It’s very cold today and grey and dreary. Our festive Christmas Eve dinner has become a memory of lovely past Christmas’, but I remind myself that it’s still the Christmas season. Traditionally we have observed it through January 6, Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation or revelation and I like to ponder what the coming year will have to show for itself.
In the meantime, we are still enjoying get-togethers with friends. I want to re-capture the holiday ambiance of our Christmas Eve dinner for our friends, so I will duplicate a chestnut cake I made in what I call ancient Roman style.
It started with an old cookbook that I had forgotten about, Christmas Feasts from History by Lorna J. Sass. The first one was pre-Christian, a menu from an ancient Roman Saturnalia, which was celebrated around December 25th. So, I prepared lentils with chestnuts, pork with apricots, cabbage salad with coriander dressing; but we wanted to end the meal with a cake. I don’t know if the ancient Romans had cake, but they did have bread. Not too far apart, bread and cake.
I had also found a recipe online for Chestnut Irish Whiskey Cake and I wanted to try it. I decided to adapt it, using ingredients what would have been available to ancient Romans. Actually, almost all the ingredients in the recipe would have been except for sugar, Irish whiskey, and baking powder. I substituted honey and a pinch of baking soda for the sugar. The Romans did have grapes and of course made wine. So, I used brandy, which is fortified wine, instead of Irish whiskey. Since, the ancients leavened bread with what we now call “starter”, the baking powder will have to remain an anachronism.
So here is my adaption of Chestnut Irish Whiskey Cake. I am sorry that there were no credits or sources for this recipe on my print-out. I got it on-line some time ago. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Chestnut Cake Ancient Roman Style
10 tablespoons sweet butter (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons)
2/3 – 3/4 cup honey (depending on how sweet you would like your cake to be)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ – 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
Pinch of baking soda
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup chestnut flour
2/3 cup brandy
1/c cup chopped hazelnuts (or walnuts)
1 medium apple chopped
¾ cup raisins
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and butter a spring form or bundt pan.
In a bowl combine the dry ingredients, stirring with a whisk until well-mixed.
In a separate bowl, cream butter and honey until blended.
Add eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition.
Add the nuts, apple and raisins and mix thoroughly until evenly distributed.
Add the dry ingredients a little at a time, alternating with the brandy. Mix until smooth.
Bake for about 40 minutes or until cake springs back when touched in middle.
You can drizzle more brandy over the cooled cake. If you do so, you can store the cake for a day or two before serving. We serve it with whipped cream on the side, but it’s good plain too.
August was a busy month. It is usually a month to stay home, go to the beach and tend the garden, but this year we traveled. No, we did not go to Italy – we got as far as England where there are Roman ruins, but before that we went to Morgantown, West Virginia. It is a place of some architectural gems.
I am from Morgantown and lived there the first nineteen years of my life. There was an Italian community there, although except for the older Italians who had emigrated from various parts of Italy in the early 20th century (My father came from the Cilento region.), it seems to me that we were assimilated; we considered ourselves West Virginians.
First of all, I would like to dispel any misconceptions of West Virginia. It is not a southern state. In fact – and I asked my old friends and the volunteer in the Morgantown History Museum who agree – we think that people who consider West Virginia to be a part of the south don’t know their American history. West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 because it chose to remain a part of the Union, and considers itself a northern state. Nor is the culture particularly southern. West Virginia never really had a plantation economy; its industries were forestry and coal mining. These attracted protestants from Ireland in the 18th century, and later people from Wales, Eastern Europe, and Italy. This seemed to be the ethnic make-up of Morgantown when I lived there – all were proud of their heritage, but still West Virginian.
Morgantown is home of West Virginia University and once was a rather wealthy town. It boasted several glass factories — Jacqueline Kennedy chose glassware for the White House from one. There was Morgan Shirt Factory which produced Ralph Lauren, Ellen Tracy and Van Heusen apparel. There was also Sterling Faucet, which, as the name indicates, made faucets. I was saddened to learn that these industries are gone now, just memories documented in the History of Morgantown Museum.
I love this building.
It stands on the corner of High Street and Pleasant Street and, when I was little, housed a pharmacy called Moore and Parriot. The pharmacy was owned and run by two Italian-American women, Mary Angotti and Anne DiNardo. They were friends of my mother. Mary Angotti was the pharmacist. This was in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. There have always been enterprising Italian-American women!
