Although I’m of British descent, long ago Italy captured my heart and soul as well as my culinary senses. This had to come from the walloping impact Italy, especially Sicily, has had on New Orleans, because when I add up the little time I’ve actually spent in the land of wine, food and fashion, it comes to about nine weeks.

But I’m fortunate enough to have traveled there four times, two of which were to Sicily, where my daughter lived for two years. We would comb the vegetable markets, in awe of the purple and green cauliflower and peppers in all colors of the rainbow. We would stop in an espresso shop and watch the world go by. Then we’d go to the butcher shop where we’d pick out our meat from a whole cow positioned on the counter.

At first my daughter worked on the east coast of Sicily at an Italian aircraft plant. Because lunch is the big meal in Italy, the cafeteria served a full spread with big jugs of wine on every table. After a long, happy lunch, the workers would return to work on fighter aircraft. Sadly, she and fellow employees of an American contractor on-site weren’t allowed to drink on the job.

Then she moved to the west coast where she and her husband rented an apartment with a view of Mount Etna. Her landlords, who owned and lived in the same house, didn’t speak English but occasionally invited them to dinner. Every meal began with antipasti or appetizers of salami, cheese, pancetta, relishes, olives, mortadella or marinated vegetables. This was followed by the first plate, almost always pasta. Then came the second plate, which could be meat and vegetables or vegetables only. Fresh ciabatta was picked up that day from the nearby paneteria and served on the side. Dessert, if any, was fruit or cheese. And, finally, came espresso – a mandatory component of the meal.

Italians love their vegetables and frequently grow them in their yards. I have heard of Metairie residents of Sicilian descent growing their own cucuzzi, cardoons and fava beans when they’re in short supply or not available in stores. These were favored in Sicily as were artichokes and fennel, now available everywhere but unknown at one time throughout the South. In Sicily, my daughter says, home cooks stuff their artichokes with a lot of chopped flat-leaf parsley, chopped garlic and Parmesan cheese. Then, they splash the artichokes with olive oil and grill them over wood coals on an outside grill until done. Some of the outside tougher leaves that might blacken in the process are removed before serving. Artichokes are a mainstay of meals in Sicily, along with fennel, she says.

Next to artichokes and eggplant, spring and summer vegetables, my favorite is spinach, cooked the Italian way. It is quick and delicious and, oh, so healthy. None of the juices are lost because it’s cooked so quickly. All of Italy’s favorite fall vegetables are in great abundance here, and it’s a good time to have an Italian dinner. Do not forget the antipasti, the pasta course and the wine if you want it to be real Italian. I think it’s OK to substitute a strong cup of New Orleans-style coffee for the espresso. Like the Italians in Europe, we love our own style of coffee here.

1 cauliflower, cut into small
6 tablespoons extra-virgin
  olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 2-ounce can anchovies
1 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/3 cup white wine
Pinch red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
  to taste
1/4 packed cup fresh basil,
  chopped or 2 teaspoons dried
1/4 packed cup fresh flat-leaf
  parsley, chopped
1 pound pasta such as
  bucatini, spaghetti or linguini
1 cup good-quality Parmesan
  cheese, freshly grated

In a medium pot with a steamer basket, steam cauliflower florets for about four minutes until nearly done.

In a large skillet, sauté onion in olive oil until soft. Add garlic and sauté a minute more. Slice anchovies into small pieces, add to skillet and cook another minute.

Add pine nuts, wine, pepper flakes, a little salt, pepper, cauliflower and basil if using dried, stir together well and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the fresh herbs and simmer a minute longer. Taste and adjust seasoning.

While cauliflower is simmering, bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add salt and a few drops of oil. Cook pasta, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain well and place in pasta bowl or platter. Top with cauliflower mixture and Parmesan and toss.

Serves 6 as entrée.

5 fennel stalks
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Parmesan or Romano
  cheese, freshly grated
1/4 cup Italian breadcrumbs

Remove stems from stalks of fennel, leaving only the bulbs. Save some of the green leaves for garnish. Discard any tough outer parts of the bulbs and trim the base.

Slice each bulb vertically into eight pieces.

In a large skillet, sauté the onions in olive oil. Add garlic and sauté a minute more. Add fennel, a little water, about 1/4 cup, salt and pepper and simmer until fennel is fork tender. Add more water during the cooking if necessary. Place on a serving plate and toss with cheese. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.

Serves 4 to 6.

1 head broccoli
3 tablespoons extra-virgin
  olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried crushed red peppers
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cut broccoli into small florets, peel stems and cut into 1-by-1/4-inch sticks.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add about a teaspoon of salt and broccoli. Bring to a boil again and boil for 2 minutes. Drain.

In a large skillet or medium pot, sauté garlic and peppers in olive oil until garlic is soft. Add cauliflower, salt and pepper and sauté over medium heat until cauliflower is fork tender. Stir occasionally. This should take a few minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Serves 4 to 6.

2 bunches fresh spinach
3 tablespoons extra-virgin
  olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove tough bottom stems of spinach, but leave some stems on. Wash well and drain.

In a large skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil until garlic is soft. Add spinach and sauté over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until all of the spinach is wilted. Add salt and pepper. Do not overcook. Spinach should still be bright green with most of its juices in tact.

Serves 2 to 4.

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