I'm the first to admit that I love people but hate gatherings. The Italian Fest at night is crowded, loud, and drunk. Basically it's like an Italian Family dinner, it's bellisimo! I usually swoop in long enough to grab some bagna cauda and swoop out. This year I had the opportunity to head up there early on the first day and it was wonderful.
My childhood memories of The Italian Fest are mostly from the inside of the kitchen at my church. For years my church, First Assembly of God in Collinsville, had a booth at The Fest selling "Famous Stuffed Shells". I have vivid memories of red faced women running a well oiled shell stuffing machine. Tables lined up with the stuffing being mixed by hand, large tin foil shiny pans coming out of hot ovens, my father loading up the sparkling pans into the church van to shuttle them to the Fest. Running the van constantly, we could barely keep up with the demand. It's been over a decade since The Italian Fest was graced with the booth selling the Famous Stuffed Shells. This year there was another group selling stuffed shells, and they were good, but it's just not the same.
As an adult, I pass up almost every booth and head straight for the bagna cauda. There are actually a couple of places you can get this pungent garlic and anchovy knock out punch, and by knock out, I mean knock out anyone that comes within a 10 foot radius of you after you've eaten it. The more prominent being the Kiwanis truck. They serve it up with Napa cabbage leaves and hunks of Italian bread. The proper way to indulge is to scoop up the oil concoction being sure to dive deep down to the bottom for that flavorful, garlicy, anchovy salted, soot. Then hold it over the bread to catch any drippings before shoveling the molten hot fondue into your mouth. The cabbage acts as a great contrast in taste, texture, and temperature. If you've rationed it right you'll have just enough bread to sop up any remaining oil slicks of pure flavor.
After reading that last bit you have probably planted yourself firmly in one of two camps. There are only two camps when it comes to this Italian favorite. The first being those that seek it out like The Lost City of Atlantis. Its fragrant call a siren drawing you to the cliffs. The second being those that flee in the other direction at the slightest hint of the pungent smell. No one sort of thinks that bagna cauda is just ok. As a child we brought in every New Year at a very Italian friends house. This was the midnight meal. Zombies grunting and moaning bending over the pot fighting for a taste huddled in the kitchen. Then in the furthest corner of the house cowering, the haters, grumbling their disdain.
If you'd like to see which camp you are in you can find the recipe for Bagna Cauda below. The recipe is thanks to that long time family friend who was the host and chef every New Year's. To be honest, and I'm sorry mom, but her's is by far the best I've ever had.
If you would like to take your chances on a slightly less risky bet the recipe for First Assembly of God's Famous Stuffed Shells is also below. Getting my hands on this was not easy but I was finally able to land it thanks to a good friend and long time church Secretary Sandy Snider.
Jan's Bagna Cauda
1 pound butter
1 cup olive oil
1 whole head (yes head.. all the cloves inside one head of garlic) peeled and sliced
6 cans of anchovies
Combine all ingredients and let simmer on low 20-30 minutes until anchovies break down. Keep heat on low to avoid burning the garlic. Burnt garlic is bitter and will flavor the entire pot.
Serve with Napa cabbage, Italian bread, and various vegetable.
Famous Stuffed Shells
1 box large pasta shells
1 medium diced onion
1 LB ground beef for red sauce or 1 LB diced chicken for white sauce (honestly, I only remember hamburger no matter the sauce)
1 pkg frozen spinach thawed and drained well or one can of spinach drained well and chopped
4 or 5 cloves of garlic mashed or diced
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded parmesean cheese
Cook shells in boiling water for 12 minutes with 2 TB of oil (honestly I'd oil them after I cooked them rather than before). After boiling rinse with cold water and set aside (wow, they are breaking all the rules with this recipe).
Saute onion and garlic in skillet but DO NOT BROWN. Add spinach and eggs stirring and mixing together. Add both cheddar and parmesan cheese and stir until the cheese is stringy and melted. Remove from heat. Open the shells and stuff about 1 TB or more inside shell and roll the shell back up and place in deep baking dish. Make sure all shells are covered in sauce:
For white sauce:
1 Can cream of mushroom soup and 1 soup can of milk.
For Red Sauce:
1 31 oz jar of Prego chunky sauce. Dilute as desired with water.
Cover and bake 350 degrees Farenheit for 40 minutes.