I will never forget the first time I met Anna Nurse. It was a cold winter night in January and I answered the phone at my father’s restaurant.
The lady on the other end asked me if this was Jasper whom she was speaking with and I answered, “This is Jasper Jr.” She then replied, “Great, that’s who I want to talk to.”
“I am Anna Nurse and I’ve been doing a little research about you and I’m looking for an Italian chef from the Midwest to come and cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City,” she said.
I about dropped the phone and asked her to please hold on. I ran back into our office and told my father and brother that someone on the phone wanted to talk to me about cooking at the James Beard House.
My father told me to pick up the phone right away and talk to the lady. He asked me what was I waiting for?
I picked the phone back up and told Miss Nurse that I would be honored to be invited and asked her what day she wanted me in New York. She told me to send my bio and some head shots and plan on coming in May.
For the next three months, I was as nervous as a turkey at Thanksgiving. I was the first chef from Kansas City ever to be invited to cook at the prestigious home of James Beard. That alone was such an honor and I was also asked to teach a pasta workshop.
From that night in January until I arrived at the prestigious James Beard House I struck up a great and lasting relationship with Miss Anna Nurse. When my father and I walked into the James Beard House for the first time that May morning, there she was sitting there with open arms, waiting for my father and me.
It was like meeting my grandmother again. She started crying and it was like we had been friends forever. She took me by my hand and took me throughout the house, showing me the kitchen and explaining in detail everything I needed to do for the next evening dinner and the following days’ workshop.
That evening, my father and I took her home to Brooklyn and enjoyed a memorable meal at her friend’s restaurant. My father and she talked about old times and about their mutual friends in New York. What a great evening it turned out to be.
I found out that Anna had become a “mother” to so many people in the New York food world and was so very proud of the fact that she would from then on consider me one of her charges.
Her cooking career began when she was very young, working at the kitchen counter with her mother and grandmother. After she was married, she catered to the local parish priest in Brooklyn, and was then asked to conduct a cooking class. The rest was history.
Anna later helped launch the original cooking school program at the New York school in Greenwich Village and taught workshops at the New York City technical school and finally at the James Beard Foundation. She is still an active member of the New York Association of Cooking School Teachers and the mother of two daughters and devoted grandmother of three.
My dinner at the James Beard House was a wonderful success, serving over 120 people that first night and 30 more for the pasta workshop. Anna stayed with me the whole time, offering me hints and culinary secrets and tricks that I still treasure today.
I was invited back four more times to the James Beard House over the years and to this day, I call Anna every few months just to check in with her, say hello, send her my love and talk about what I’ve been doing, and of course, I always talk to her about her recipes.
Like I do with a lot of my friends, I never say goodbye. Saying goodbye meant I would never talk to her again, so we always ended our conversations with “much love.”
Since it is Easter time I always think of Anna’s famous Ambrosia Baked Ham that has become one of the most talked about and revered recipes in the culinary world. This is also the famous ham that Anna prepares every year for her annual Easter brunch at the James Beard House in New York City.
Just this past weekend, I talked to another culinary friend, Mary Ann Esposito, from the PBS TV cooking show “Ciao Italia.” The first thing we talked about was our mutual friend, Anna Nurse and her legendary ham recipe for the Easter season.
It is funny how many lives one has touched and how many people consider her their mentor, I myself, proudly included.
With Anna’s permission, I share with you one of her most treasured recipes. I do hope you enjoy as much as I and my family have for the past 20 years.
Buona Pasqua!Anna Nurse’s Baked Ham 1 bone-in smoked ham, 12 to 18 pounds 36 whole cloves 3 cups pineapple juice 1 pound dark brown sugar 16 ounce bottle dark corn syrup
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the ham in a shallow roasting pan. Score the fat and stud it completely with cloves. Pour the pineapple juice over the ham and bake for 12 minutes per pound.
After 1-1/2 hours, remove the ham from the oven and carefully pat the brown sugar on top, completely covering the top of the ham. Gently pour the corn syrup over the ham, being careful not to disturb the sugar covering. Continue baking basting every 15 minutes.
When the ham has baked its allotted time, remove it from your oven and continue basting until it is cooled — this gives it a beautiful glaze.
The remaining syrup can be used again over a side dish such as yams, butternut squash, or sweet potatoes, if you are serving the ham hot as a main dish. Otherwise, it can be left on the sideboard or kitchen counter at room temperature during the day for snacking purposes, then stored in the refrigerator for several days.
Recipe reprinted from “Little Italy” by David Ruggerio (Artisan Books 1997)
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.