Cena di Vigilia (Christmas Eve meal) is a Neapolitan tradition.
I’m cooking with my friend Susan in her New Jersey kitchen. Along with her brother Joe, we’ll prepare our Christmas Eve Seven Fish Dinner for 20 friends.
I’ll miss the dungeness crab this year. The San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf crabbers are back after a brief strike over wholesale prices. I’ve eaten some since the crabs came back on the market last week so I think I can survive without them on Christmas Eve. If you’re in town buy some crab. They’re fresh, big and meaty.
I just love this classic Neapolitan Christmas Salad, insalata di rinforza, in Italian. Insalata di rinforza translates into Reinforced Salad. How did such an important part of the Christmas table get such a silly name?
Here’s the tale. Giardiniera, vegetables stored in a vinegar bath, is a main ingredient. Neapolitans make their giardiniera with the last of the summer bounty. Of course, after a few days of marinating, you have to eat some, and then some more. To make sure there is enough at Christmas, they add more vegetables as their giardiniera stash gets low.
By the time Christmas comes around the giardiniera has been “reinforced” several times by adding more vegetables to replenish the jar. And so the restored giardiniera lends its name to insalata di reinfoza, the Neapolitan Christmas Salad.
Don’t worry, if you don’t want to make giardiniera, just buy some at the market.
This is a really simple salad to put together and it looks beautiful on your holiday table all by itself or as the centerpiece of an antipasti course as I served it at my lunch today. With the giardiniera in hand, all you have to do is boil some cauliflower florets and compose the salad. How easy is that?
It’s a Jersey Christmas this year. I’m cooking a Seven Fish Dinner on Christmas Eve with friends. Christmas Day is with my sister Rose’s branch of the family. We’ll be 3 generations in the kitchen.
My office-mates convinced me to cook for them before I take off. We couldn’t decide on a restaurant for our annual holiday party so we’ll celebrate at my place instead. I’m preparing a traditional 4-course Italian meal.
The picture is from the last office lunch I prepared. That’s really old balsamic vinegar I brought back from Modena going into the baby field green salad.
One of the guys in the office can’t stop randomly saying “pasta fazool” ever since I posted the pasta and beans recipe. So we had to include that dish. Otherwise, I would have made the lighter, fancier Italian Wedding Soup for this holiday meal.
The Neapolitan Christmas Salad includes giardiniera, marinated vegetables that you can store in the fridge for weeks. I’ll post the insalata di rinforzo recipe tomorrow and tell you how it got its name.
Insalata di rinforzo (Neapolitan Christmas Salad)
Prosciutto and soppresata salami
Aged sharp provolone
Pecorino with truffles
Prosecco, a dry sparkling wine from the Veneto near Venice (Foss Marai)
Pasta e Fagiole (Pasta Fazool/Pasta & Beans)
Lacryma Christi, a robust red from the hills of Vesuvius near Naples (Terradora di Paolo)
Chicken cutlets topped with sauteed wild mushrooms and melted mozzarella, garlic/olive oil smashed potatoes, sauteed broccoli rabe (recipe in my free vegetable eBook)
Pagiu, a full-flavored ruby-red sangiovese from the heart of Umbria (Brogal Vignabaldo)
Vanilla gelato and lemon sorbetto topped with homemade limoncello
Sparkling and still Italian waters throughout the meal
I was excited when I walked into North Beach’s Little City Meats this morning.
The Christmas sausage stuffed with pork, fennel, imported provolone and basil was in. Run, don’t walk. Get some before they’re all gone. I absolutely love these holiday sausages and can’t wait for them to appear this time of year.
Father and son Ron and Mike Spinelli at Little City have been my butchers for over 2 decades. They have fantastic meats and just as importantly, they both have hard to find Old-World meat cutting skills.
Want cutlets? They pound out lovely, thin scallopine. Need braciole or a butterflied pork roast. No worries. They do it all.
Little City is the place to go if you want Italian pork sausage. All year round I cook up their mild Sicilian sausage with fennel and their spicy hot Calabrese sausage.
It wouldn’t be Christmas in a Neapolitan house without struffoli, little round fritters bathed in a boiling honey glaze and then topped with colorful sprinkles.
The little marbles are crispy outside with a nutty flavor sweetened by the honey. The inside is light and airy. The sprinkles are just for show.
Some families mound struffoli into a pyramid reminiscent of a Christmas tree. Others form a wreath to celebrate the holiday. At my house in Jersey we always built a pyramid and I still do today.