And, yes, Italian men worked in the coal mines. I don’t remember much coal mining in and around Morgantown when we were growing up – and I asked my friends who agreed and said that more mining was done in the southern part of the state. Nevertheless, there was some. Frank Liberatore, a friend of my father, was killed sometime in the 1940’s in a mine collapse. His widow Maria supplemented her Workmen’s Compensation by taking care of children – me included.
She taught me how to make pizza when I went to visit her one day.
“Come in,” she said. “I made pizza.” Her pizza was different from what we knew of in pizza parlors.
“But there’s no tomato sauce or cheese.” I was confused.
“Oh, this is the pizza.” She offered me a disc about six inches in diameter, with browned onion and salt. “You put whatever you want on it.”
It was delicious! When I make pizza, I always think of her. Indeed, I used this recipe when we got back to New York – to make pepperoni rolls.
Pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia-Italian invention. I had had them when I was growing up, usually from Aunt Jenny’s bakery on Walnut Street, and sometimes from Pike’s on Pleasant Street. I was a little surprised when I moved to New York that no one here had ever heard of them; then I forgot about them.
Then I found Morgantown Magazine in our hotel room. “The Pepperoni Roll, from A to Z,” an article written by Mary Wade Burnside explains that this dainty was developed in West Virginia as a lunch that coal miners could take with them down in the pits. Ms. Burnside also tells us that there is a book written about the pepperoni roll – The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll by Candace Nelson. And since the book mentions that they could be made from pizza dough, I decided to make some for my family.
I tried to make them as I remembered them with thin slices of meat rolled up in plain bread. However, the article indicates that the making of pepperoni rolls has become an art with variations and permutations according to one’s preference. You can access Morgantown Magazine and more information about pepperoni rolls at morgantownmag.com. In the meantime, here is my recipe:
6 oz. thin sliced pepperoni ½ cup water
1 pack dried yeast 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt 1 additional cup water
2 Tablespoons olive oil 2 cups + flour
Extra flour for kneading dough
Put ½ cup warm water into a large mixing bowl. The water should be about 100ᵒ F. If it is too hot, it will kill the yeast.
Sprinkle the yeast and sugar on the water. Cover bowl and let stand for about a half hour, or until yeast begins to bubble.
Add the olive oil and salt to the yeast mixture. Then begin to add the flour, about 1 cup at a time until you have a smooth dough that forms a ball and does not stick to the surface of the bowl.
Flour your counter or table top and remove the dough from the bowl and begin to knead. You will have to knead for about 15 minutes, adding flour as necessary. When little blisters begin to form in the dough, it is ready.
Lightly grease the bottom of the bowl with a little olive oil and put the ball of dough in. Turn once to make sure both sides of the dough are oiled. Cover and let stand for about an hour.
When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and let it sit for about 10 minutes.
Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a rectangle. (You can do this in batches.) Cut rolled dough into squares of about 6 inches. (or larger if you prefer)
Spread the pepperoni slices on each square and roll like a jelly roll. Tuck in the ends. Place the rolls on a greased baking sheet and let them sit for 15-30 minutes – until they have risen but are not too big and airy.
Bake at 350ᵒ F. for about 30 minutes. They are done when nicely browned and sound hollow when you tap them.
This should make about a dozen larger rolls, or two dozen smaller ones.
Not only did I re-discover pepperoni rolls while staying at the Hotel Morgan, we also were served a new version of the classical Manhattan – the Black Manhattan.
What does this have to do with being Italian? Well, it’s made like a traditional Manhattan, but instead of sweet vermouth, this drink calls for an amaro di Averna, the bitter liqueur from Sicily.
You can use either rye or bourbon (We used Bulleit rye), amaro di Averna and a dash or two of bitters.
Rosemary grows in a pot in my kitchen window. Tonight I am making roast eggplant and will add some of this pungent herb. The sharp aroma, the tender prickliness of the leaves will let me remember a long-ago meal – with you, when we lived in Parma.
We had small garden outside our apartment where we grew zucchini and rosemary. Although you had brought us to Parma because of its architecture, was not the best place for you. It is a city famous for parma ham and parmesan cheese, not to mention horsemeat tartar. Yes, raw horsemeat seasoned with black pepper and garlic and herbs. You were vegan and angry with me because the night before I had eaten horsemeat tartar in a restaurant on Strada Republica. You had asked me how I could have even thought of ordering such a mean when I was with you. You had pasta with tomato sauce – no cheese. Parma is not a city for vegans. I refused to be intimidated either by you or the horsemeat tartar. It was wonderful!
