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Polenta With Spuntature E Salsicce (ribs & Sausages)

Polenta with Spuntature e Salsicce (ribs & sausages)

 Years ago, when I lived in Rome, I’d order polenta with spuntature at a restaurant in my neighborhood of Trastevere. But only in winter. It’s a rare restaurant that features it at other times of year, and if it does, it’s likely to be a place devoid of Romans.

Even though you can certainly make polenta in spring, summer or fall, to me, it’s strictly winter food. And now that winter is in full swing, polenta is on my mind.
I’ve made it a few times this season already, but not with spuntature.
Since I was going to be making a ragù, I thought I’d include some sausages too, and put together some meatballs to enrich the sauce even more.
As long as you’re going to the trouble of cooking something for several hours, you might as well make enough to put in the freezer for a few meals later on, right?
So I pulled out my biggest stainless steel pot to get it going.
While the sauce was simmering away, I fried some meatballs.
I know, frying foods isn’t the best thing for you, and I do broil meatballs occasionally too.
But there’s nothing that brings back memories of my childhood like the scent of meatballs frying in hot oil.
As children, we’d stand by the stove while my mother drained a few on paper towels, eagerly waiting to snare one and take that first bite into a crunchy, meaty ball, with steam still spewing out of it.
After sampling one or two, the rest went into the pot with the sauce.
When the sauce had simmered for a couple of hours, I started on the polenta.
I’ve made polenta with a slow cooker, (using Michelle Scicolone’s recipe below). I’ve made it in the oven in an “almost no-stir” method (America’s Test Kitchen recipe below). I’ve made it with my nifty automatic polenta stirrer (the paiolo).

And I’ve made the instant type polenta too. They’re all good, but to me the best tasting polenta is made the old fashioned way – with good coarse grain cornmeal and by constant stirring for 45 minutes while you stand over the pot.
The polenta transforms to a creaminess that’s just begging for a good sauce to slather on top.
That’s where the ribs and sausage come in.
And they could find no better place to rest – except in your stomach of course.

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Ragù with spuntature e salsicce
(Tomato sauce with ribs and sausage)


printable recipe here

2 1/2 – 3 pounds Italian sausage (hot or sweet)
2-3 lbs. pork spare ribs2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, minced
8 – 10 cloves of garlic, minced
2 carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
6 – 23 oz. cans imported Italian tomatoes
1 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 T. dried basil, plus fresh basil, if available
1/4 tsp. dried red pepper

about 3 dozen meatballs (recipe below)

Place the sausage in a pot and cook over medium flame until browned, and some of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausages from the pot and set aside.
Place the ribs in the pot and brown them all around. Remove and set aside.If there’s a lot of fat in the pot remaining from the sausages and ribs, drain most of it, but leave a little for flavor. Add the olive oil to the pot. Finely mince the onion and garlic in a food processor and saute in the olive oil. Do the same with the carrot and celery. Cook the vegetables in the olive oil until softened.
Add the remaining ingredients and put the sausage back into the pot with the sauce. Add the spare ribs.
Add the fried meatballs to the sauce, if desired.
Cook everything together for at least two to three hours on a low flame, stirring periodically.

My mom’s meatball recipe

I sometimes broil these, and they’re good that way, but oh-so-much better when deep-fried. 

2 1-2 – 3 pounds of ground meat (I use a mixture of pork, veal and beef)
about 1/3 of a large loaf of sturdy white Italian bread, preferably a day old
about 1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup onion, finely chopped
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper

oil for frying 
Trim the crusts off the bread. Put the bread in a low temperature oven for a short while or leave it out for a few hours to dry out. Save the crusts to make bread crumbs for another recipe.
Tear the bread into chunks and place into a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for at least 15 minutes or until it has absorbed the milk and softened. Squeeze as much milk as possible from the bread and discard the milk (or give to the cat). Squish the bread pieces with your fingers into a bowl with the ground meats until there are no big lumps. Add the remaining ingredients and blend well with your hands. Shape into round balls. Fry in a heavy pan with ample oil, or if you want to be healthier, place on a baking sheet or broiling pan and broil or bake at high heat (450 – 500), watching carefully so they don’t burn. When they have a nice brown crust, turn them over and brown on the other side. Drain off the grease and add the meatballs to the sauce.