Struffoli keep well. My mother made them a day or two before Christmas and set them on the dining room buffet. The arrival of struffoli was a harbinger of Saint Nick’s imminent arrival.
When I was little, I’d sneak by and quickly snatch one or two struffoli with my fingers, stuffing them in my mouth as I walked through the dining room. It wasn’t long until my Mom saw a dent in the side of the struffoli pyramid and brought my pilfering to an abrupt end.
This is one of those things I only make once a year. I got an early start this year but I’ll be making more for the Christmas table back in Jersey.
Oh, you don’t have to eat struffoli with your fingers. Give each of your guests a couple of heaping mounds on a plate and a spoon.
If you want another holiday sweet this season make bow ties a/k/a cenci, wandi and bugia. I love the blisters that form on the bow ties as they quickly fry. No honey glaze here just a powdered sugar dusting before eating. Watch out, the delicate bow ties splinter with each bite and sometimes send out a puff of powdered sugar. They sure are fun to eat.
Struffoli (Honey Balls)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
zest of 1/2 lemon
zest of 1/2 orange
1 tablespoon rum, grappa or vanilla
1 cup honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup colored sprinkles
Put the flour, sugar, salt, and zest in a large bowl. Mix well.
Make a well in the middle of the flour.
Add the eggs and rum (or grappa or vanilla) to the well and beat the eggs.
With a fork or your hand mix the flour slowly into the eggs to form the dough. The dough should be sticky.
Turn the dough out on a floured board and knead briefly until the dough comes together. (Do not overwork the dough or the strufolli will be dense.)
Form the dough into a ball and put it back in the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
Turn the dough back out onto a floured surface. It still will be sticky, roll it around in the flour and form it back into a ball.
Cut the ball into 8 equal pieces and form each into a ball. Dust lightly with flour so they do not stick together and put all but one of them back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
On the floured surface roll out the dough ball with your hands into a rope about a half-inch in diameter. (Be sure to cover the bowl so the remaining balls do not form a crust.)
With a knife or pastry scrapper ut the ropes in half-inch pieces.
Roll the cut pieces into a ball about the size of a marble and put them in a single layer on a lightly floured baking pan. (Forming the round shape is important. Strufolli derives from the word for rounded.)
Repeat with the other 7 dough balls.
Put 3 cups of safflower or your favorite oil in a large pot and over medium heat bring the oil to 375 degrees.
Shake off any excess flour and fry small batches of the dough balls in hot oil, turning occasionally until they are a dark golden color all over. They should be done in about a minute or so.
With a slotted spoon, remove the struffoli to a large platter lined with paper towel to drain.
Put the honey, sugar and water in a pan large enough to hold all the struffoli,
Over medium-low heat stir until the sugar is melted.
Increase the heat to medium-high and continue cooking the glaze until it comes to a boil, starts to foam up and darken in color, about a minute or two. (The foam should dissipate soon after it foams up.)
Remove the glaze from the heat and add all the strufolli.
Mix well to cover all of the strufolli with the honey glaze.
With a slotted spoon transfer the strufolli to a serving platter and mold them into a pyramid or a wreath.
Drizzle some of the honey glaze left in the pot over the strufolli and scatter the sprinkles on the top of the strufolli mound.
Loosely cover the strufolli with plastic wrap. If you are lucky you can eat strufolli for several days.
Want an easy and sweet treat for your holiday table? Bake some almond cookies topped with pine nuts.
We always have a stash of pignoli cookies for our Christmas table. You can make them in less than an hour.
A fan asked for this recipe. She has fond pignoli cookie memories but the recipe slipped away.
She got excited when I told her I’d make some. “Thank you thank you thank you! I can’t wait! I want to surprise my mother with them. Our recipe was lost to the last generation. I should have paid more attention.” Well here you go. I hope these cookies match your memories.
Pignoli cookies are moist and soft with crunchy toasted pine nuts on top. Eat them right away or store them for up to a week in a sealed container. Only problem is I usually don’t have any left to store.
I love pignoli cookies so much I can’t wait for Christmas and make them all year long.
Pasta and beans was a staple in my childhood Jersey home. My mom made this soup often and we all loved it. A fan asked for the recipe.
Pasta and beans is a healthy and inexpensive peasant dish. You can have this one-pot meal that packs lots of flavor and goodness on your table in less than an hour. My version is from Campania and we call it pasta fazool in Neapolitan-American slang.