Still annoyed with me, the next day you closed yourself in the living room which had become your art studio. You were constructing a photo collage of Parma Cathedral. Your mind was on your work and my presence irritated you. I tried to be quiet and read, but you were fascinating.
I watched while you caught Parma’s quiet dignity in your pictures. You encapsulated tranquility in your mounting of Parma Cathedral and the Baptistery, dating from the 11th century.
You brought us into intimacy with the cathedral, through the ancient wooden doors,
into the peaceful cloister.
We peeked into the courtyard,
then entered, resting at last close to a fountain.
So precise. So particular. You were so observant of light, shade, color. Your talent amazed me. Feeling guilty and shunned, I resolved to follow your example and be attentive in my own work.
I decided to roast the eggplants I had bought that morning to try to pacify you. But no red sauce. Would you like it? I hoped so. I picked two ripe Zucchini from our little garden and snipped tall sprigs of rosemary.
While you were busy attaching, joining, bonding, I assembled the ingredients and started to cook.
I sliced the vegetables into thick rounds. They were very fresh. As I cut they released the moisture that they had received from the damp soil. I minced garlic. Its acrid odor is deep. Like the earth, it clings and nurtures
I heated olive oil over a medium flame until its fruitiness exploded and it shimmered in the pan. I added the garlic, salt and rosemary. This herb makes all the difference. Rosemary is a dweller of the air rather than of the earth from which it springs. Its singular fragrance rises filling the kitchen with a piquancy that reaches upward. Earth smells and air smells in the fiery oil.
I coated the watery vegetables with the other elements – the fire, earth and air of the herbs sautéed in oil and lay then on a flat baking sheet and. I put them in the oven and hoped that they would be done within an hour. I didn’t understand the centigrade thermometer. I estimated three-hundred-fifty degrees Fahrenheit. I would have to keep checking.
An aroma from the kitchen aroused me from my meditation on you. The vegetables called me. The elements had combined to make an enticing dinner.
Some art forms endure over time and even make it stand still– literature, painting, photography. Others are consumed with time, disappearing even as you enjoy them — dance, theatre, music. A dinner carefully prepared must be taken at the peak moment. I called you and you came. Your art could withstand time, mine not. For a brief while we shared our pleasure.
This evening after so many years I am content in my kitchen with my potted herbs. I pick the rosemary for a present dinner. Rosemary always makes me think of you. Rosemary for remembrance.
The kitchen smells scrumptious with wafts of lemon, vanilla, cinnamon and custard. I have made pastiera, an Easter tradition I have come to of late. Another taste of Naples that we have made our own. I didn’t grow up with this luscious dessert, although Jim did.
The first time I ever tasted pastiera was in Salerno. It was Good Friday and we decided to have an adventure. We would go from Naples, fifty or so miles south to the Cilento region. There we would try to find my father’s town, Campora, and visit my cousin Maria who still lived there. It seemed like a short distance, but getting there was not so simple.
We took the train from Naples to Salerno, a charming port that butts up against mountains. Salerno is Naples’ equal in richness of history, but its opposite in spirit. Salerno is a quiet, clean city that scintillates when the sun hits the harbor. It is at the end (or beginning) of the Amalfi Coast, but is unfortunately overlooked in favor of Sorrento or Positano.
So far so good; however, getting from Salerno to Campora, we found we would have to rent a car, since there was scarcely any public transportation. This was easily done, but before heading to Campora, we decided to see a bit of Salerno. We didn’t have much time – only a couple highlights, but what we did see was noteworthy.
We wandered around the historic center, straying into courtyards and peering at antique fountains.
Thus, we came upon the Medieval Aqueduct. We read on the historical marker that it was built in the ninth century and was called “Devil’s Bridge” because it was said to have been built in one night with the help of demons.
During the ninth century Salerno was under Lombard rule, but not Naples. The Lombards were a Germanic tribe that invaded Italy in the seventh century. Their rule stopped just beyond Salerno, never reaching Naples, which was still nominally part of the Eastern Roman Empire, although really an independent dukedom. (Yes, the Empire still existed, ruled from Byzantium.)
Next, we made our way to the Cathedral of St. Matthew, originally built around 1070’s, when all the south of Italy had been conquered by the Normans. (The Normans conquered England during the same century.)
The cathedral was completely re-built after having been destroyed by an earthquake in the seventeenth century, but bell tower dates back to the thirteenth century. The cathedral is said to house the tomb of the Apostle St. Matthew.
After so much sightseeing and before our long winding drive to Campora, it was time for lunch. We found a restaurant near the train station (and also close to the car rental office) and there I had my first taste of pastiera that Good Friday in Salerno.