Basic Polenta
1 cup cornmeal
2 cups milk
2 cups water (or use all water and eliminate the milk)
salt, to taste
a couple of pats of butter
grated parmesan cheese, as desired

Pour the cornmeal and the milk and water into a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir over a low to medium high heat for about 30-45 minutes or until the mixture looks creamy. Add salt and taste the polenta. It will taste “raw” if it needs more cooking and may still have some grittiness. In that case, cook longer. If it becomes too thick, add more liquid. When it’s done to your liking, turn off the heat, add a couple of pats of butter and parmesan cheese, as desired.

Slow Cooker Polenta – – Michele Scicolone, “The Italian Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010)
Serves 6
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1½ teaspoons salt
5 cups water (or half water and half broth)
Additional water, milk, broth or cream, optional
In a large slow cooker, stir together the cornmeal, salt and water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours. Stir the polenta. If it seems too thick, add a little extra liquid. Cook for 30-60 minutes more, until thick and creamy. Serve hot.
Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test KitchenWhy this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)

 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
pinch baking soda
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.
Shrimp ‘N Grits

Shrimp ‘N Grits

 OK, I may not be a Southerner and I may not have grown up with grits in my veins, but grits and polenta are just about the same thing. There are slight differences, but both are made from stone-ground cornmeal – dried corn that’s ground into smaller, coarser bits. 

According to a piece that ran on National Public Radio, Glen Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, says that Southern grits and Italian polenta are traditionally made from two very different types of corn, and there’s a difference in the fineness of the grind and how many times it’s milled.
Well, that may be true, but it gets complicated when you see so many different types of polenta for sale in Italy, from fine ground to coarse, and even polenta mixed with buckwheat, called polenta “taragna.”
Adding to the confusion is the myriad variety of grits available here in the states.
My instinct (and Italian heritage) almost always leads me to reach for polenta instead of grits. But on a trip to Charlestown last year, I bought a bag of grits at a farmer’s market, milled at Anson Mills.
What else to do with them, but make the ubiquitous shrimp and grits, found at myriad restaurants, diners and mom and pop cafes throughout the South.

 

The grits would be delicious on their own, with just a dab of butter, but I gussied them up and “Italianized” them with some mascarpone and parmesan.
Warning – you won’t be able to stop eating this. So save it as a splurge after a week of good behavior!
 
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Shrimp ‘N Grits

1 cup grits
4 cups water
(Keep adding more as it gets drier)
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/3 cup parmesan
1 tsp salt
Mix the grits with the water over medium heat. I always use cold water and dump all the grits in at once. I find that helps keep out the lumps. Keep stirring and lower the heat somewhat – it may take 45 minutes to end up with really good, really creamy grits. If it looks like the mixture is getting too dense or too dry, add more water, a little at a time. Add the salt and keep stirring. After about 35-45 minutes, the grits will start to look creamier. To gild the lily, add the cream, mascarpone and parmesan.
18 medium Shrimp
3T Olive oil
Herbs, oregano, thyme, parsley
2 cloves garlic
Paprika
Red pepper flakes
Clean the shrimp and mix the olive oil with the herbs, garlic, paprika and red pepper flakes. Let the shrimp marinate for at least 15 minutes.
Grill the shrimp, but just until almost done. They’ll cook a little longer with other ingredients. Remove the shrimp from the grill and set aside. (Use a grill pan or the broiler if you don’t have an outdoor grill)
1/4 cup green pepper, minced
1 T olive oil
2 strips bacon
Sauté green pepper in oil until softened. Remove. Add bacon, cut in bits. Cook until crispy.
Add green pepper back in and after shrimp is grilled, add it to the peppers and bacon. Turn up heat to high. Add the white wine and let it reduce just a bit, then add 1 tablespoon of butter.
Pour shrimp mixture over grits and serve with a sprinkle of parsley or basil over all.
Braised Rabbit

Braised Rabbit

 Before I start, I know that some of you reading are turning up your nose at the idea of eating rabbit, even if you’ve never even tried it. You may be vegetarian, and if so, you get a pass.