I fondly remember my last visit to Casserta Vecchia, a medieval village high in the hills overlooking the Bay of Naples. As we took in the view, the winds picked up. A dark storm was sweeping up from the bay.
We ducked into an ancient inn to have lunch as the blustery, fast-moving storm passed by. I was warmed by a bowl of pasta and beans in a terra cotta bowl, followed by grilled sausage, both cooked in a huge open hearth in the dining room with old stone walls and hand-hewn wooden beams overhead.
Pasta e fagioli is made all over Italia and varies from region to region. One big difference is that mine has no meat. Up north they usually add pancetta to the aromatics as the base of the soup. Some people like to add tomato puree. Some people don’t add tomato, they like a white pasta fazool.
Mine has a light pink hue. I use a little tomato puree. Make it any way you like it, just don’t make it the way they do at Olive Garden.
The creamy beans and pasta are bathed in a savory light broth enhanced by the sharpness of the pecorino and the mellow olive oil. Pasta fazool will warm you and fill you up all winter long.
3 cups dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight or two 15 oz. cans
8 cups water
½ pound ditalini or another short-cut pasta
1 teaspoon dried oregano
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, roughly chopped
If you are using dried beans soak about 1¼ cups overnight or for at least 12 hours. They will expand and should yield about 3 cups of soaked beans for the soup.
Roughly chop the onion, celery and garlic.
Put the EVOO, onions and celery in a large enameled pot.
Over medium heat, sauté the onions and celery until translucent, about 5 minutes. (You do not want them to pick up any color.)
Add the garlic and bay leaf and sauté for another minute.
Add the cannellini beans and mix well.
Add the water and tomato puree to the pot. Stir well.
Put the cover on the pan and simmer over medium-low heat stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender and the soup thickens. (If you are using canned beans that should take about about 20-30 minutes. If you are using dried beans soaked over night that could take 60 minutes or so. You want the beans to be tender but not mushy.)
Add salt and black pepper to taste.
Add the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8-10 minutes more.
Shut off the heat and add the parsley. Mix well.
Serve in bowls immediately with a sprinkle of pecorino and a drizzle of EVOO.
Actually it’s called ragu alla Bolognese. It’s a long-cooked meat sauce from Bologna, in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, the culinary heart of Italy.
The ragu is traditionally served with tagliatelle in Bologna, a flat pasta a bit narrower than fettuccine. The pasta’s shape is perfect to maximize the sauce captured on its surface.
Spinach tagliatelle is the favorite in Bologna. I grabbed fresh spinach pasta at Molinari’s Deli on Columbus so I could focus on the ragu.
The ragu has to simmer at least 3 1/2 hours, even longer. I like to make it Sunday morning to eat for lunch or dinner. The aroma will fill your house all day.
You’re building layers of flavor here. Saute minced onion, celery, carrot and pancetta in EVOO and butter. Add the meat and mix them together. Cover it all with wine. Cook off the wine and add milk and nutmeg. Cook those off too, then add the tomatoes and simmer, simmer, simmer. You end up with a thick brick-red ragu with tons of flavor.
When the sauce is done, boil some well-salted water and cook the fresh tagiatelle. That will take about 3 minutes. Put half the sauce in a large bowl. Drain the pasta when al dente and put it in the bowl and mix well with the ragu. Place a serving of pasta on a plate and top with a big spoonful of the ragu. Sprinkle with grated parmigiano reggiano and eat!
The fresh tagliatelle is silky and coated with the ragu. The long simmer intensifies the complexity of the sauce and melds all the flavors together. The dusting of parmigiano reggiano completes this homage to Bologna.
This ragu is for a pound of tagliatelle, fettuccine or your favorite pasta.
When I don’t have time to make my own, one of my favorites in North Beach is Graziano’s ragu alla Bolognese at his Caffe Puccini on Columbus.
I got off easy this year. I didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner. I joined friends in the North Bay and had to bring an antipasto.
It took me a while to get inspired but an idea hit me at the market. The late harvest grapes were spectacular. I made a grape and walnut focaccia scented with rosemary.
Focaccia is a good option for a bring-along appetizer. Flatbread is easy to transport and can be served at room temperature. I paired this one with creamy Italian robolia cheese. The sweet grapes and crunchy walnuts are enhanced by the scent of rosemary. A bite of the focaccia with a bite of the cheese is heavenly.
Bubbly prosecco was the perfect accompaniment, adding a crisp citrus and floral note.
