to-day pleasures and routines can be such a gift. I’ve treasured the time I had recovering from surgery — the lessons about letting go of expectations, accepting limitation and allowing others to help me. But my favorite lesson was remembering to cherish the satisfactions of everyday life.

Getting up for work and moving without pain. Seeing colleagues and having them welcome me back joyfully.

Finding I still love what I do for a living. Feeling strength flow back a day at a time. Chatting in the hallway at the office.  Being welcomed home by the cat running to the back door.

Going to the grocery store! That was one of the highlights of the week.

Today, I felt almost dizzy from the wealth of books and magazines, games and puzzles at the Barnes & Noble. I bought my annual calendars (at half price ☺) for the office and for home, two small jigsaw puzzles and a paperback. Such extravagance on top of eating out and a movie; however, today felt like a true celebration.

To Life! To friends! To books! To learning! And to prosciutto and tiramisu!

Playing Around with Artichokes

Even though I’m in pre-surgery mental mode, food still can grab my creative attention.

I’ve been playing around in my head with artichokes — not the gorgeous and expensive whole globe guys, but the more mundane and accessible canned artichoke hearts. I’ve written up two simple recipes that I really enjoy.

The first needs a food processor to make satisfactorily, but it is so delicious on bread, or as a quick pasta sauce:

Artichoke-Olive Tapenade a la Laurie

1 can artichoke hearts
1 cup green stuffed olives
1/2 cup black pitted olives (can be kalamatas for a stronger flavor)
1 clove garlic (or more to taste)
a handful of basil leaves (fresh is best, but I have some frozen in vacuum bags that works)
1/2 can diced tomatoes or 1 medium fresh tomato
enough extra-virgin olive oil to mix
salt & pepper to taste
Start with the olives and pulse a little in the food processor. Add the remaining ingredients, pulsing briefly to achieve a semi-smooth texture. Use just enough oil to help bind the ingredients.  Keeps in the fridge for a few days,  but it never lasts long at my house.
You can vary this with other ingredients, like grated cheese, capers, or red peppers. 

You can tell I have a thing for both olives and artichokes.  Here’s number two. Equally quick to make.

Olive-Artichoke Macaroni Salad

4 cups freshly cooked elbow macaroni (still hot)
1 can artichoke hearts, quartered
3/4 cup green stuffed olives, halved  (quartered if large)
1 cup diced celery
1/2 cup chopped marinated red peppers
1 tablespoon capers
1 glove minced garlic
Italian seasoning mix to taste
olive oil and lemon juice to taste for dressing
Mix all the ingredients into a large bowl, then stir in hot pasta and add any additional oil and lemon juice needed to make moist enough.  Serve warm or chilled.  Serves 4.
To make this a main dish salad, add a can of “tonno” which is italian-style light tuna packed in olive oil. 
To quote my Nonna, “mange, mange, tutti fa benne!” (Excuse the mangled Italian. It means, roughly, “eat, eat, everything’s good!”)

Rockin’ in the Kitchen (& Garden)

I am really rockin’ it today.

I’ve been on a doing binge — I went to the farmer’s market this morning and picked up some ravishing Swiss chard, baby beets, tomatoes, extra basil (pesto is calling me), little carrots, some Tuscan kale, and several bunches of flowers. Such luxury!

Then I caught up the dishes, which is a never ending battle for me. Small sink, big cooking (that says it all).  Finally, in and among the chores I’ve been weeding, cleaning up bits of trash, and getting set up for the next planting session.

Said planting is scheduled for right after I finish cooling off a little and posting this entry as my reward for all the hard work — and on a holiday, too. I may even take a few pictures to post later.

I hear the plants shouting my name. . . ciao!

New Pots!

Pots and pans are so central to enjoyable cooking that I can’t believe it’s taken me over 40 years to spring for a new set of quality cookware! I’ve been using some old but good Revere Ware — stainless steel copper-bottom saucepans that weren’t new when I was a child. I’ve had lots of nonstick skillets pass through my life, but nothing — pardon the pun — has stuck.

I recently bought a new saucepan, in an in-between size, and oh, what a difference it made! The pot heated more quickly, cooked more evenly, the lid fit tightly, and clean-up was a piece of cake.

So I splurged. I took a 20% off coupon to the nearest Bed, Bath and Beyond and bought a set of Cuisinart Greenware plus two additional sizes I use often.

I’m packing up all the old Revere Ware (except for my giant 12-quart stock pot), all the miscellany of yard sale pots, banged-up skillets and sauté pans with mismatched lids, and storing them until the right fate for them emerges. Somewhere among my acquaintances is a budding cook for whom slightly battered Revere Ware will be a happy step up.

Now… what can I cook?

Arancini Redux

I made them. They sort of held together. I used too much egg for the amount of rice, and they were too soft to hold their shape in the oil — gravity 1, Laurie 0.  However, lopsided nor not, they were delicious — though not perfect. I have enough egg & rice mixture left to fry up a couple more before bed.  There’s something missing in the seasoning. I’m not sure what is missing, since my taste memory of Nonna’s “orangini” is 30+ years old. I think perhaps a sharper grated cheese and perhaps a little touch of garlic, some paprika in the breading…. but I was close.

After I get the right flavor, I’ll worry about pretty.