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Cardones gratin

This hard-to-find, visually-unappealing, finicky vegetable is worth the hunt and the longish preparation.

I had searched for cardoons for years every late fall/early winter, with no success. Albie's Produce in the North End and even Eataly in Boston' s Back Bay had failed me. 

Then a double-stroke of good luck brought me success! The produce manager at my local Stop & Shop acidentally got a shipment of cardoons from California, and I happened to be at the store on that morning.  

cardones, raw

I sort-of recognized this long-sought vegetable, but I wasn't sure. Fortunately they were labelled Cardones, the Italian name for the vegetable, so it was easy to connect the name. 

The raw vegetable is very bitter, but 30 minutes of boiling extracts most of the bitterness, leaving only a bracing aftertaste that complements a rich buttery or cheesy sauce.  

Eggplant Parmigiana

I made this for A Feast of Parma and it wowed everyone. It's not like the ubiquitous heavy mass that we see in chain restaurants and pizza joints all over New England. The eggplant is not breaded, the sauce is light and very simple, but then baked long. The reason for this is simple: the eggplant and the excellent cheese are the stars of this show, so why overpower them with strong herbs?

You will use a lot of olive oil in this recipe. There is no need to use cold pressed extra-virgin oil, because you lose all the flavor when it is heated. The oil is just a cooking medium, so regular olive oil or olive pomace oil are fine for sauteeing. 

Lobster and Melon with Port

Lobster and Melon with Port

This peculiar and delicious late summer dish is certain to provoke conversation! Whoever thought to combine these three flavors was inspired. Any two of the flavors do not work well together, but the three together make a strange magic. 

This is a special occasion dish, so try to use a fresh melon in season, a very good port, and a very fresh Lobster from a lobster pound, not from the supermarket.

Fresh Pasta

Mandilli de Saea, photo by Richmond Talbot

What a treat is fresh pasta! When we toured Italy in July 2015, our most memorable meal was a plate of fresh ravioli in Rome. The story is rather longer than this page requires, but the bottom-line result was that fresh home-made pasta is work exploring, so I did.

In this case, it was for Annette's Genoese Birthday, so I made silky-smooth, super-thin Genoese Mandilli de Saea (Silk Handkerchiefs) with fresh pesto.  It was fun and delicious!

Italian Meal 1: Emilia-Romagna

Hayfield in Parma

This was our first locavore meal in Italy. It was at the  Hotel Sole in the town of Busseto, in the province of Parma, in Emilia-Romagna in north-central Italy's agricultural heartland. Busseto was the hometown of my favorite composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

Culatello, a premium cut of Prosciutto di Parma

Emilia-Romagna is dominated by the rich agricultural flatlands around the Po river valley. The climate is mild and the growing season is long. This long-settled region is home to a lot of familiar foods that we see in supermarkets all the time: prosciutto and Balsamic vinegar, Reggiano-Parmigiano and Grana Padano cheeses, Lambrusco wine, and many pastas.

Capon Maggro

Capon Maggro for a Birthday

This is a fabulous seafood antipasto: seafood on a pile of steamed vegetables with a piquant Genoese green sauce to hold it together. 

A Small Cappon Magro

The lower image is a small one made with only shrimp with steamed potatoes and pearl onions. See the first comment for two tips on how to make this delicious invention into a less intimidating affair.


CastagnaccioCastagnaccio is a traditional Tuscan unleavened bread for travelers and field-workers. It's heavy, flavorful, and nourishing without being too sweet.

Castagnaccio is made with fresh chestnut flour, olive oil, rosemary, and pignoli, and sometimes raisins. I get chestnut flour in Boston's North End at Polcari's Market or at Salumeria Italiana; I am told that it is also available at Whole Foods sometimes. 

Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes

Poached Salmon for Christmas Eve

The Feast of Seven Fishes is a southern Italian tradition that is catching on again among the descendants of the Italian-American immigrant community. The basic idea is simple: while awaiting the birth of Jesus, we abstain from meat and dairy foods. Naturally for Italians this is an invitation to get creative with fish, so traditionally we prepare a feast featuring seven different seafood dishes and as many vegetarian dishes as you like.

It is also important to note that southern Italy has historically been very poor. It certainly was during the great waves of immigration from there in the early Twentieth Century. Many of the dishes passed down through family tradition reflect this: smelts, sardines, octopus, eel, baccala, and anchovies in pasta all are common foods in the feasts that strive for authenticity.

There's really no point in trying to get too authentic about the seven fishes, since many of the seafoods and other ingredients are not available in New England. A certain amount of substitution is unavoidable, which brings up the idea of following the tradition in spirit more than in substance: if my great-grandfather in Campania were to celebrate Christmas Eve in foodie style, how would he do it? If he immigrated to Plymouth, how then?

Piquant Green Sauce

This fabulous concoction goes with the Capon Maggro.
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