When the world looks at New Orleans, it sees unique cuisine, Carnival, the home of jazz and a love of antiquity in its buildings and neighborhoods. To live here gives one an inside view that goes much deeper. We know that Friday nights mean crowded seafood restaurants and the shunning of meat, that summers are meant for snowballs and that celebration doesn’t end with Mardi Gras but carries on through March with Irish and Italian parades.
Few other cities come close to New Orleans with St. Patrick’s Day festivities – Boston and New York, maybe – but nowhere outside of Italy is the observance of St. Joseph’s Day so pronounced.
It all started during a famine in Sicily, when the Italians prayed to St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, to intercede. Soon crops grew plentifully and the patron saint was honored with the most precious possession – food. Altars of bread, fish, artichokes, pastries and other delicacies were, and still are, built to thank St. Joseph for favors such as prosperity and healing.
Many families in New Orleans build altars in their homes and a number of public altars are open at churches and the Piazza d’Italia. Traditionally, food is fed to the poor or any who come to observe the Catholic feast day. Those who visit an altar often receive gifts of fava beans and bread.
The obvious reason that St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, is so well defined in New Orleans is that so many Sicilians migrated here in the 19th and 20th centuries that they formed one of the largest concentrations of Italians in America. Today’s huge population of Italians is primarily of Sicilian descent. Their culinary traditions continue to influence home cooking as well as the restaurant scene. Because the observance of St. Joseph’s Day comes in the middle of Lent, most of the dishes served are meatless. One of the best-known dishes is pasta Milanese, made with a tomato-based sauce often infused with anchovies. Whole fish are frequently baked and breads are made to look like fish – and in Louisiana, even alligators.
Finding an altar only requires a call to the Archdiocese or a search of newspaper listings closer to the date. Because the altars are on display for several days, fresh food is often made daily for serving, leaving the ornate breads for decoration only.
To some, an altar is thanks for a young life left to grow old, a painful relationship renewed or a chance for prosperity in the future. It is serious work, despite the gala parades and parties.
Artichokes, a Sicilian favorite, are served by local Italian families and are usually stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese. The pasta traditionally features breadcrumbs on top, representing the sawdust of the sainted carpenter’s trade. They were also a substitute for grated cheese that was at times too costly to serve. Fava beans, or lucky beans, are often cooked, but mostly passed out in dried form and sometimes painted gold, not only to bring you luck but to remind you to pray to St. Joseph. It was the fava bean that is said to have saved Sicily in the legendary famine of the middle ages. In Italy, lentils are a popular choice for a vegetarian soup appropriate for the holiday. White beans, a New Orleans favorite, work quite as well and form an excellent first course to a pasta-artichoke meatless meal for a St. Joseph table at home.
WHITE BEAN SOUP
1 1/2 cups white beans, great northern or navy
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 leeks (white part), chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups water or vegetable stock*
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
Rinse and sort beans and soak for four hours or more, or use the quick soak technique below.
Heat olive oil in a large, heavy pot and sauté the carrots, celery, onion, leeks and bell pepper until soft. Add garlic and sauté one minute more.
Strain beans and add to pot along with water or vegetable stock. Add tomato paste, oregano, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for about 2 hours or until beans are done. Purée a cup of the soup in a blender or use a hand blender to purée partially for thickening. Add parsley.
When serving, sprinkle each serving with grated Romano cheese and more parsley, if desired.
*If making a vegetarian soup, vegetable stock is a better choice than water. If not, ham seasoning can be substituted. Use a ham bone or a half pound of ham seasoning.
Quick soak: Place beans in a medium pot with water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, cover and remove from heat. Let soak for 1 hour.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, whole
2 14.5-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped fresh fennel bulb
1 teaspoon whole Italian seasoning
Pinch crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
1/4 cup small black olives, pitted
2 tablespoons drained capers
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley
1 pound spaghetti
Seasoned breadcrumbs and/or Parmesan cheese
Heat olive oil in medium, heavy pot. Sauté onion, celery and whole garlic cloves over medium heat for several minutes until garlic is slightly coloring. Add tomatoes, fennel, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the anchovies, olives and capers and simmer a few minutes more. Stir in parsley, taste and adjust seasonings.
Cook spaghetti in a large pot of salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and place in a large pasta bowl, toss with sauce and top with bread crumbs and/or grated cheese.
2 small lemons
2 cups Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Cut off the stems of the artichokes so that the artichokes will sit evenly. Bend and snap off any brown or tough leaves at the bottoms. With a sharp knife and on a cutting board, slice off the top 1/2 inch of the artichoke. With scissors, snip off tips of the other leaves. Rub cut parts with half a lemon to prevent discoloration. Pull leaves open as much as possible and rinse under running water. Invert to drain artichokes.
While artichokes are draining, mixed breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic and parsley together in a large bowl. Using a spoon or your hands, fill the leaves of the artichokes with mixture. You can do this in the bowl or on a piece of waxed paper so that the breadcrumbs spilled can be reused. Continue filling leaves until all artichokes are stuffed.
Place artichokes in a large pot on a steaming rack with about one inch of water in the bottom. Drizzle each artichoke with a tablespoon of olive oil so that each leaf has a few drops, and squeeze lemon juice over that. Cover and steam over low heat for about 45 minutes, or until leaves move easily or a fork pierces easily through the center of the artichokes.
Artichokes can be served 1 per person, or shared for 8 people. Be sure to place bowls on the table for discarded leaves.
To eat a stuffed artichoke: Pull out a leaf. Scrape the soft tip of the leaf and stuffing off with your teeth. Discard the tough part of leaf. When leaves are finished, scrape out the prickly choke in the center and discard. Then divide the heart into pieces and enjoy plain or with melted butter.