The next Good Friday we were in New York again. Hunting through my cookbooks, I found a booklet called “Great Recipes” that had come in the mail in 1983, and included a recipe “Neapolitan Wheat Pie (Pastiera Napoletana)”. I found wheat berries in Little Italy, although I had to ask for “grano” because they didn’t know what wheat berries were. I felt right at home.
So, I have been making pastiera for Good Friday ever since and would love to share the recipe. Since I am dairy intolerant, I have included non-dairy substitutions. The recipe is not difficult, but takes time, so I make a few days before I want to serve it. The flavor only improves.
Neapolitan Wheat Pie (Pastiera Napoletana
1 cup wheat kernels 1 cup milk or soy milk
2 tablespoons sugar 2 strips of lemon zest
Soak the kernels in water to cover overnight.
The next day, drain the kernels, place in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until wheat is tender. Remove from heat, let stand at room temperature, covered for about 1 hour.
Next, drain the wheat of any remaining liquid. In a saucepan, combine the wheat with the milk, sugar, and lemon zest. You can add a pinch of salt, if desired. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, stirring often, until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a shallow bowl to cool. Discard the lemon zest.
In the meantime, make the
2 cups all-purpose flour ¼ cup sugar
½ cup lard or coconut oil, chilled 1 egg yolk
½ cup milk or soy milk
In mixing bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Cut in the lard or chilled coconut oil and work quickly with fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal.
2, Beat egg yolk and milk together and stir into the flour mixture. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic foil and chill at least 20 minutes. (While the wheat berries and milk are cooling.)
3 egg yolks ½ cup sugar (or less, according to taste)
¼ cup flour 1 cup milk or soy milk
2 strips lemon zest ½ teaspoon vanilla
In a pan mix the egg yolks and sugar; gradually add the flour and mix well. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture is liquid and smooth. Add lemon peel and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Let it “puff” once or twice but do not really boil it. Remove from heat, discard lemon and vanilla and set aside.
Putting it All Together
1 pound ricotta, drained or 1 pound non-dairy cream cheese
6 eggs at room temperature, separated (You can also add the egg white left from the Pasta Frolla.)
2 tablespoons finely chopped orange peel
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied citron
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Butter a 10-inch springform pan. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Reserve one-third of the Pasta Frolla and roll out the remaining dough into a circle large enough to cover the bottom and sides of the prepared pan. Let the dough overlap but trim all around evenly. Chill.
If you are using ricotta, strain it through a sieve. Place ricotta or non-dairy cream cheese in a mixing bowl, stir in the sugar and beat until creamy and smooth.
Add the 6 egg yolks one at a time, then all the remaining ingredients except the egg whites.
Fold in the Crema pasticcera and the wheat berry mixture.
Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the ricotta/non-dairy cream cheese mixture. Spoon into the chilled pastry shell.
Roll out the reserved dough and cut into ½ inch wide strips. Arrange stripps in lattice-fashion on top of pie. Fold overlapping dough all around pie and seal strips in.
Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cover pie loosely with aluminum foil and continue baking 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove pie from oven and cool on wire rack.
Note: To develop its full flavor, this pie should stay overnight in a cool place or be refrigerated.
There are some flavors from our time in Naples that still pervade our lives. Blood oranges, for one. We first tasted them the rainy winter we lived in Naples. All of a sudden they were the only oranges available in the markets. The skin displayed dark red blotches; inside was darker still, even purple.
They did not look like the oranges we knew. And the flavor was different, not as sweet, yet somehow deeper. A small fruit with a big taste. In Naples they are known as red oranges – arance rosse.
But Jim did not like them. He went on search of a “real orange”. He would ask all the vendors in Italian, “Ė questa un’arancia arancia?” “Sí,” they would be the puzzled response. What he didn’t realize was that the vendors thought he meant, “Is this a real orange?” which indeed it was.
For me, now, blood oranges signal the beginning of Lent. The red oranges arrive, we were told, in February. The winter we spent in Naples Ash Wednesday happened to be in February, preceded of course by Carnevale. Carnevale in Naples is quite a lively affair involving rotten eggs. The teachers at Centro Italaino where we were studying told us that some people saved eggs from the previous year to toss at passersby. We spent a week sidestepping the putrid eggs splattered in the streets.
Carnivale, of course, initiated the season of Lent, with its obligations of sacrifice. Old traditions linger. We no longer have memories of winter stores running low at this time of year – after the autumn harvests and before the new growth of spring. Food would have been scarce in times past, however. Supplies like meat and fat that might spoil would have been consumed during Carnivale. Yet for us that winter in Naples, Lent brought the new taste of blood oranges and something else delicious besides.
