Dec 29, 2009

Cotechino e lenticchie recipe

As the world prepares its champagne flûtes, firecrackers and party frocks, here in Italy we welcome the arrival of the new year strictly adhering to tradition.

Just like the American custom of dropping a ball of some sort, be it an orange in Florida or a sparking orb in Times Square, in some southern regions of Italy, all things which are old are discarded in riddance of all accumulated ill, and as an act of welcoming in the New Year’s fortune.

Italian New Year's eve, you see, is all about superstition.

In tune with the average Italian theatrical and imaginative character, it is believed that the older the item thrown away and more exaggerated the gesture, the greater the amount of luck generated. So don’t be surprised if at midnight on December 31st you see an old dishwasher flying out a window. Napoli, being the drama queen of the boot-shaped Peninsula, besides an addiction to exploding firecrackers and home made fire-work bombs, is the city where at dawn on January 1st, the streets are a bizarre exhibit of jettison debris. Free vintage everything, from toilet bowls, old newspapers saved for the occasion, closet clutter, old rugs and tiles, stripped shreds of wallpaper, out-of-fashion clothes, old calendars, chipped furniture.

Legend has it that the fumes of alcohol and gunpowder fogged the minds of those who tossed 92 year-old Grandma Luigina from the kitchen balcony that time.

Another fortune bearing midnight exercise is that of eating three white grapes on the twelfth bell toll.

My favorite luck-endearing function is that of slipping on sexy bright red lace underwear right after midnight. Fire engine red underwear, or any foundation garment in close proximity to the serendipitous bottom, is said to bring money and lots of good sex in the coming year.The most powerful luck engendering measure on Italian New Year’s eve is however the menu. The typical Capodanno (“head of the year”) dinner is one monumental good luck charm. It is composed of stewed lentils and thick slices of cotechino (lentils are said to bring money, zampone or cotechino, a large spiced pork meat sausage, represents phallic abundance), and some even delay dinner to past midnight so as to eat this palatable dish on the date of the New Year and not one minute earlier to avoid jinxing its effect.

The Cotechino originated in the province of Modena, a land of unhinged poetic epicureans, famous race cars, liberal politicians and generous foodstuffs. This fresh pork sausage is quite large, usually about 2 inches in diameter and 8 to 9 inches long. It is made from pork rind and meat from the cheek, neck and shoulder, and is usually seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper. The best cotechino is delicately flavored and has a soft, almost creamy texture.

I was fed this rich winter dish on a torrid mid-August day at countryside inn while on a film shoot and my liver still resents it. I later found out that in the nearby unconventional town of Castelnuovo Rangone, the mayor erected a statue to the town's most popular citizen honoring its annual sacrifice. A life-size bronze pig dominates the main piazza facing the church.

So, bearing in mind that on the night of December 31st, a timed combination of lentils, cotechino, grapes and red briefs will guarantee 365 days of bliss, here is my mother's recipe for Italy's typical fortune-bearing New Year's Eve fare. You have 3 days to get it together.

Cotechino e Lenticchie recipe

1 kg (2 lb) pre-cooked Cotechino di Modena (a well stocked deli or Italian specialty store will inevitably sell it, especially around holiday season)
400 g (2 cups) brown lentils (best if you can get your hands on the Castelluccio di Norcia or Santo Stefano di Sessanio variety - very tiny and delicious)
1/2 white onion, chopped
1/2 carrot
1/2 celery rib
1 meat bouillon cube
4 tablespoons unseasoned tomato sauce
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Arrange the lentils on a sheet pan or wide platter and sort through them to pick out any small rocks, pieces of dirt, lentils with holes or cavities, badly misshapen or shriveled ones and those greatly undersized or discolored.

Next, wash the lentils twice in cold water – with this cooking procedure there’s no need to soak them.

Follow the manufacturer's cooking instructions for the cotechino. Some notable brands of precooked cotechino (Fini, Citterio, etc.) require a minimum 20-minute boiling time of the air packed aluminum wrapped cotechino, but each maker applies different instructions. Once the cotechino is cooked, set it aside and cover it with plastic wrap. Do not refrigerate.

Wash, rinse and dry the vegetables. Chop the onion and leave the carrot and celery whole. Put the chopped onion, carrot and celery in a large pot with a splash of olive oil. Simmer lightly for 5 minutes over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add the lentils, bouillon cube and tomato sauce, stirring for another 5 minutes.

In a separate pot bring 2 liters (2 quarts) of water to a boil. Pour enough boiling water to cover the lentils. As it dries up, keep adding water as you would for risotto (without having to constantly stir), as the lentils absorb the liquid. You may not use all the water, or you may have to heat some more as the lentils drink up during cooking.