 But for those of you who think nothing of scarfing down a prosciutto sandwich or a porterhouse steak, eating rabbit is no different from eating other animals that are killed for your dining pleasure. In fact, it’s much more eco-friendly since it requires less energy to raise, and produces less waste.
Aside from the ecological benefits, rabbit contains the least amount of fat and calories than other meats, is almost cholesterol free and tastes great. Contrary to what a lot of people think, there’s quite a lot of meat on a rabbit in relationship to bone, and it does not have a “gamey” flavor. Much of it is like eating white meat chicken, only tastier.
So step outside your comfort zone and try cooking rabbit, using this recipe loosely adapted from the book “Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen. It was my book group’s selection for January, and we always accompany our discussions with a dinner using food that’s mentioned in the book.
Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find fresh rabbit. I live not far from an Amish market that stocks it regularly. But so does my supermarket. Last week I called ahead to order two of them since I was planning to make it for the book group dinner and didn’t want to risk their not having any in the meat case the day I needed it.
Here’s what it looks like before it’s cut into pieces. You can ask the butcher to do that for you — a task I recommend since it’s hard cutting through the bones. See that bit of liver hanging out? Don’t throw it away. I’ll come back to it at the end.
I ordered two rabbits and used two pans to cook them. One rabbit will feed about four people, assuming you have side dishes and a starch.
This is one of the pots I used and it holds one rabbit beautifully. The pot is probably at least 65 years old and belonged to my mother. It’s perfect for braises, stews and even for baking upside down cakes. Browning the rabbit at high heat means your pan will look pretty messy, but this, and my other pot below, clean up spic and span.
Simultaneously, I cooked another rabbit in this enamel coated cast iron pan – very heavy but it cooks very evenly.
With all the other food that was prepared by other book group members to accompany the rabbit, there were plenty of leftovers for me to take home, and reheat for dinner another night with freshly made polenta and herbs. This recipe would also be delicious served with buttered noodles of some sort, as suggested by the book.
Lentils and rabbit are also a match made in heaven and I made this dish of roasted rabbit, lentils and chestnuts a couple of months ago, trying to duplicate a delicious meal I ate last fall at a restaurant tucked away in the hills of Liguria, Italy. If you’re interested in this rabbit recipe, send me an email and I’ll be happy to send it to you. The lentils recipe is from Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtù and Brigantessa in Philadelphia, and I posted it a few years ago (along with his rabbit recipe) here.
And remember that rabbit liver I told you to save at the top of this post?
Joe also gave me a great idea of what to do with it.
Chop it up with some shallots and sauté it in some butter, he said, then season with some fresh thyme, salt and pepper. Serve it on toasted bread and drizzle it with a balsamic glaze and you’ve got perfect crostini to drink with your pre-dinner glass of wine.
Salut!
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Braised Rabbit
Adapted from the book “Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen
printable recipe here

1 rabbit (about 2.5 to 3 lbs.)
4 slices of thickly sliced pancetta (about 1/8″ thick), cut into bits
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup beef broth
1/2 cup wine
1/2 cup water
minced parsley
thyme, rosemary, bay leaf
salt, pepper
fresh parsley, minced

Chop the rabbit into pieces. Fry the pancetta in 1 T. of the olive oil until crisp and remove from the pan with a slotted spoon. Set aside and resist the temptation to munch on them (ok, have a few bits).
Add the onion and garlic to the pan and sauté until translucent. Remove from the pan. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, sauté the rabbit in the oil on high heat, until the pieces turn golden brown. Sprinkle with the flour and sauté for a few more minutes, turning. The pan will look a mess, but don’t worry. All that brown stuff on the bottom with help flavor the sauce and loosens once you add the liquid. Remove the rabbit from the pan and set aside. Add the beef broth and the wine in the pan, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom. Put the onions and rabbit back into the pan, add the herbs and some of the water. Simmer, covered, for 45 minutes to an hour, adding more water if the sauce gets too thick. Just before serving, sprinkle with the reserved pancetta bits and minced parsley.

Braised Lamb Shanks With Polenta

Braised Lamb Shanks with Polenta

 OK, so this may not be the most photogenic of meals, but it is among the most delicious. Step outside your comfort zone, you non-lamb lovers, because after this meat braises for a few hours and melds with herbs and other ingredients, you’re left with an earthy, flavorful meat that just falls off the bone and practically melts in your mouth.