I got carried away. I made a savory pear tomato focaccia too and paired it with a balsamic-rubbed aged pecorino cheese. The doughs for these 2 flatbreads are not the same. Here’s the tomato and onion focaccia recipe.
I love baking in the late fall. Making pizza, focaccia or bread is a zen experience for me. Kneading dough and baking relaxes me. Making focaccia in the morning makes my day.
How easy is that? No slaving over pots and pans on top of the stove, everything just roasts in the oven. Make the easy pan gravy while the turkey rests on the counter before carving. Spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your friends and family around the Thanksgiving table.
There are lots of other vegetable recipes on my blog and you can get my free vegetable eBook recipes there too.
I love butternut squash and make it often, especially in the fall. A favorite is roasted butternut squash lightly flavored with honey and sage.
You can have this dish on your table in less than 30 minutes. The hardest part is cutting and peeling the squash.
The cubed butternut squash is coated with EVOO and honey flavored with fresh sage, then roasted to a rich golden brown.
The crispy, nutty exterior gives way to an explosion of sweet, creamy squash with each bite. I used an Italian chestnut honey that adds a burnt caramel note, but any honey you have on hand will work well too. The fresh sage adds earthy complexity to the dish.
I’m not cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year but I will be bringing some vegetables to add to my friend’s table.
I know, you either love or hate brussels sprouts. I happen to love these crispy little orbs and I hope you will too.
Coat the brussels sprouts with EVOO. Put them right in the hot oven along with the roasting turkey. The sprouts dusted with grated parmigiano have a nutty flavor. The toasted pine nuts add a crunchy texture and a squeeze of fresh lemon brightens the whole dish. Simple and delicious.
Cabbage stuffed with rice and flavorful browned ground beef braised in San Marzano tomatoes is a comfort food that helps me transition to early fall. I don’t give up late summer easily.
Stuffed cabbage is easy to prepare and packs a ton of texture and flavor. You can have it on your table in less than an hour. The recipe is my memory of my mom’s Neopolitan-style stuffed cabbage.
Soft, silky and sweet cabbage leave enrobe a tasty rice and ground beef filling scented with garlic, pecorino and oregano. The bundles are baked in the oven bathed in a San Marzano tomato sauce.
Each bite is complex. The tangy rice and beef filling is balanced by the sweetness of the cabbage and tomatoes. The perky garlic, oregano and pecorino notes are reinforced in both the filling and the sauce, kicking the flavor complexity up a couple of notches.
Stuffed cabbage is a comforting and filling meal all on one plate. I like it even better the next day so make sure you make enough for leftovers. Welcome to fall.
Last week we were staying in an updated 1930s cabin overlooking Lake Tahoe. I was excited about the grill on the deck right outside the kitchen door and we used it every day.
One of our dinners included delicious grilled chicken breasts simply marinated in EVOO flavored with garlic and rosemary.
I liked the way the chicken turned out so much that I had to make it when I returned to San Francisco. I don’t have an outdoor grill so I used a grill pan on top of my stove this time. The chicken was flavored through and moist with a nice charred crust. Give the chicken a squeeze of lemon before serving to add a fresh dimension.
I served the grilled chicken with an Italian potato and green bean salad dressed with wine vinegar and EVOO.
This is a easy dish that can be a star on your table any day of the week. Here’s the recipe for two breasts that can easily be adapted to feed more if you like.
I have more late summer zucchini than I know what to do with. Well, almost. I made a fritatta with zucchini, potatoes, wild boar salami and fontina. I made ciambotta, a zucchini stew with potatoes and onions in a tomato sauce.
I used what I had left to make zucchine alla scapace, golden fried slices of zucchini marinated with garlic, mint and a squirt of red wine and balsamic vinegars.
In the south of Italia scapece denotes marinated or preserved with oil and vinegar. In the north the method is in saor.
I love to eat this dish with some prosciutto or salami and aged sharp provolone or as a side with fish or meat. The nutty sweetness of the zucchini is balanced by the vinegar and the mint’s clean fresh taste adds to the complexity.
This is one of those dishes that gets better with age. You should let it marinate for at least a couple of hours. Overnight is better and some think that the dish doesn’t reach peak flavor for about 4 or 5 days. So make a lot of it and have it on hand for about a week. See what works best on your flavor index.
Zucchini is a wonderful ingredient for frittata. Watch my fritatta video to see how to make one. You can adapt the basic recipe to use zucchini or your favorite ingredients.