Mary Ann Giordano's love of the St. Joseph's Day table started at Aunt Ange's house on the West Side, with "plastic covers on furniture and lace tablecloths everywhere."
The Giordano clan wedged into the little house, gathering around its centerpiece: a big table that was part altar and part buffet.
St. Joseph's Day, when Catholics honor the Virgin Mary's husband, who raised Jesus, comes on March 19 -- during the pre-Easter Lenten period, when the observant abstain from meat. It's a celebration nonetheless, a thanksgiving feast whose Sicilian celebrants trace it to at least the Middle Ages, when their ancestors prayed to St. Joseph for relief from a deadly drought, and vowed to honor him when the rain came.
Besides a likeness of St. Joseph, the Giordano table held numerous Sicilian specialties with recipes shaped by centuries of family traditions, Sicilian customs and religious observations. "Lots of sweets, and vegetables, and seafood," including fennel, oranges, fava beans and sardines, are usually involved, Giordano said -- but definitely no meat.
This year, Giordano, who grew up to become the executive chef at Williamsville's Creekview Restaurant, added her own chapter by publishing "The St. Joseph's Day Table Cookbook," which was released last week. Written with her father and culinary mentor Paul Giordano, a Williamsville psychiatrist, the book includes prayers, rituals and recipes used by the Giordano family.
Her grandmother, Josephine Alaimo Giordano, arrived from Sicily in 1905. Giordano put the shipping manifest listing her name inside the book's front cover, honoring the inspiration for their family's St. Joseph's table.
"My grandmother was carrying on a tradition that she learned in Sicily," Giordano said. "My father and I do it to honor my grandmother and our relatives, and to uphold the tradition, and make sure it's passed on to our children, and our children's children."
Giordano graduated from Niagara University in 1986 and got into the restaurant business, cooking at Reginald's and Mother's before landing at the Creekview about 15 years ago.
Roughly around the same time, she said, her father, an avid home cook, first tried to get her interested in a book about the St. Joseph's Day table. She was helping him put a table together, Giordano said, searching for information on the symbolism behind traditional ingredients and recipes. "We couldn't find one site, one book or one source to give us all the answers."
Being a family of cooks, "We decided, we're the people to do it," she said. "It's our responsibility to write this book."
In Sicily, St. Joseph's Day can be a village-wide feast, with everyone invited, especially the poor, with those able to do so contributing ingredients like fish, or cardoons, or specially shaped loaves of bread to the common table. In the United States, celebrations are centered in churches or private homes, where the feasting is often preceded by prayers and perhaps a priest's blessing.
Besides a picture or statue of St. Joseph, a three-step platform representing the Holy Trinity, lilies and votive candles are often found on a St. Joseph's Day table, Giordano said.
Then there's the food, a lineup built around satisfying Sicilian peasant dishes wrought from humble ingredients. "Most of the foods involved in the feast are set out for you by history," Giordano said. "The foods on the table all have symbolism, and they all come from Sicily. They should all be foods that grew wild or would have been grown after the famine, when the rain came."
So there's Pasta con Sarde, with fennel, sultana raisins, pine nuts and sardines. "Fennel grows wild in Sicily," Giordano said. "It's sacred and has healing powers."
There's fried cardoons, or burdock, a weed in this country but a prized source of food in times of famine, or anytime, if you're Sicilian. "Everybody in my family who's over 40 carries a paper bag and a knife underneath their car seat in case they spot a patch of cardoons or erba mari (another edible weed) on the side of the road."
In fact, Giordano has burdock growing next to the pool in her Kenmore backyard. She lets them grow unharmed "until they're big enough," she said. "Then I pick 'em." They get blanched before being dipped in an eggy batter, fried and dusted with Parmesan cheese.
People who have prayed to St. Joseph for a favor, and been granted that favor, sometimes use St. Joseph's Day to carry out their side of the promise.
Giordano said that she is one of them.
"In 2005, when I had a table, I prayed to St. Joseph to bless my family with a child," Giordano said. "In 2007 the honored guest at our table was my daughter." Her name is Gabriella, adopted from Guatemala by Giordano in 2006 -- but conceived, Giordano points out, in March 2005.
"So one of the reasons in writing this cookbook is to thank St. Joseph for my good luck and my good fortune."
Which doesn't extend to getting Gabriella to eat Pasta con Sarde at the St. Joseph's table. "There's not much she'll eat at it right now," the chef said, "besides the cookies."
"The St. Joseph's Day Table Cookbook," by Mary Ann and Paul Giordano (126 pages, Buffalo Heritage, $24.95) is available at local bookstores or buffaloheritage.com.
> Fried Cardoons
2 pounds domestic cardoons (or wild burdocks)
Lemon juice and water
1/4 cup seasoned Italian bread crumbs
4 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup vegetable oil, preferably salad/olive blend
To prepare the cardoons, separate the stalks and rinse well. Discard any discolored outer stalks and leaves. Trim the base, tip, and outermost stalks, removing strings from the stalks as you would from celery. A potato peeler works well.
Cut the cardoons crosswise into 5-inch lengths, then lengthwise into 1/2 -inch strips. Soak the cardoons briefly in cold water with lemon juice to prevent discoloring. Bring 4 to 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the cardoons and simmer for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain well and cool quickly.
To make the batter, mix all the ingredients except the cardoons and the oil in a bowl.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium flame until the oil bubbles when the cardoons are placed in the pan. Dip stalks in the batter two or three at a time. Fry the stalks until golden brown, regulating the heat so the oil continues to bubble gently but does not cook the cardoons too quickly.
Remove the cardoons to a warming plate covered with paper towels. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or reheat in the oven (not in a microwave, to maintain a crispy crust).
Makes about 30 pieces per pound. If serving warm, sprinkle with extra grated Parmesan. Can also be served cold.
> Sfinge di San Giuseppe
2 cups water
5 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups flour
8 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons whiskey
Shortening or vegetable oil for frying (shortening produces a crispier puff)
Confectioners' sugar, for garnish
Orange zest, for garnish
Combine water, butter, sugar and salt in large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the baking powder and flour all at once, and stir until the mixture comes away from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool for 2 minutes or until the mixture is no longer steaming.
Place the mixture in a food processor, and, with machine running, add the eggs one at a time, processing until they are incorporated. Add the vanilla and whiskey, blending them into the mixture.
Heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep fryer or a large, shallow pot. The dough will expand to 2 or 3 times its original size, so use sufficient oil. Drop batter into the oil 1 teaspoon at a time, and fry until golden brown. Remove the puffs to drain on paper towels.
Fill the puffs with custard or ricotta cannoli filling, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar when ready to serve. Garnish with candied orange peel. Makes 50 to 60 pieces.
Cook's note: Sfinge have a mind of their own. Once you release them into the hot oil, they flip themselves over again and again until they are almost done. There is no need to touch them at all except at the very end when they won't turn over anymore. Then, help them out with one last flip before removing them to a paper towel to drain.