Most of the “gamey” flavor associated with lamb is from the fat, which is why I trim off any possible fat from legs or racks of lambs I buy. But these shanks, the last pieces left from last year’s purchase of half a lamb from a friend who raises them, were nearly devoid of fat. The white part you see below is more sinew than fat, which breaks down in the braising process. Each of these shanks held enough meat to serve two people comfortably.
Start out by browning the shanks in a Dutch over over medium high heat, with a little olive oil to coat the bottom.
Add some onion, celery, garlic, and carrots to the pan, as well as wine, chicken broth, tomatoes and herbs – in this case thyme and rosemary from my garden and bay leaves from my potted plant. Most supermarkets these days sell a plethora of fresh herbs, but use dried if you live in the hinterlands and can’t find fresh.
You could simmer this on top of the range, but if you place it in the oven at moderate temperature, you can just forget about it for two or three hours. No stirring necessary.
Open the lid to a divine aroma (and a messy pan, I grant you, but it cleans easily enough if soaked for a while). Carefully remove the lamb to a warm platter, and throw out the herb bouquet and bay leaf. Use a stick blender to make a sauce of the remaining ingredients (or pop into a standing blender and mix).
Serve the lamb shanks with creamy polenta (as above – recipe here for a “no-stir” polenta recipe or here for slow-cooker polenta from Michele Scicolone). If polenta’s not your thing (WHAT?!!), serve with mashed potatoes, noodles or rice, pouring the sauce over all.
Braised Lamb Shanks
2 lamb shanks (about 3/4 pound each)
olive oil, to coat bottom of pan
1 onion, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 large carrots, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
3 or 4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 T. tomato paste
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 large sprig of fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
salt, pepper
In a heavy casserole or Dutch oven, sauté the lamb shanks in a little olive oil until browned. Remove the shanks and add the onion, celery, and carrots to the pan, sautéing until softened. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.
Place the lamb shanks back into the Dutch oven and add the rest of the ingredients. Place a lid on the top and cook in a 350 degree oven, checking after two hours. It may need another 1/2 hour to one hour until the meat is fork tender.
Remove the meat from the pan, keeping warm on a heated platter. Remove the herbs and with a stick blender, puree the sauce. Serve the sauce over the lamb shanks, with roasted mushrooms and polenta, if desired.
Almost “No-Stir” Polenta And Mushroom Ragù

Almost “No-Stir” Polenta and Mushroom Ragù

 With daytime temperatures dipping to below freezing here in the Northeast U.S., it’s time for heartier foods. Yea, I know, you’re all sated from rich holiday foods, but if there’s one thing I can’t resist during cold weather, it’s a heaping plate of polenta – with cheese, with sausages or in this case, with mushroom ragù. It’s featured on many of the menus along the mountain huts in Italy where skiers pop in mid-day for a bit of sustenance for the rest of their run. It was truly needed last week while I was skiing in the Val Gardena, a valley of three villages in the northeastern region called Alto Adige. The snow fell practically non-stop and is continuing this week.

This is what the area looked like last week, when you couldn’t even see the mountains in the distance.
Here’s the same scene taken during a different ski trip, when the sun revealed the grandiose peaks.
[Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 702[3].jpg]
With such low visibility, the skiing was cautious and the stops were frequent, including one for a plate of this soft polenta topped with cheese and served with mushrooms on the side:
But you don’t need to take a trip to the Val Gardena to enjoy this dish. In fact, I made a similar version, but with tomatoes, before I left for Italy, using dried porcini mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms. If you can’t find the porcini, use any combo of mushrooms that suit your fancy.
After the mushrooms simmer in the sauce for a good hour, you end up with a rich and flavorful ragù perfect for slathering over the polenta.
I own a sturdy copper pot with an electric motor that stirs the polenta all by itself – called a “paiolo.” Click the button at the lower left to get a demonstration.
 It is pretty nifty but not really necessary to making polenta. Last month I watched a TV segment of “America’s Test Kitchen” featuring a way to make polenta without stirring (well, almost, except at the very beginning.) During Christmas week, I served both versions — from the paiolo and the “no stir” method —  to some Italian friends, and they declared them equally good.
Most people use water in their polenta, but sometimes I add milk, especially if I’m having company. If you want to be really decadent, try using some cream too. In that case, just make sure you take an extra run or two down the mountain.

