Christmas In Italy
I asked my friend “Lola” Baldwin how she celebrates Christmas with her family in Italy where she lives with her son. She was kind enough to share her family tradition with us in great detail and I thank her for doing so. She also shares with us a secret family recipe for Pasta al Tonno or Pasta with Tuna. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I do. Merry Christmas Ele.
Natale – The Italian Christmas, where families join hands in the kitchen and at the table
By Eleonora Baldwin
As tradition has it, in my family we all participate in the preparation of the Christmas meals. Yes plural. Each of us helps out in building a monumental glorification of food and togetherness by cooking lovely typical foods, getting the family around the table and eating ourselves silly.
The Christmas celebrations usually involve gathering members of the family not commonly frequented during the rest of the year. And so table extensions seat far removed cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, acquired siblings, second marriage spouses, uncles and aunts, parents-inlaw, plus boyfriends, girlfriends, nannies, single friends and more.
Let me explain when I say Christmas meals using the plural form. In the less wealthy yet exuberant southern regions of Italy where part of my roots are the Louis IV Christmas banquet lasts two full days. Christmas Eve dinner should respect the Christian observing rule of fasting, so the menu is therefore solely based of fish.
But the bare minimum standard dinner includes: pasta with a spicy tuna sauce, steamed or baked Moby Dick-size salmon or sea bass, fresh baby sardines in lemon marinade, capitone eel, octopus casserole, and raw shell fish of every size shape and form.
A stronghold of Neapolitan Christmas cuisine is the bizarre Insalata di Rinforzo. Literally “˜reinforcement salad’, a mixture of tossed boiled cauliflower, anchovies, olives and mixed pickled giardiniera, dressed in vinegar and olive oil. The name suggests the need for support should the meal be poor, but this is rarely the case. Perhaps it dates back to an ancient tradition when Napoli’s bien Ãªtre was for royalty and very few others, unlike today.
Beverages always include spumante for the antipasto, barrels of wine and dessert shots of home made Limoncello, or its winter cousin, the aromatic Nocino. An after dinner liqueur made with green, unripe walnuts, which despite antioxidant and digestive qualities and moderate alcohol content (30% proof), knocks you out cold after one sip.
Pranzo di Natale
The following day for lunch, on December 25th, the Peninsula’s pantagruelic orgy continues with an array of deep fried vegetable antipasti, lasagna or crespelle baked in the oven with some sort of interesting meat sauce; lamb, goose or turkey; glazed onions; eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin and tomatoes au gratin, and of course desserts.
My favorite, besides Panettone and Pandoro, are the delightful Campanian Struffoli, toothsome honey glazed fried dough morsels decorated with colored sprinkles. I also love the RoccocÃ² biscuits whose onomatopoeic name matches their jaw-breaking hardness. Or the Sicilian Buccellati, moist golden, soft and chewy biscuits stuffed with dried fruits, almonds, pine nuts and seasoned with spices and Marsala wine.
Another Natale essential is Torrone. A nougat confection, typically made of honey, sugar, and egg whites, with toasted almonds or other nuts mixed in, and usually shaped into a rectangular tablet. Two varieties exist: the hard compact block of whole almonds in a brittle granite mass, defining the torrone duro kind; and the soft (torrone morbido) which is similar but where the almonds are reduced to a soft paste.
The quality (and price) of the product is determined by the quantity of almond in the mixture. Chocolate covered kinds exist, and newer ones like the pistacchio and lemon icing variations. A popular candy manufacturer made a fortune years ago with the invention of bite size soft Torroncini, a highly addictive drug.
Buon Natale a tutti!
Pasta al Tonno
Christmas Eve dinner staple, summer surprise, and delicious assortment of Mediterranean flavors. Pasta with tuna and tomato sauce is my stepfather’s signature recipe. I have carefully watched him make it over the years, observing how it has become an unwavering family heritage.
Here is the recipe, Nonno Sergio’s famous pasta contribution to the Christmas Eve all-fish meal. I have asked permission to publish it, and-after a little bit of resistance-he kindly agreed to divulge it.
While a big pot with 1 gallon of water is happily getting to boiling point, Sergio pours 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, wide high-rimmed pan over very low heat. He adds three peeled cloves of garlic and 2 potent peperoncino chili peppers and lets the oil absorb the flavors for a couple of minutes. The cloves will darken in color, but must not burn (if that happens both Sergio and I recommend you start again from scratch). Then my stepfather adds half a tablespoon of anchovy paste and stirs it into the oil.
He then pours a 14-oz can of unseasoned tomato sauce to the oil, cooks the sauce gently and lets it simmer, covered, for five minutes. In the meantime he opens a 2-cup can (or glass jar) of oil-packed tuna. Sergio squeezes the excess oil from the can and forks out the fish, flaking it with a fork. He adds it to the simmering tomatoes along with a few salted capers. Stirring well, he then covers the pan and lets the sauce cook over low heat for another 10 minutes.
By this time the water has reached a rolling boil. Sergio tosses in 300gr (1 1/2 cups) spaghetti and cooks it for the amount of time printed on the package minus 2 minutes. He drains the pasta saving some cooking water and pours it all in the tuna saucepan, amalgamates it over vivacious heat and serves his drool-worthy seasoned tuna spaghetti sprinkled with (very little) chopped parsley.