Yuletide Eats/Cucina de Natale

I’ve blogged previously about recipes from my Jewish grandma.  I have, however, been remiss in addressing my other culinary heritage.  For Christmas, I’m home with my Mom, and I think it’s time to come clean: I’m a pizza bagel.  Half Jewish.  Half Italian.  Actually, half Jewish and one quarter Italian/one quarter Welsh.  So, enough with the bagels: it’s time for pizza.  This Christmas, in between family time, I’m working a few traditional recipes into our meals, and posting them up here.

In Italian families, it’s traditional on Christmas Eve to eat fish.  When big clans get together they’ll often have a “Feast of Seven Fishes.”  I did this once with my grandparents and their friends: the feast lasted about 7 hours, with intense numbers of courses and a ridiculous amount of food.  Because last night it was just me and my mom, we just made a really nice fish stew.  I took the stew out of my mom’s copy of Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cook BookMarcella, if you haven’t heard of her, is to Italian cooking as Julia Child is to French: she wrote one of the first great English-language cook books for her cuisine – published in 1973.

We chose to do her brodetto di papi – “Dad’s soup.”  It’s a simple, flavorful homestyle fish stew.  Marcella’s recipe calls for whole fish and for pureeing of fish heads: I am technically on vacation and was simply not up for this.  So, to add flavor I substituted Madeira wine for white, and tossed in a tablespoon of baharat.  Cross-cuisine blog fusion!  It turned out tasty and festive, if I may say so myself.  I’m putting both versions of the recipe below (omitting fish heads), so you can try it old-school or modified.

While I was cleaning fish yesterday, my mom was pulling together a panettone – an Italian Christmas bread.  This bread has been a feature of my Christmas morning for as long as I can remember, and is largely responsible for making me a little obsessed with candied fruits (I love little surprise chunks of citron, citrus peel, etc.).  My mom uses a recipe from the old Vegetarian Epicure: it’s not a family recipe, but I’ve been eating it for so long that it is tradition. It’s not my handiwork, but I’m putting up pictures and recipe anyway – guest food is welcome!

Finally, today I’ve been heading north, so-to-speak, and paying tribute to my Anglo-Celtic heritage by trying my hand at figgy pudding.  Yes, the thing from “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”  I got this recipe from my mom’s copy of Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book: her copy is actually a 1970 edition picked up around that time in Taiwan.  The best bit: it’s pirated.  Yes, people apparently used to pirate books as well as DVDs.  I actually have pirated Taiwanese bound editions of Golden Age Batman and Superman comics my Dad picked up on that same trip.  (These volumes are totally the “root” of my comic book geekdom.  Thanks, Dad!)  About Craig Claiborne, though, if recipe copyrights are dubious/thin, is there really a big problem with a pirated cookbook?  Something for my lawyer readers to chew on along with Christmas dinner…

Brodetto di Papi (Serves 4 as a main dish)

1 1/2 lb. firm-fleshed fish (I used monkfish)
1/2 lb. shrimp, shell-on
1 lb. squid, cleaned, sliced into rings
A dozen assorted clams/mussels
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
(Optional: 1 tbsp. baharat)
3 tbsp. chopped parsley
1/2 c. dry white wine (use Madeira if you add baharat)
1 1/2 c. canned tomatoes, crushed, with juice
Salt and about 10 twists of freshly ground pepper

1. Wash all the fish. Cut the fillets into slices about 3 inches wide. Set aside everything but the clams and mussels. Place the clams and mussels in separate pans, with 1/2 c. water in each, and steam for 10 minutes until the shellfish open. If any don’t open, they’re DOA and not safe to eat, so throw them out. Set aside the opened fish, still in their shells. Pour the juices from both pans through a sieve lined with paper towels and set aside.
2. Choose a skillet large enough to hold all the fish in one layer (if possible). Saute the onion in about 2 tbsp. olive oil until translucent, then add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds until it starts to get a little color. Add the parsely, and the baharat if you’re using it, and stir for about 30 seconds. Pour in the wine, raise the pan to high heat, and boil briskly for about 30 seconds until the alcohol smell coming off the pan abates. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the tomatoes, stir, and simmer (covered) for about 20 minutes.
Note: At this point in Marcella’s recipe, you’d add 4 fish heads and the salt and pepper, cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes, remove the heads, puree them, and toss the head mush back in. I might try this in the future. Or I might just toss in a tablespoon of Vietnamese fish sauce to get that nice strong fishy flavor.
3. Add the squid to the tomato sauce, cover, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes at a slow simmer until the squid are tender.
4. Pour in the mussel and clam juices, mix, and add the fish pieces. Cook for 5 minutes before adding the shrimp and cooking another 5. Place the set-aside clams and mussels in the pan for a minute, then serve hot with crusty Italian bread.

Panettone (Makes 2 loaves)

1 c. milk
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. warm water
1 package yeast
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. anise seeds, crushed in a mortar
1/2 c. raisins
1/2-3/4 c. mixed candied orange, lemon, and citron peel
1/4 c. maraschino cherries, drained
5 c. flour

1. Scald the milk. Stir in the butter, sugar, and salt. Cool to lukewarm.
2. In a large bread bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water and stir in the milk mixture, eggs, anise, fruit, and half the flour. Beat with a wooden spool until very smooth.
3. Add the remaining flour and work it in for a minute to make a dough. Turn the dough out and knead on a floured board until smooth. Do not overknead, though, or too many glutens will form and the bread will come out tough.
4. Form the dough into a ball and place in a greased bowl, turning it over once to coat. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours. Punch it down and let it rest 10 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shape the dough into two even balls. Place each one on a buttered baking sheet, cover with a towel and let rise again until doubled (about 1 hour). Bake the loaves for 40 minutes, until golden brown on top.

Figgy Pudding (Serves 8-10)

For pudding:
1 c. dried black figs
1/3 c. chopped citron
1/3 c. chopped candied lemon peel
1 c. chopped walnuts
1 1/4 c. sifted flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 c. butter (suet if you’re feeling adventurous)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
1 c. grated raw carrot
1 c. grated raw potato

For the hard sauce:
1 c. sweet butter, softened
1 c. confectioners sugar
1/4 c. brandy, rum, or sherry

1. Cover the figs with boiling water and let stand 10 to 15 minutes, until soft. Drain, pull the stems off, and chop finely. Mix with the citron, peel and nuts, and set aside.
2. Sift the flour with the soda. Add half a cup to the fruit and nuts and toss. (Tip: This keeps the fruit from sticking together and allows it to distribute evenly when you mix it into the batter.)
3. Cream the butter with the spices and sugar until fluffy. Beat the eggs in one at a time, then add the grated vegetables. Gradually stir in the remaining flour until smooth, then mix in the fruit and nuts.
4. Pour the batter into a foil-line, greased 1 1/2-quart pudding mold.** Cover the mold with foil, stand it on a rack in an inch of boiling water in a pot with a tight lid, and steam for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Add more boiling water as necessary during this time.

For the hard sauce: Cream the butter and sugar well. Add the liquor a few drops at a time and beat until fluffy. Add the nutmeg to taste and chill.

**If you don’t have a pudding mold, a medium-sized all-metal mixing bowl should work fine.