Mushroom Ragù
printable recipe here

1 oz. dried porcini
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms (or another variety you prefer)
2 T. olive oil
1/2 carrot, minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 of a 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine
1 T. tomato paste
about 1 cup of the liquid from soaking the porcini mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary

Rehydrate the dried porcini in two cups of warm water for about a half hour. Drain and chop the mushrooms, and strain the liquid to filter out any dirt or sand particles. Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil, and add the carrot, onion and garlic until softened. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until thick and rich. If it gets a little too thick, add more of the liquid from the porcini. Serve over steaming polenta.

Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt pinch baking soda (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste
with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing
Parmesan separately.

Baccala Mantecato And Lidia’s Holiday Special

Baccala Mantecato and Lidia’s Holiday Special

 There was always fried baccala on Christmas eve. And fried smelts. And fish as small as minnows that stuck together in clumps when they were fried. When you ate them amid a boisterous family at a table that stretched to include neighbors too, it was like munching on a cluster of crunchy, salty, baby fish – which they were. There were other fried fish too, including eels – slaughtered in the kitchen one year, leaving the porcelain sink and the white curtains bathed in red.

There was pasta too – with squid or with crabs – always in tomato sauce. There was sometimes conch, especially when I was a teenager and my brother in the Navy got leave and brought home the freshly caught seafood. There was a nod to American cuisine too (and the 1960s), usually at the beginning of the meal when my mom placed a fluted glass holding six plump shrimp and cocktail sauce on each plate.

After I married, my mother-in-law introduced me to her stuffed squid recipe, which then also became part of my Christmas eve tradition, even after I scrapped most of the fried fish. Now I include a seafood risotto, which soaks up the tomato sauce from the stuffed squid so beautifully. Some years I’ve made seafood salad, or octopus and potato salad – always a hit, but a budget buster. But hey, it is Christmas eve, or “La Vigilia” as it’s known in Italian.

I can’t drop the baccala completely, even if it’s no longer dredged in flour and fried in deep fat. Now I’m more likely to use it in codfish cakes, or as an appetizer of baccala mantecato, a dish that is typical of the Veneto region, where it’s frequently served with grilled polenta.

salt cod or “baccala”




These are some of the foods that will be on my table for La Vigilia, and I’ll bet on a lot of your tables too, if there are Italians in your household. Strangely though, none of my mother’s relatives (in Northern Italy) follow this custom. Even in my husband’s family in Abruzzo – the south-central part of Italy –  the so-called “Feast of the Seven Fishes” or “Feast of the 13 Fishes” is not commonly observed. There might be a pasta with seafood, followed by a whole roasted fish, or maybe a platter of fried fish instead. But not the “abbondanza” of dishes that we here in the states think of as the gluttonous Christmas eve repast. By the way, it’s said that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments in the Catholic religion, while the 13 fishes are symbolic of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

I was reminded that Christmas eve is right around the corner, when I viewed an advance copy of a program that will be airing Tuesday, Dec. 20 on public television stations featuring  Lidia Bastianich. It’s called “Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions.” Here’s a short clip to give you a preview:

The program really struck home with me when Lidia was shopping on Arthur Avenue with Mo Rocca and eels were slithering on the floor, and in her kitchen when she was preparing her Christmas eve feast with Stanley Tucci. “There’s no vigilia without baccala and there’s no vigilia without eel,” Lidia says, as she starts cooking with Tucci in the kitchen that’s familiar to viewers of her TV shows. This time, viewers are taken into her dining room too, as the abundant meal is spread out before guests, including Tucci’s parents and Lidia’s own beloved mother Erminia.

Aside from the Italian Christmas eve dinner, Lidia takes her viewers to San Francisco, inside the home of a Chinese family preparing for the lunar new year; to San Antonio, Texas where many generations of an immigrant family celebrate Christmas with Mexican traditions; and back to New York and the lower East side, where a Passover Seder is prepared at the home of one of the fourth-generation owners of specialty food store Russ & Daughters. Joining them is Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor, who prepares her mother’s recipe for brisket.

“Everyone is longing for a taste of the past,”  says Reichl. “That’s why holiday meals are so important. Everybody who has sat around the table in the past is joining us.”

I admit I’m more sentimental than most – especially in this past year – but the people and traditions that were so lovingly on display in this video made me smile, but also brought tears to my eyes – and not just in the Italian segment. Each of the ethnic groups in the program has at its base a common denominator that goes beyond the ingredients, the markets and the dishes that are prepared. Watch for yourself next Tuesday and see if you don’t agree with Stanley Tucci when he says that cooking and sharing these traditions is “… a way of passing on family history, emotions — it’s a way of connecting with somebody. It’s a way of expressing love … and that’s the thing for me that makes food so interesting.”

