Italian Christmas Feasting
When I began cooking seriously, I was young and very much in love,conditions that contributed to a keen appetite and an adventurousspirit. We lived in Greenwich Village, just around the corner fromBleecker Street during its last days of glory as an astoundingsource of foods.
Pushcarts of produce still lined the narrow one-waythoroughfare, fronting shops where the Neapolitan dialect was heardmore than English. Bread appeared three times a day at Zito'sBakery: fragrant, warm loaves, some seeded, others plain; circlesof Sicilian style wholewheat rolls for sandwiches. The pasticeriaswere monuments to sugar, with special confections on saints' days,homemade ices in the summer, and unlimited quantities of espresso.
Fresh cheeses were made daily, as were pastas. Rounds ofmozzarella cooled in water, and huge chunks of reggiano awaited thewire cutting tool on the counter. On Fridays, ricotta-filledravioli were sold in the small shop across the street from Our Ladyof Pompeii church.
The butchers in the neighborhood, once they realized that myhusband was Italian, were willing guides to meats I had neverprepared. I carefully avoided looking directly into the faces ofsuckling pigs, rabbits, gamebirds and lambs hanging in the windowsof Ottomanelli's.
What a place to learn to cook!
I poked and prodded the merchandise, asked questions, readbooks, learned recipes from my in-laws in Massachusetts and Jenny-the-vegetable-lady who sold me my daily supplies.
At Christmas, I reveled in the atmosphere, planning my first real feste<>. By early December the bakery showcases were crammed with loaves of pannetone<>, the yeasty fruit bread andpanforte<>, that dense, spicy concoction, along with importedchocolates, boxes of torrone<>--sweet nougat--and cookies ofall shapes frosted with shockingly bright colored icings.
The winter air was redolent of evergreens, trees standing onthe corner for sale, perfuming the cold. Citrus fruits in pyramidstopped the pushcarts and baskets of chestnuts and hazelnuts crowdedthe curbs. Outside the fishmonger's, oysters, clams and musselsglistened in their wooden trays while live eels curled ominouslyin barrels of water.
One butcher taught me how to make a rich stuffing from hisfennel-flavored sausage and chestnuts; another sliced the meats forantipasto: hot coppa, garlickly mortadella, prosciutto and salami.
Since that first year, Christmas has always been Italian forme.
Christmas Eve is a traditional time for fasting--just as well,considering the amount of food consumed the next day! At my in-laws' home, the choice of allowed fish was baccala<>, salteddried codfish that has to be soaked and soaked, changing the wateroften, to make it palatable. It was poached and served with garlicand olive oil, seasoned with pepper. I've known families who keptone of those live eels in the bathtub until it was time to do itin for their dinner. At the Fuscos', the meatless pasta course wascalled "white macaroni,'' actually fidellini sauced with oil andgarlic, minced onion added and thinned with a bit of water,sprinkled with grated romano and parsley. After this came a saladmade from scarola<>, a crunchy, curly, slightly bitterescarole, welcome in the winter.
Recently I came across a recipe in The Food of SouthernItaly<>, Carlo Middione's lovely book, where the same green is usedon a Christmas Eve pizza and combined with olives, pinenuts,raisins, capers, olive oil and a bit of anchovy. He also recommendsa dish of cooked dried chickpeas as an appetizer for the occasion,reminding me of the salty, crisp lupini<>, small picked limabeans, which we ate.
After a huge antipasto on Christmas day, the pasta course formy own family has always been ravioli ricotta<> in a simpletomato sauce scented with basil. Tortellini are more traditionalin many parts of Italy. Fillings are as varied as one's larder---meats, cheese, vegetables. In an article in the Gazetta diBologna<> in the early part of this century, a journalist wrote,"Christmas should be celebrated in the Christian fashion, that isto say by eating until you burst, drinking until your head spins,and in general loading down the human machine with choice wine andedibles of all sorts, varieties and origins. But precede everythingwith a great dish of tortellini. Without tortellini there can beno Christmas in Bologna.''
