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Cooks' Exchange: A taste of Webster ... and Italian heritage
COOKS’ EXCHANGE

Cooks' Exchange: A taste of Webster ... and Italian heritage

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Have you ever visited a place you loved so much that you wanted to return again and again as soon as possible? That’s exactly what happened to me many years ago while visiting Webster, a small town in northwest Wisconsin’s Burnett County, along the Minnesota border. The peace and quiet of the north woods found a place in my heart that warms me with wonderful memories.

Nourishing my love for the area keeps me smiling thanks to a longtime subscription to the Burnett County Sentinel. This exceptional weekly publication keeps me in touch with Mother Nature and life up north with well-written stories about its people, schools, churches, politics, local businesses, sports, hunting and fishing.

Sentinel food columnist Lisa Erickson’s “Wild Chow” column often inspires me to reach for my apron. So it was no surprise after she recently described a pizza soup recipe her family can’t seem to get enough of that I lined up the ingredients, prepared it, loved it and wanted to share it in my own column (with permission from Burnett County Sentinel publisher Tom Stangl and editor Jonathan Richie).

Italian pizza soup

Soup

½ pound Italian sausage

1 onion, chopped

1 green pepper, diced

28-ounce can tomato sauce

14-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 to 1½ cups water

1½ tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

Cheese bread 1 loaf French bread, sliced diagonally into 8 pieces

2 cups fresh mozzarella cheese, shredded or sliced

¼ cup butter

1 teaspoon garlic salt

For soup, in a large saucepan, brown sausage over medium heat, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add onion and cook until softened. Add remaining ingredients and water to desired thickness. Bring to a low simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat, cool slightly, and top each bowl with cheese bread.

To make cheese bread, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter each slice on one side and lightly sprinkle with garlic salt. Top with cheese and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until cheese is melted and bread is crispy on the edges.

Note: When I initially made the soup without a loaf of French bread at hand, I reached for my large Italian flavored croutons to sprinkle over each serving.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Italian Workmen’s Club’s annual Festa Italia, previously scheduled for this weekend, was canceled. With Italian pride and delicious flavors in mind, here are some longtime favorite Italian and Sicilian recipes for you to enjoy at home. Up first are cardoons, also known as burdocks, a plant farmers hate to find in their pastures that my father and other immigrants craved to prepare and enjoy each spring. As a little boy from Sicily, my father often found burdock growing along roadsides and railroad tracks in the old Greenbush neighborhood. He brought them home to his mother, my Nonna, to fry for supper.

Burdock plants look somewhat like small rhubarb. Cut them at the ground and discard the leaves. Cut the stalks into 4-inch pieces. Then soak the stalks in a large bowl of cold water with about 4 tablespoons of lemon juice to ensure freshness and prevent them from turning brown until all are cleaned. Parboil stalks in a large pot of boiling water for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks. Drain thoroughly and proceed to cook or place in containers to freeze for later use.

Fried burdocks (also known as cardooni)

4 eggs

¼ cup grated Italian cheese

¼ cup Italian bread crumbs

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

Oil for frying

12 4-inch pieces of parboiled burdocks

Make a batter by mixing the first five ingredients. Dip stalks in batter mixture. Transfer with a fork and spoon to a skillet of hot oil. Fry, turning once; remove and drain on paper towels.

Serves four.

Returning to Festa Italia, here are memories from two pamphlets I compiled during past Festa events, documenting the annual event celebrating our heritage. Titled “Mangia! Mangia! Festa Italian Food with History” and “Food to Love,” both pamphlets contained information about the beloved annual event with recipes shared by local Italian club members and owners of Italian establishments, with the first recipe from the Italian Workmen’s Club, founded Jan. 18, 1912, and now recognized as the oldest, continuously active Italian club of its kind in the country.

Italian sausage sandwiches

4 Italian sausages, sweet or hot

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 onions, sliced in rings

2 to 3 large green peppers, cleaned of seeds and sliced in strips

4 brat buns

Grill or cook over a medium-high heat in a fry pan until sausages are cooked through and browned. In another skillet, heat oil, add onions and peppers and saute until onions are limp and translucent, and peppers are slightly al dente. Place sausage on long bun and top with onions and green peppers.

Note: The Italian “al dente” means “tender to the tooth.”

This cookie recipe was shared by the Italian American Women’s Club, founded in 1934 as the Italian Women’s Mutual Aid Society for the purpose of greater social understanding, comradeship and beneficial aid. The recipe was found handwritten on an index card hidden between the pages of a book owned by a fine Italian cook.

Italian chocolate cookies

1 pound butter

3 cups sugar

6 to 8 eggs

12 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

12 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons ground cloves

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons nutmeg

10 tablespoons cocoa

2 teaspoons vanilla

2 tablespoons spoons anise

3 whole oranges pureed in blender

1 cup chopped nuts

¼ to ½ cup dry red wine, to moisten

Work together shortening and sugar until blended; add eggs and mix well. Mix together dry ingredients except for nuts. Add to sugar-egg mixture and mix well. Add vanilla, anise and oranges, and mix well. Add nuts and wine. Mix well, roll into balls the size of a whole walnut, and bake at 350 degrees until done, being careful not to over bake. Dip in thin confectioners’ sugar frosting when cool.

CIAO! — Cultural Italian American Organization — is the new kid on the block as a club welcoming both for Italian men and women, and non-Italian spouses. Founded March 19, 2001, CIAO! members offer the undeniable Sicilian favorite crisp cannoli shells filled with ricotta cheese during Festa Italia from Fraboni’s Italian Deli. Here is the late Tony Guastella’s favorite cannoli filling recipe.

Cannoli filling

4 cups ricotta cheese

1½ cups powdered sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

¼ cup finely chopped mixed candied fruits

¼ cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate

1 cup heavy cream, whipped to form stiff peaks

Press ricotta through wire sieve or blend until smooth in food processor or blender. Mix with powdered sugar and vanilla. Add finely chopped candied fruits and chocolate. Chill before using.

Note: For a heavier filling, eliminate the whipped cream. Guastella’s recipe can be piped into both ends of cannoli shells and for the finishing touch, sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts over exposed filling. If you do not have a pastry bag, snip the corner of a double baggie and carefully squeeze filling into each shell.

Contact the Cooks’ Exchange in care of the Wisconsin State Journal, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI, 53708 or by email at greenbush4@aol.com.

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