Italy has a well deserved reputation for culinary excellence combined with a deep appreciation of great-tasting fresh produce. So what better place to get inspiration for a Christmas feast than the country where beautiful food sourced from local markets is treasured and savoured? Wendy Holloway has spent the last 14 years introducing people to the wonders of Italian cuisine through her cookery school and gastronomic tours in Rome. In this special guest article, she guides us through the essential components of a truly Italian Christmas and will be answering your questions about Italian cuisine in the comments below:
The traditional Italian Christmas meal varies substantially from north to south as each region has its own unique culinary tradition. Yet some things hold true across all regions. The Christmas meal usually starts off with tortellini in brodo, a homemade pasta stuffed with pork loin and prosciutto cooked in a delicious meat broth and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Lamb with roast potatoes is almost always the main course dish. There’s hardly a single Italian household that doesn’t serve the traditional panettone or pandoro for dessert. Panettone is a six inch high bread like cake, filled with raisins and other candied and dried fruit, most closely resembling raisin bread. Dessert is accompanied by spumante (a sparking wine) to toast the season and well-being of all.
Italians then embark on an afternoon or evening of game playing, usually tombola, a bingo-like game played only in the Christmas season. For snacks, Clementine oranges are often eaten and the bits of peel are used to mark their tombola board. They also snack on torrone, a delicious nougat filled with almonds or hazelnuts.
But what about Christmas side dishes? Here there is more variety from region to region. Italians love hearty dark green vegetables that veer towards a bitter flavour, and cook the leaves of all their winter vegetables from broccoli to Brussels sprouts. If you wish to try this, then make sure that the vegetable leaves are steamed or boiled until tender. Next, prepare a soffrito by sizzling garlic and hot pepper in olive oil. The steamed vegetable leaves should then be sautéed in the soffitto, salted to taste and served. Alternatively the steamed vegetables can be served all’agro (with olive oil and lemon juice).
Christmas in central and northern Italy also regularly features thistle-like vegetables from the Aster family, such as artichokes and cardoons. One unique form of cardoon, and our personal family favorite, is gobbo. Gobbo, meaning hunchback, is a cardoon that during the growing phase, when the plant is tender and young, has been bent to its side (hence the name gobbo) and buried. The plant then continues to grow underground to maturity. Since the cardoon is not exposed to sunlight it remains tender and milk white, enhancing the texture and flavour in a similar way to forcing chicory or rhubarb.
The cardoon most closely resembles a celery stalk, yet the taste is reminiscent of an artichoke. Cardoon preparation can be laborious because the thread like filaments on the outside of each individual piece of the cardoon stalk must be removed. To keep the vegetable from turning brown you need to keep them in a lemon water solution. The cardoon pieces are then towel dried, dusted in flour and pan fried in olive oil until tender. These can then be eaten as is or baked in a béchamel and cheese sauce. My favourite is gobbo alla parmigiana, similar to eggplant parmesan. The fried gobbo is placed in a baking pan with alternating layers of tomato sauce (peeled fresh tomatoes simmered until thickened with olive oil and garlic), freshly grated mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese. This dish can be prepared in advance and either baked and then frozen or frozen prior to baking. On Christmas day bake it in the oven and surprise your guests with some true Italian Christmas tradition in your own home!
Wendy will be answering any queries you have about preparing Italian vegetables and food, so please add a comment below if you have any questions or would like to give your own ideas...
[You can find out more about Wendy's company, Flavor of Italy, and their cooking classes, holidays, tours and accommodation on their website: www.flavorofitaly.com]