Guessing the correct cooking time of lentils is a challenge. It's important to obtain a thick, homogeneous, solid soup. Lentils must be well cooked to a soft texture, but not puréed.

Wine? In order to degrease the rich character of cotechino, wines rich in carbon dioxide are best. These include Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, or Pinot Nero Spumante Metodo Classico dell’Oltrepò Pavese, whose vinification is white.

Slice the cotechino and serve over a bed of lentils. Possibly wearing indecent red lingerie.
Buon Anno!

Dec 23, 2009

Italian Christmas menus

Candied dates smeared with butter, dried figs stuffed with walnuts, trays of hazelnuts, almonds, pecans and dark Brazilian nuts. Bread crumbs, cracked nutshells, bits of leftovers, empty espresso cups and wine glasses, and curled up mandarin orange peel scattered on a bright red embroidered tablecloth.

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Christmas Eve dinner at my mother’s house. The annual battleground after the seafood-based feast known as cenone della vigilia.

Earlier in the day the kitchen vibrates with joyful activity. We cook, drink, laugh a lot and throw food at each other, authorized to make a mess. We do it all together. We prepare the Christmas Eve dinner together, we eat it together and together we express our love for each other exchanging little thoughtful presents after midnight Mass. When my son finally falls asleep, we tiptoe into the house's many hiding places and bring out Santa's booty. We eat the snack left out for him, leaving evident crumbs and soot footsteps coming out of the chimney. And we smile in his same adorable anticipation. And that's when it truly feels like Christmas.

I kept wondering why I was having such a hard time getting into the Christmas mood this year. I tried everything: decorating the tree, building the presepe, putting up ornaments and lights all over the house, playing carols, baking cookies, constructing a gingerbread house... I included my son in all these usually infectious holiday activities because, after all, that's who I was doing it all for. But it wasn't really working. Something was missing.

And then I figured it out. I understood that there wasn't anything missing, there was actually an excess instead. There is too much of everything. Excessive frantic driving through traffic for last minute shopping. Too much constant mad rushing to conquer ground (and parking space) in horrible hysteria-mode stores and malls. Had the holiday season been reduced to racing brawl-prone folks laden with gift-wrapped boxes to the best deal? That's not Christmas! Christmas suddenly had turned into a commercial operation, and I somehow had forgotten its real meaning. To me Natale was a moment of excitement, of preparation, of joy. A traditional festive family occasion.

This shouldn't sound like a sermon, but very few things are sacred for me and Christmas is one of them. Nowadays Christmas in Italy is all about getting the perfect gift, leaving for the ultimate exotic vacation (and then bragging about it), accumulating rather than un-cluttering. Il Santo Natale–the holiness of Christmas–has been transformed into a display of money, image and opulence rather than a domestic celebration. It's a little sad, isn't it?

Thankfully the one element of Italian Natale that will never change is getting the family around a table and eating like crazy. So tomorrow evening, the dining room will be alive with chatter and laughter. After the gargantuan meal, the venue will convert – like every year – into casino royale for the Italian ritual Christmas gambling and tombola (bingo) tradition. The crumbs and nutshells get swept off la tavola with one tipsy motion and the games will begin. Usually one cousin – appropriately nicknamed 'the taxman' – always wins every game, pocketing all our invested coins, so after a few rounds everyone gets up disgruntled, belching and unzipping constricting garments. Someone always volunteers to do the monumental pile of dishes, and politics are rarely ever overlooked in the conversation. We have been known to fight occasionally on Christmas Eve for that reason. But we also stick to tradition, and play, laugh and eat ourselves into a stupor.

Like every year, my mother will be Grand Supervisor of the Christmas Eve banquet, which will traditionally include fish in its multi-course menu and copious amounts of wine, bubbly and happiness. We all help out and contribute our share cooking with her.

Needless to say, pre-preparation has already started. I am in fact posting this in a break during busy kitchen work.

This year we will be serving our Christmas Eve Dinner guests (old friends, immediate family and additional boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-spouses and the like) the following menu:

Smoked salmon canapées
Fritto di paranza (small fried fish)
Lasagna with Taleggio, mushrooms and shaved white truffles
Steamed European Sea bass with homemade mayonnaise (12 eggs)
Broccoli rabe rustic pie
Escarole rustic pie
Insalata di rinforzo (Neapolitan boiled cabbage, Greek olives and anchovy salad)
Artichokes "alla Romana" (added at the last minute)
Panettone, Pandoro and mixed nuts, dried figs and dates
Champagne Veuve-Cliquot Rosé
Rosso di Montalcino
Greco di Tufo
Homemade myrtle liqueur

But Natale here in Italy is a two-day celebration, so...

