This is the first year that I am spending Christmas in my adopted country, Italy. Last year, 2008, I was in Santa Rosa, California working on my extended visa with the Italian consulate in San Francisco, and had Christmas with my sons, their wives and my two grand children.
A lot has changed in my life this year. Elizabeth and I are nearing our second anniversary in March. I am working with her catering group as a cook, and doing some instruction in the cooking classes. I continue, slowly, learning Italian each week and that is getting a bit better. My scientific life has been put on hold though I do read a lot and follow the current scientific thinking and trends.
On a personal level, my weight has remained at 165 pounds since flattening out in June 2009. I have found that I can eat and enjoy lots of different kinds of food without discomfort. That includes an occasional glass of wine, or spirits. In a recent discussion on line I found that after weight loss surgery, alcohol reacts more quickly on the system and some say that one drink may be the equivalent of four, so if you are going to imbibe, do it carefully and be aware of the effects it may have on you. This is not to say don’t drink, but early in the post-surgical healing, the alcohol may irritate the surgical site, so slowly, slowly. A little at a time.
So this Christmas I will write about the experience of being and eating in Italy during the holidays.
Natale con i tuoi; Pasqua con chi vuoi. Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you like.
The Christmas holidays in Italy are an extended time, running from Christmas Eve until the 6th of January. It is a time for family gatherings, traditional foods, and celebrations. These are predominantly religious holidays, but over the years the religious nature has been diluted somewhat by the secular.
This Christmas Eve, we will be hosting a party for between 12 and 15 friends here at Casa Ruspante. The house has been decorated with our new presepe (crèche) I bought for Elizabeth at the local Christmas market in Umbertide. It is composed of clay figures, painted in great colors and was hand made in Peru. It makes a nice addition to the Christmas sideboard. Hand-painted ornaments are placed around, with a gold garland of tinsel. A ceramic Christmas tree adds some green to the display and an added festive touch. Candles are set up, to be lit before dinner. Gifts for friends are all wrapped and placed on the sideboard to hand out on Christmas Eve. They are small gifts, more tokens of affection than anything else. They are often things like kitchen towels and implements, various marmalattas I have put up, and in at least one case, cash. Our stockings (le calzi) are hung from the mantle.
Our dinner menu will be dominated by fish and seafood. Antipasti will be crostini (bruschetta) with braised cavolo nero (black cabbage, a winter vegetable) and anchovies, a spicy shrimp (gamberetti) dish, a baccalà pate to be spread on crostini or cucumbers, and a plate of sliced pecorino and Cacciota cheeses with chutney recently made here. The primo piatti (first course) will be freshly made tagliatelle with smoked salmon and fresh peas in a light bechamel sauce. The secondo (second course) will be grilled or lightly fried fish with a lemon mostarda (that I made two weeks ago) and garnished with lemon slices. I will make some pickled onions to go along with the fish. A friend is bringing artichokes alla romana. We will be preparing a baked pumpkin topped with gruyere cheese as a vegetable course. It is dish my wife is quite fond of. She learned to cook it in Provence, brought the seeds from France, and the pumpkin was grown by a good friend. Dessert will be a persimmon cake with a brandy hard sauce and possibly a mince pie. That makes five fish or seafood dishes. Not quite the expected seven, but frankly it will be as much as I can handle for that many people. Wine will be poured and consumed and the mood I am sure will be festive.
Crostini (bruschetta) with braised cavolo nero and anchovies
Cavolo nero is a “chard-like” leafy vegetable that has a hard bitter stem and less bitter leaves. It requires a lengthy cooking in boiling salted water. I trim the ends of the stems off, and then strip the leaves from the stems. I chop up the stems and put them in a pot of boiling water and cook them for at least 20-30 minutes. I then add the leaves that have been chopped and cook the vegetables until they are well done. They will not be mushy as these are tough vegetables. Drain them well and allow to cool. Then squeeze out as much moisture as you can. When ready to serve, chop the vegetables into a fine dice. Saute 5-8 anchovy fillets in a bit of olive oil in a saute pan until they dissolve. Add some minced garlic, allow to color slightly (do not let them burn) and then add the cavolo nero and saute. Add a bit more olive oil if it appears tobe drying out. However the mixture should be quite dry to serve.
I make my bruschetta in a grill pan on the stove during the winter. Grill the bread slices until slightly crisp and well marked with the grill marks. Remove them to a rack, and rub each slice with a garlic clove. Brush on a good measure of high quality olive oil, and sprinkle with seasoned salt or just plain salt. Cut the bruschetta into 3-4 pieces each and place a small mound of the cavolo nero on top. Sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve warm.
The spicy shrimp is based upon a sweet and sour sauce and uses the locally available small gamberetti (shrimp) sold frozen in packages. They are already cooked and only need to be defrosted under running cold water in a colander and then reheated in the sauce. The sweet and sour sauce is simply made using pineapple juice, vinegar, sugar, ketchup, green peppers, and onions. In a sauce pan put the juice from a can of pineapple or use pineapple juice directly. Add about 2 tablespoons of sugar, ½ cup of ketchup, and ½ cup of apple cider vinegar to taste. Dice a green pepper and an onion and add to the sauce. Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes to thicken it. Taste this one. The flavor is very personal and if you need to add more sugar or vinegar, or pineapple or ketchup do so. To make it a bit hotter, add a couple of good splashes of Tabasco sauce or an oriental hot sauce. Again taste to make it yours. When you have the taste you want add the shrimp. Allow the mixture to warm and serve in a warm bowl. Provide small dishes for individual servings.
This is a dish I am trying for the first time and I hope it comes off well. It will combine baccalà (salt cod) which has been soaked for two days to remove the preserving salts and then poached, with fresh butter, some capers, a couple of anchovy fillets, chopped parsley, and some lemon juice. No additional salt is needed (hopefully) but generous grinds of black pepper are called for. The fish (about ½ to 1 pounds) is poached in a court bouillon with onions and black pepper until the fish is cooked and flakes easily. Allow the fish to cool on a plate and then flake it checking for bones. Put the fish in a food processor with a steel blade. Add 100 grams (a cube) of butter, a good tablespoon of drained pickled capers, two anchovy fillets, 1 /2 cup of parsley and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Process until smooth. Then taste and add pepper as needed. This pate will be served either on cucumber rounds (if good cucumbers are available right now) or on toasted crostini made with my quick bread (see the recipe for beer bread in an earlier post) seasoned with fennel seeds.
So this Christmas Eve we will eat fish and celebrate la vigilia di natale with friends and neighbors.
On Christmas Day (Natale) we have been invited to a dear friends for an early dinner and what we will be consuming is not known. What is known is that a goodly amount of wine will be offered and poured and a warm Yule log will be burning in the fireplace.
The 26th of December is call Santo Stefano and we will be attending a chorale in the main piazza in Umbertide.
New Years Eve (capo d’ anno) this year will be one of catering a festive dinner for five which includes a birthday cake for one of the celebrants. We will grill some marinated lamb; have some tagliatelle with a tomato and meat sauce, mixed roasted winter vegetables, and a salad with mixed greens and an acacia honey vinaigrette. I will make a Zuccota or domed cake as a birthday cake, sprinkled with rum, and filled with chocolate ganache, cherry gelato and chocolate gelato. It is quite spectacular and is always a hit.