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Father's Day in March? In Italy it honors St. Joseph

Peg Rhodes/Courtesy photo<br>Sfingi di San Giuseppe, top picture, and spaghetti with fennel and sardines, below.

Peg Rhodes/Courtesy photo<br>Sfingi di San Giuseppe, top picture, and spaghetti with fennel and sardines, below.

Yes, in Italy, "Father's Day" always falls on March 19. This day honors St. Joseph, husband of Mary, stepfather of Christ, guardian of the family, patron saint of carpenters, wheelwrights, the Universal Catholic Church and foes of communism. Not surprisingly, the top Italian boy name in Italy is Giuseppe, and his "onomastico" (name day) is March 19.

As in Italy, many Italian-American communities honor St. Joseph for saving the people from a medieval drought and famine. Every year since, faithful followers fill huge, altar-like tables with hearty peasant dishes, breads and sweets, free to all who visit these displays.

I've experienced St. Joe's tables in New Jersey, Philly and New Orleans, sites of strong Italian enclaves. Tables and foods are deeply symbolic. The traditional St. Joseph altar is constructed in the shape of the cross, three levels honoring the Holy Trinity, the highest tier bearing a picture or statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. A large cake depicts the Bible. Breads are shaped like ladders, saws and other carpenter tools. Unshelled hard-boiled eggs embedded in baked bread symbolize Easter's promised new life. Among other shapes are crowns of thorns, whole baked fish (Miracle of Loaves), St. Joseph's staff and sandals, and a monstrance-copy of a sacred vessel that holds a consecrated Eucharist for viewing.

Among dozens of traditional foods are: thick soups, lentils, fava beans, escarole, and much more. The traditional spaghetti with fresh-sardine and fennel sauce (Sicily's national dish) gets no cheese on this day, a reminder of the hardship during the drought and of Lenten sacrifice. Instead, it is sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs, symbolic of carpenter's sawdust. Offerings vary, but the favored sfingi (sFEEN-jee) di San Giuseppe, ricotta-filled puffs, always appear. Wine recalls the wedding at Cana. It's all good, indisputably without so-called "Catholic guilt" among feasters. Every altar visitor receives a dried fava bean-called the lucky bean, since it was the only crop to survive the drought. Legend says one carrying a lucky bean will never be without coins.

Below is my simplified version of pasta with sardine-fennel (anise) sauce from one of my first cookbooks as a bride. I've used canned sardines packed in water; but drain and add at the end. Or, seek fresh, cleaned sardines at fish markets, Italian, Latin or gourmet delis. Sfingi cream-puffs are baked, but I've seen them deep-fried and called zeppoli.

Sfingi di San Giuseppe

St. Joseph's Cream Puffs

(about 15)

Filling (day before needed)*

1 lb. ricotta, drained

1/4 cup powdered sugar

4 tbsp. chopped candied fruit

2 tbsp. grated dark chocolate

1 - 2 tbsp. milk (sparingly if needed)

Dough for cream puffs:

1 cup water

1/4 lb. unsalted butter

1/4 tsp. salt

1 cup + 2 tbsp. pastry flour

4 eggs, room temperature

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tbsp. each: grated lemon and orange rind

Filling: *For creamier filling, I drain my ricotta overnight-in a sieve over a bowl, covered with plastic wrap. Discard whey. Add sugar, fruit. Whip with mixer until light and fluffy; stir in chocolate. Add milk sparingly if needed for a custardy texture.

Cream puffs: Put water, butter, salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add flour all at once. Over medium heat, stir vigorously with wooden spoon until dough forms a ball. Off-heat, cool slightly. Add eggs one at a time, beat well after each. Add sugar and rinds. Dough should look glossy.

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment. Transfer dough to a pastry bag with #4 tip-or a zip-lock bag with one corner snipped to make a 1/2-inch opening. Squeeze bag very slowly, forming 2-inch donut circles, 1" thick, 2" apart onto parchment. Spoon "mistakes" back into bag if necessary. Bake 10 minutes; lower heat to 325F. Bake until brown, 30-35minutes. Cool on a rack and split. Fill with ricotta, cover with top half. Top with powdered sugar and cherry. (adapted: several sources)

Spaghetti with Sardine-Fennel/Anise Sauce

(Sicily's National dish) 6 servings

1 lb. spaghetti, unbroken

1-1/4 lb. fennel (or anise)

bulb with fronds*

1 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. dried fennel seed (optional)

5 tbsp. olive oil

1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup chopped onion

1 lb. sardines, cleaned, boned*

(Alt:15-oz can sardines packed in water)*

Fennel-pasta water as needed

2 tbsp. toasted pine nuts

2 tbsp. golden raisins

1-1/2 cups toasted bread crumbs*

Trim fennel bulb. Chop 1/2 cup fronds for garnish. Thinly slice about 2" of the stalks; discard the rest. Cut bulb in half, discard core. Thinly slice bulb. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan; add salt, fennel (except fronds) and seeds if used. Cook 15 minutes. Remove fennel with slotted spoon. Cook spaghetti in the same water until al dente. Drain; reserve 1 cup fennel-pasta water. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet. Add pepper flakes, onions. Cook until onions wilt. Add sardines (except if canned!); sauté 10 minutes; stirring gently. Add fennel, raisins, pine nuts, reserved pasta water, pepper to taste. Simmer 10 minutes. Place pasta in a large bowl. Add half the fennel-sardines and half the breadcrumbs. Toss to coat. Serve hot with more fennel sauce, crumbs, fennel fronds.

No cheese is used. (Peg Rhodes)

*Notes: Our fresh fennel (called anise) is unlike the wild fennel of Italy, but it will work. To enhance the fennel taste, throw some seeds into the pasta water. Toast breadcrumbs with 1 tbsp. olive oil in a small pan. If you prefer a red sauce, substitute 15 oz. canned sardines packed in tomato sauce; add with 1 cup marinara sauce when fennel is added. For color, some people add saffron dissolved in water.

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