I learned to cook tortellini by watching a photographer from Italy in his tiny New York kitchen. As the pasta simmered, he skimmed the golden circles of fat which occasionally rose to the surface, a maneuver as delicate as a dragonfly's flight. Hereserved it to drizzle over the drained pasta before it was sauced,enriching it.
After turkey at Thanksgiving, we usually opt for a Christmas entree of prime rib roast served with rosemary potatoes andvegetables. Raddichio has become almost a cliche, but it is anhonorable and ancient vegetable, prized for its appearance afterfrost when other crops have been harvested. In the province ofTreviso there is even a specific marketplace set up for it duringthe Christmas season. There are several varieties; Trevisans usea long-leafed kind, shaped like romaine, which they cook by dippinginner leaves into a batter of flour, egg and breadcrumbs, thenfrying them in olive oil, almost tempura-light. Braised radicchiomakes a good side dish, too. I add it raw to salads for its glowingcolor and the cupped leaves from the small round variety are finefor lining a platter of lemony green beans or sweet and sour babyonions.
Christmas desserts range from simple breads to rich chocolateto elaborate, artistic marzipan creations (fruits, flowers,cherubs, all true in shape and colors). Panetonne is a sort of all-purpose bread: plain enough to take with coffee for breakfast, justsweet enough for dessert with fruit, and wonderful toasted whenit's stale.Biscotti<>, with twice-baked almond-studded crispness, isanother favorite, dunked in coffee as a grown-up treat forchildren, or in sweet wine as a dessert for grownups. Panforte--literally, strong bread--is somewhere between candy and cake, adescendant of medieval spiced baked goods. It is made with driedfruits and nuts and sweetened with honey, spices and cocoa.Torrone, the nougat I adored in childhood (I used to save thelittle decorative boxes to hold treasures), has an ancientbackground, too. It's claimed by Abruzzi, although it was probablybrought to Italy from Spain. According to Waverly Root, an experton Italian food, folklore has it that on Christmas Eve, two membersof each family spelled each other during the night, stirring thehoney, almonds and egg whites in a kettle over the fire. I'vealways purchased the candy for stocking stuffers, never havingfound anyone willing to stay up all night and stir it.Pizza di Scarola
About 20 Gaeta or Calamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons pinenuts
4 teaspoons small black or golden raisins, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons capers, coarsely chopped
1 medium head chicory or curly endive,
well washed virgin olive oil
8 anchovy fillets, chopped in pieces
salt and pepper to taste
prepared pizza crust
Put the olives in a medium-sized bowl. Brown the pinenuts ina frying pan with no oil, being careful not to burn them, and addthem to the olives. Add the raisins and capers to the mixture, mixeverything together, and reserve it for later use.
Cut the chicory into 8 parts lengthwise. Put it into a saucepan with about 1 cup of water and boil for 5 minutes or until it is very tender. Drain the chicory well, reserving the water, and spread it out on a plate to cool. When it is cool wrap it in heavykitchen towels and squeeze out as much water as you can. (The waterin which the chicory was cooked tastes delicious in homemade soup;or drink it with some salt, pepper and a drop of olive oil added.)
Cook the anchovies in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in afrying pan over medium heat, mixing the pieces of anchovy allaround. Add the drained and squeezed chicory, and mix it well. Adda bit more oil if it looks a little dry. Gently cook this mixturefor about 5 minutes, stirring often. Cool the mixture and set itaside.
Spread the olive and pinenut mixture over the surface of thepizza dough, and then drizzle on a few threads of olive oil. Spreadthe anchovy and chicory mixture over the surface evenly, andsprinkle on a bit of salt and plenty of freshly ground blackpepper. Drizzle on quite a few threads of olive oil, criss-crossing the whole surface of the pizza. Bake in a pre-heated 500-degree oven for about 7 minutes. Eat the pizza piping hot.