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      Recreating Christmas Traditions

       
      By
      Dec. 20, 2013

      Seppioline con polentaI left Italy in 2004 and since then I have been home to celebrate Christmas with my family only once. I must say it is hard. Some years it feels harder than others. One of those years I wrote my father, Giorgio De Gasperi, who is the cook in the family, asking him to send me the recipes of our traditional Christmas Eve dinner. I felt I needed to recreate where I was what I missed so much.

      This was his reply…

      And so here it is: the menu for my Christmas Eve Nostalgic Dinner, to be celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: Bigoli in salsa, Capesante al forno (Oven baked scallops), Seppioline con tocio e polenta (Cuddlefish with Tocio and Polenta) and Insalata di polipi con sedano, patate e erbette di primavera (Octopus Salad with Celery, Potatoes and Wild Herbs).

      Place on the table bottles of Prosecco, Pinot, Chardonnay, choosing among the incomparable wine production of the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. On a cart, in plain view, a bowl full of walnuts and hazelnuts gathered in the Dolomiti valleys; quince and pomegranate apples coming from the Trevigian countryside to give some colour, a sense of happiness and to fuel, after a few glasses of wine, our nostalgic thoughts.

      Now, let’s begin with the recipe for il primo piatto, the first course, Bigoli in salsa. You will need: a variant of spaghetti, brown in colour, called “bigoli.” If you can’t find them, you can use spaghetti. Anchovies preserved in olive oil, onions, salt and pepper.

      For the sauce: Finely chopped the onions. Sauté them in a pan in plenty of olive oil and, after a few minutes, add a ladle of water. Let them cook until soften. Add the anchovies and, using a fork, break them down so that they melt and mix with the onions. The sauce should be salty enough, but you can add an extra pinch of salt and some pepper. As you can see, this recipe is quite simple because of the few ingredients used. There aren’t many variations available. The only one could be the anchovies you use because there is a big difference between using the ones that come from a factory and the ones you prepare yourself starting from salt preserved anchovies.

      You do this: scrape the salt off the fish and with the help of a lot of patience remove all the tiny fishbone and then place the filets in very high quality olive oil, together with some pepper corns, a clove and some herbs, such as thyme and oregano, possibly picked in the mountains or in areas that are not polluted. I always add a small piece of hot pepper. I let the anchovies sit for at least a couple of months and I use them to prepare my version of Bigoi in salsa. I have to say that they taste amazing and I know this because your mother, without saying a word, cleans the plate and she cleans it so well that I don’t even need to wash it!

      Capesante al forno (Oven baked scallops): this is a beautiful dish, a pleasure for both the eyes and the mouth. Tthe ingredients (well cleaned scallops, breadcrumbs, olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper) come together so well and the fragrances that they create are so appetizing that you feel you want to eat even the shell. The look of this dish is also quite appealing. With the help of some imagination, the shell of the scallop looks like the palm of a hand that seems to be offering a precious gift, a canvas of infinite shades developing around a bright red.

      The preparation of this dish is simple. You need: breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Wash and clean the scallops and shells very well. Place one or two scallops in each shell. Add the breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic and parsley (both thinly chopped), salt and pepper. Place in a preheated oven (150 degrees C). Leave the scallops in for about 15 minutes, making sure the mixture doesn’t dry out. Serve hot and enjoy the scallops together with some Prosecco wine. The shell will remind you of the blue of the Italian sea and the wine from the neatly organized vineyards of the Venetian green hills.

      Seppioline con tocio e polenta (Cuddlefish with Tocio and Polenta): For this recipe I use fresh and soft cuttlefish that is at times hard to find. Heat some olive oil in a pan. When warm, add some finely chopped onion. After a few minutes, add the cuttlefish previously sliced in strips and let sear well. Add some white wine and cook for a little longer. Add some plain tomato sauce, possibly home made. At this point I add some finely chopped garlic, celery, carrot and pepper, some thyme leaves and oregano and I season with salt and pepper. I let it cook a bit longer and I taste the cuttlefish every so often to make sure they do not overcook. I served this recipe with polenta. My suggestion is to avoid the ready-in-five-minute mixture available at the store. What you have is something similar to polenta, but it isn’t really polenta. You can now find flour of special grains that were used in the old days and that are becoming popular again. It is true that it takes about 35 to 40 minutes to make polenta, but the result is worth the time and the stirring.

      Insalata di polipi con sedano, patate e erbette di primavera (Octopus Salad with Celery, Potatoes and Wild Herbs): Octopus might not be appealing to many who might disregard it and decide to prepare something else for the vigil’s dinner. What a mistake that would be! If you know how to prepare them, they are absolutely delicious. The easiest way is to boil them, after having cleaned and washed them thoroughly. In the pot with plenty of water, add also a carrot, a stock of celery, a handful of parsley, an onion, one clove and some peppercorn. They should boil no less than 40 minutes, but it very much depends on how big they are. Turn the knob off and let cool down. On a brim of a serving plate, place slices of boiled potatoes and wild herbs. Remove the octopus from the pot, drain and cut in chunks. Place the chunks at the centre of the dish with the diced celery. Dress with salt and pepper, parsley, lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.

      Buon appetito, Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

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