The Christmas Day Lunch (for seating capacity reasons, always held at my mom's house) menu will feature:

Tortellini in brodo made with 3 kinds of meat/bones
Crown lamb roast and oven-baked russet potatoes
Guinea-fowl breasts stuffed with chestnuts and truffles
Radicchio, pears and gorgonzola salad
Panettone and Pandoro
Seasonal fruit platter
Chianti Classico
Passito di Pantelleria
Mandarin oranges

I have the oven blasting at 350°F and the smell in the house is delicious. My apron is spattered and Mr. E is wearing a Santa hat with flashing red lights. He's helping me mix ingredients. Rosemary Clooney is singing her carols for us through the sound system, and tree lights twinkle.

Something inside is tingling. I may have just found my Christmas spirit...

Dec 17, 2009

Stocco e Patane - Cod and potato casserole recipe

Christmas Eve in the southern regions of Italy is traditionally all about a massive fish-based dinner, family, tombola, and midnight Mass. From now until Natale, I shall be posting recipes of typical Christmas fare, desserts and traditional holiday foods.
Last week Italia Living published an article on the history of Pandoro, a typical Italian Christmas cake. Today I will tell you about a tasty fish entree of which I am very fond of.

Stocco is the Neapolitan distortion of the term used for stoccafisso, which is sun-dried cod. When someone is said to be as rigid as a stoccafisso, the implied similarity to the Atlantic fish plank is quite evident. The surfboard-stiff slabs need reviving with overnight soaking, so if you’re in a hurry to taste this delicious cucina povera dish, I suggest you have your fishmonger prepare and clean some fresh codfish for you, divided into 6 fillet portions.
Image © Claudio Cicali

This tasty peasant dish from Napoli is–contrary to the belief that fish is laborious to cook–very easy to make. Stocco e Patane is delicious when paired to a chilled bottle of Fiano di Avellino or a room temperature carafe of young Chianti Classico (I personally prefer red with tomato-stewed cod).

6 codfish fillets 
600 g (1.3 lbs/3 cups) potatoes, peeled and cut in wedges
2 small onions, thinly sliced 
1 can (14 oz) San Marzano tomatoes, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil 
A small pinch of dried oregano 

Drizzle some olive oil in a high-rimmed pot (Dutch oven). Place a layer of sliced potatoes and onions on the bottom of the pot. Cover with the chopped tomatoes, season with salt and sprinkle with oregano. On this bed, lay the fish fillets and repeat the layering.

Season with a bit more salt and oregano, and drizzle with a little more olive oil. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Avoid stirring and check for doneness. If the fish is cooked before the potatoes, remove it and continue cooking the vegetables.

When ready to serve, place the fish back in the pot and heat for a minute or two.

Serve the fillets warm, topped with the onion and potato slices.

Dec 13, 2009

Grissini - Breadsticks recipe

Breadsticks are one of the most celebrated and widespread products of Torino's gastronomy and one of the most renowned items of Italian cuisine abroad.

Tradition has the birth of grissini located around 1668, year in which court baker Antonio Brunero invented the long, thin crisp strands of bread as a novelty food for future king Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy, who’s health was very delicate and whose frail stomach did not even tolerate soft breadcrumb.

The success of breadsticks was particularly rapid, due to the food’s high digestibiltity compared to common bread, and for the nearly two week conservation without any deterioration.

Among the greatest fans of grissini was Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the beginning of the 19th century, founded a stagecoach service between Torino and Paris mostly dedicated to delivering him what he called les petits batons de Turin, his favorite little sticks from Turin.

Here's how to make your own grissini from scratch:

2.5 kg (5 lbs) unbleached all-purpose flour
1.5 lt (6 cups) of water at 50-53°F temperature (41-43°F during hotter months)
30 g (1 oz) yeast (halve quantity during hotter months)
150 g (5 oz) rendered lard (the one that looks like a white paste)
175 g (6 oz) baker’s barley malt (syrup or crystals)
3 tablespoon kosher salt

Knead the flour with 4 cups of water, adding salt, malt and lard to the dough. Dissolve the yeast in remaining water and incorporate gradually, in small amounts at a time.

Work the dough a little more and roll into 7" long ropes, about 1 1/2" thick. Grease the ropes with olive oil, cover with plastic wrap and grant them a 2-hour nap.

When ready to continue, cut strands breadthwise into 1" strips and pull them, stretching the strands into long and slender breadsticks, about 22-25 inches long.

Toast them in a hot oven (around 270°C/520°F) until crisp and light brown.