Here’s a little bit of love coming your way, especially to Kathy of Birdy Chat, who is the winner of the tea from Mariage Freres that I offered as a giveaway. For the rest of you, here’s my recipe for baccala mantecato.

Baccala Mantecato
Printable Recipe Here

1 pound salt cod, soaked for at least two days and cut into large pieces *see below
2 garlic cloves
1 medium potato, cut into chunks
3 cups milk
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
freshly ground black pepper
additional liquid from the poaching liquid, if needed
optional: 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  • Place the milk into a large pot and add the potatoes and garlic pieces. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost cooked, but need a little more time.
  • Add the codfish pieces and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of the cod.
  • Drain the potatoes, codfish and garlic, reserving the milk.
  • Place the potatoes, fish, garlic and black pepper into a food processor and add the olive oil and cream, and blend, keeping the machine running until you have a thick “paste.” If you need to add more liquid, use the poaching liquid.
  • Put in the parsley and blend again. If the mixture is too thick, add more of the poaching liquid.
  • Add the cheese if desired. (To some, combining cheese and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious. Use at your own risk.)
*Note: When you buy salt cod, it’s VERY salty and stiff as a board. Place it into a big bowl or pot that will fit into the refrigerator. Start by running cold water over the fish, in a bowl in the sink – for about 10 minutes straight. Then place the fish and the bowl filled with cold water in the refrigerator. At least twice a day, dump out the old water and replace it with fresh, clean water. The fish should reconstitute in less than a day, but it will still be salty. Sometimes I rinse the fish too many days (four or so) and I lose that familiar “salt cod” taste. Each year is different and each year the recipe turns out different.
This recipe will certainly keep overnight in the refrigerator, but it will stiffen up and become hard. It’s best eaten when it’s at room temperature or slightly warm and easily spreadable. If you don’t want to make the grilled polenta (which spritzes oil all over the range!), serve with crackers or bread.

 

Il Paiolo

Il Paiolo

Click on the little triangle to start the video.

This paiolo, or automated polenta pot, makes me happy. I know, I know — to a lot of people, watching this video is about as much fun as watching dishes dry. But to me (and maybe to some of you foodies out there) it’s like Christmas all over again.
I’d been oogling an automated polenta pot on my last five or six visits to the Alto Adige region of Italy where we go skiing. But every time I went, I nixed the idea of buying one for one reason or another — too big to fit in the carry-on luggage, too difficult to convert to U.S. electric standards, too expensive, blah, blah, blah.

But this time I gave in to the object of my desire. It’s a really heavy gauge copper pot with a metal paddle that stirs the polenta automatically thanks to an electric motor on top that l’ingeniere (my husband, the engineer) derides as puny and not durable. It cost 45 euros (about $63) and was cheaper than I’d seen it even five years ago.
That’s because the electric motor on top is puny and not durable, repeats l’ingeniere.

I bought it anyway. The copper pot alone would cost that in the states. And it works great. And I love it. And I know l’ingeniere secretly loves it too. Because he loves anything mechanical. Because the day after we got back he ordered the step-up transformer I needed to run it. And because he loves the polenta it churns out.

All you have to do is put cornmeal, water and salt into the bowl over a burner, attach the paddle, press a button and walk away. Sixty minutes later you’ve got really good, really creamy polenta. Who wouldn’t love that?

We took it up to Vermont with us a few days ago while visiting friends. I used it for a dinner of polenta with sausages, meatballs and short ribs in tomato sauce. It was a no-fuss meal and perfect for after skiing, since I had made the sauce at home earlier in the week. We sat back and relaxed with some wine and munchies while the sauce heated up and the polenta pot performed its magic. An hour later we sat down to this:
I used three parts water to one part polenta and about 1/2 tsp. salt. You can have the same results without a motorized polenta pot, but you’ll have to stir for 45 minutes to an hour.
I confess that in the past, I’ve used that quick-cooking polenta too and it’s really not bad. But no self-respecting Italian would ever use that, so please don’t tell any of my Italian friends or they may never invite me back. I’ll be posting the recipe for the sauce (which is great with pasta too) in the next few days.

Here’s a second video showing what it looks like when the polenta is fully cooked.