Thursday, June 11, 2015

Italian Christmas!!

Hello, my darlings! I'm sorry for the long absence. Sadly, my bacon-loving husband and I are no longer a thing, and it's been a difficult journey to get out on my own. There is still a long road ahead, but I hope that ultimately this will be healing for us both and help each of us to be a stronger, more whole individuals.

But enough dreary news. I'll start catching back up on my culinary (mis)adventures, starting all the way back at Christmas.

This year, lo and behold, my father said he wanted a traditional Thanksgiving, but that my sister and I could do WHATEVER WE WANTED for Christmas dinner. My dad is a serious traditionalist, so this was a really big deal. And my sister and I were cautiously excited, as he had said the same thing last year and then recanted right before Christmas. But ten days or so out, and he was still maintaining we could do what we wanted.

We decided early on that we wanted to do an Italian Christmas. That was about as far as we got for three weeks or so. Then, in the week before Christmas, we were exchanging frantic texts of this nature (yellow is Kari Ann; blue is me):

So finally, on the 17th, about two days before I went to the lake for Christmas, things reached a fever pitch. I'd just gotten home from the gym, was 20 minutes late for work already, but it was just time to pull the trigger on a menu. So I pulled down Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, Lidia's Italy, from my shelf, picked a couple of recipes, and made some up. I texted this menu to Kari Ann:
  • Baked fennel with proscuitto (Lidia B.'s)
  • Polenta (Lidia B.'s) with braised egglant (a mutt dish we compiled inspired by Lidia's)
  • Risotto with black peppercorn beef (Beef recipe is Lidia B.'s; the pairing was ours)
  • Fresh pasta with brown butter sage sauce (pretty basic things I'd already cooked before)
  • Tiramisu (from the lovely Diana's secret recipe)
My sister was dubious, but I was late for work. We divvied up the grocery list and met up at the lake.

On Christmas Eve, amidst my girl child's clamor to open "just ONE present!! Please!!" and the hoopla of my mother's birthday party, I made the tiramisu and then sort of lost interest due to the massive amount of shrimp, scallops, and lobster my dad made for Christmas Eve dinner. So come Christmas Day, we had lots of cooking to do.

We put on the beef, which is a roast cut into two-inch chunks and put in a big pan with an obscene amount of red wine, minced garlic, and peppercorns and simmered for about three hours.

Sadly, I can't bring myself to disclose Ms. Bastianich's recipes (don't be mad; I'm a lit professor, and plagiarism and copyright are legit things to me), so go snag a copy of your very own.  

We did have to add more wine and some water to the pot to keep the beef moist. Even then, we did decide that next time, we might leave the roast whole as it cooked and then top it with the red wine-peppercorn sauce after slicing it. Either way, it was really good over the creamy risotto (which we emptied a bottle of white wine into while cooking). It was a boozy dish. Sue us.

Then I made polenta with bay leaves so it could mold in a pan and be cut and baked into crispy goodness before lunch, and we started the balsamic reduction for the eggplant.

Top is beef, bottom right is polenta, and bottom left is balsamic vinegar with a little sugar. 

Next up was pasta! I have a funny little pasta maker, and I used Lidia's recipe of 3 cups flour (I subbed out one cup for semolina flour), 3 eggs, 3 yolks, 3 T. olive oil, and 1/4 cup ice water. If you've not made pasta dough, it's really easy. Sift your flour into a bowl. Make a little well in the middle, and dump in the eggs, oil, and a pinch of salt. Use a fork or your hands to work it together. At this point for me, it's usually a grainy mess, and not sticking together at all. This is when I look at my sister and whisper, "We're going to ruin Christmas, aren't we?" But really, it's okay. If the dough isn't coming together at all, add some ice water until it does. If it's too wet and just sticking to everything, add a bit of flour. I usually work it into two balls because they're just easier to manage. They should get fairly elastic and hold together well. Wrap each ball in Cling Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. When you take the dough out of the fridge, let it warm up a bit and cut each ball in half to work with.
I love this pasta machine.
Some people are willing to hand roll out pasta dough with a rolling pin. I am not one of those people. Nor am I really even willing to use the hand crank that came with my pasta roller. The secret to really good pasta is to roll it through each setting several times (doubling it up periodically) before using the specific noodle attachment you want. That's a lot of rolling, but to each your own.

So I rolled and rolled and rolled pasta, and put it on my rigged system pictured below (I swear I washed those hangers).
Rigged Pasta Dryer

If you've never made home made pasta before, it cooks REALLY fast. Wait until you're very nearly ready to eat to cook it. You'll need a pot of rapidly boiling, salted water with a little olive oil in it. You can literally dip the pasta in and remove it about three seconds later. Be careful. I got all excited, and in the interest of getting all the pasta in at the same time while someone was talking to me, I stuck my whole left hand into the pot of boiling water. Christmas fail. 

For the brown butter sage sauce, I just gently warmed up a stick of good butter in a skillet on low heat. When it just barely began to brown, I added about 8 good sized sage leaves, chopped. Remove from the heat, add 1 T. lemon juice and a pinch of salt and toss with your lovely homemade pasta. Garnish with fresh sage leaves and fresh grated Parmesian cheese.

Anyway, moving on, we started our eggplant caponata (minus the celery. I hate the celery). We sliced our eggplant (about 2 big ones or 4-5 small ones) into rounds and heavily salted it to let it drain for about an hour. Then, Kari fried it in a skillet of very hot oil and put in on paper towels to drain. Meanwhile, she had reduced the balsamic (about a 1/2 cup) and 2 T. sugar, added 2 T. of tomato paste and 2 T. of water to the sauce. In a pot, she added a bit of oil and the onions to cook. When the onions were almost translucent, she added in the eggplant, the sauce, diced capers (about 1/4 cup), and sliced kalamata olives (3/4 cup). Let it simmer for about 10 minutes. 

We served this over the baked polenta. After the polenta sat in a bowl long enough to take that shape, I turned the polenta out onto a cutting board and sliced it into one-inch thick squares. I put the squares on a jelly roll pan, brushed them with thyme-infused butter (sounds fancy--it's not. You just melt butter in a pot with a big fistful of thyme in it. Let it sit for at least five minutes before you remove the thyme), and put them under a low broiler until they crisped up. 

I have a great set of reindeer china from Pottery Barn that we always use at Christmas. We generally fight over this place setting.

Everything came out great, and my dad pronounced the day a success!! 

So, sorry for the Christmas post in June. I clearly suck as a blogger, but now we can all start planning well ahead this year? Right?