You can reduce the amount of lard and increase the quantity of olive oil. But grissini are what they are mainly because of lard. Just so you know...

Trivia: In the Cathedral of Chieri, a dozen kilometers southeast of Torino, in a 15th century fresco of the baptistry, there is a character depicted eating what appears to be a breadstick.

Images © Food Network, The Nibble, Just Baking.

Dec 8, 2009

Presepe and croccante, Christmas in Rome

The painted turn of the century merry-go-round or Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain? Dodge the man on stilts or drop a coin in the hat by the flame eater juggling torches across the street from the Brazilian Embassy? Get a chocolate tartufo at Tre Scalini first, or stroll past the shooting gallery?

Every year, come Christmas, I never know where to start in Piazza Navona. Fifty-odd stalls of every kind line the piazza’s perimeter. The aroma of caramel burning from the croccante vendor is intoxicating. The typical holiday season hard, caramelized slab with mixed almonds and hazelnuts, made by spreading the candy out onto a cold greased work surface and cutting it before it hardens with a huge knife, leaves the unchanging flavor of Natale stuck to my teeth.

Santa Claus–whose name here is Babbo Natale–and the Befana (an old woman who brings gifts on January 6th–the Epiphany–aboard her flying broom) sit side by side on a stuffed reindeer-drawn carriage and children drop letters in their lap.

I rush over to the kind old man that sells nativity scene statuettes. He recognizes me every year when I pass his stall, or perhaps he is just very polite. My son picks out his shepherd, and we get sucked back into the vortex of lights, laughter, cotton candy and Christmas spirit.

Il presepe is a miniature Bethlehem. December 8th is crèche construction day here in Italy.

The Christmas tree is a late addition to Italian seasonal celebrations. The home built nativity scene with flour dusted brown paper bags as mountains, a pocket mirror as a duck pond and pin holes punched in blue cardboard for a starry sky above the cork covered manger was my thing as a child. It got built early on and taken down the day after Befana. Only recently, fueled by my son’s natural and bubbling Christmas spirit, have I begun constructing a Nativity again. Many parts of it are edible.

The first thing to do is collect the moss, which will carpet the model Bethlehem village flooring. We usually take a nice hike up by the Bracciano Lake or the Manziana forest in the outskirts of Rome on the weekend, and return home with a little patches of green velvet, and high on clean, crisp winter oxygen.

The next step is elevation. The construction needs to be visible and not get tripped into during festive dancing or galloping around the house. We raise our presepe on an old, chipped dessert trolley, which we keep in the cellar and wheel out annually for the occasion.

We then proceed to lighting, this is the trickiest part, since it needs to be well planned. Each little house and strategic site needs a light, so untangling Christmas lights and arranging them accordingly is very important.

We then build mountains, hills, a riverbed and whatever our fantasy landscape requires. The mountains are brown paper bags, the hills get covered with our precious moss, the stream is a strip of neatly cut aluminum foil. We scatter the little houses in increasing size, the little ones in the back, and the larger ones in the foreground, for optimum perspective, ending with a prominent manger. Cork lines the rooftops, while flour, styrofoam and cotton wool act as snow.

Then the village starts to populate with a variety of characters, each picked carefully and placed in a strategic position. There have been books written on how to build the presepe, and each character statuette has a meaning and a purpose. The Holy family of course, is the starring cast. You must leave the straw filled manger empty of course until Christmas Eve, until the Babe’s birth; include the fishmonger in her turn of the century costume, holding up her basket of symbolic fish; the chestnut seller, with a light shining through his little stove reproducing the embers; the shepherds and their flocks of sheep represent the believers gathered for the miraculous birth; the steer and the donkey and a few scattered chickens, geese, palm trees, the comet over the cave and a duck pond turn our Nativity into a festive mixture of Israel, early 1900 Napoli and a snowy Alpine location.

Dec 3, 2009

Orange and date salad recipe

I first tasted this bizarre savory orange salad in the splendid town of San Vito Lo Capo, just west of Trapani in Northern Sicilia. Then, years later, on a complicated film shoot in the Maghreb I was fed this delight in a seafront tavern of Tunis. Identical in every way, like two drops of Mediterranean Sea water.

4 Tarocco blood oranges (medium-sized, sweet and juicy)
12 sugared dates, pitted
1 garlic clove (optional), peeled and sliced
4 tbsp organic brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Peel the oranges, trimming away all white pith parts and remove seeds, if any (the Tarocco variety is seedless). Slice horizontally and arrange on a wide platter. Dust with cinnamon and sugar, season with slivered garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, and garnish with chopped dates.

Serve chilled as tantalizing exotic prelude to fish cous cous and belly dancing dinner.