Now something new appeared. A new dessert in the cafes and pastry shops.
I first tasted it one evening when I arrived home from my Italian lesson. Jim said he had something for me and presented me with a dish of what looked like chocolate pudding that he had bought. He told me it was called sanguinaccio.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“Something to do with blood?” I guessed, knowing that the Italian word for blood is sangue.
“It’s chocolate cream and is supposed to be thickened with the blood of a pig.”
I imagined that they must have slaughtered pigs at this time of year to make prosciutto for Easter. I didn’t really know. Or perhaps food supplies were running low for animals too and there wouldn’t have been enough to feed them. In any event, nothing would have been wasted and the blood, which would have had to have been used quickly was made into blood sausage and a remarkable dessert
Nowadays, the pasticcerie no longer use blood, but their confection is delicious nevertheless having been thickened with lots of dark chocolate.
After some experimentation, I duplicated it (somewhat) for my family back in New York. I have included this recipe in my book Ciao, Napoli. And here it is:
3 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup sugar,
1 1/2 cups whole milk or soy milk,
4 ounces baking chocolate
1/2 cup red wine
Melt chocolate and set aside.
Beat the eggs with red wine and 1/4 cup of sugar in large heat-proof bowl and set aside.
Combine corn starch and 1/4 cup of sugar in a saucepan. Stir with wire whisk to sift together. Gradually add milk and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add the chocolate and continue to cook until well blended. You may add more sugar if you thing the chocolate is too bitter. Mixture should be very thick but not boiling.
Add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, beating constantly until blended. Return to saucepan and cook for 2 minutes, but do not allow it to boil.
Spoon into 6 individual serving dishes and allow it to cool before serving.
Ash Wednesday has just passed and I am continuing my lately assumed tradition of making sanguinaccio on the Sunday before. This time I used coconut beverage instead of soy milk and the result was denser, needing additional red wine. Meno male! Red wine and chocolate make for a luscious combination. We’re going to enjoy this tonight.
As for the blood oranges, both Jim and I developed a preference for them. Then at the end of spring, they disappeared from the markets as suddenly as they came. We couldn’t find them anywhere. Not until February, the vendors told us over and over again. Yesterday in New York I found some in the supermarket and brought home a couple of bags. So we are enjoying what has become our customary feast on the first Sunday of Lent.
Since it’s not yet Twelfth Night or Little Christmas, it’s not too late to say, “Happy New Year. May this year bring good health and prosperity.”
We celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends, Bob and Elaine and Anna and Donato. Anna noted that this was the 17th anniversary of our friendship – hers and mine.
I met Anna and Donato for the first time a few minutes into the new millennium – at the start of the year 2000. I was at a New Year’s party hosted by one of my best friends. There were five couples and me, a widow. When Anna and Donato joined us, I became the 13th at table.
Anna brought with her a great pot of lentils and cotechino, a special Italian sausage that is eaten with lentils at the very beginning of the New Year. Anna explained that it is the custom of her native Rome and it is supposed to bring money in the coming year to those who partake of the dish just after midnight. New Year’s Eve was traditional a fast day, a day in which Catholics do not eat meat, so lentils with cotechino must wait until just after midnight.
Anna is a good cook and the lentils were delicious. She promised me that I would become rich in 2000. She was right – I met Jim on February 13, 2000. (I now consider 13 to be my lucky number.) So, I am offering a recipe guaranteed to bring good fortune – New Year’s lentils. Again, this is not a recipe I learned in Italy, but it’s history is definitely Italian.
This is my own version, to which I will add the cotechino for New Year’s. If I want a meatless dish, I just omit the sausage.
½ can flat anchovy fillets, including the oil
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks of celery. diced
2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 teaspoon each allspice, coriander, cumin, marjoram (or more to taste)
1 cup dried lentils, rinsed
4 cups water
1 lb. cotechino (You can but this at an Italian butcher shop.)
Sauté the garlic, the herbs and spices, and the anchovy fillets in the anchovy oil and olive oil.
When garlic is soft add the vegetables and enough water to keep them from burning. Sauté the vegetables with the garlic and herbs, stirring frequently, until they are tender. Add the lentils and about 3 cups of water.
Cover and cook for about an hour, again stirring frequently. Add all or part of the remaining cup of water as the lentils become thick. This part is left to the discretion of the cook: some prefer a more liquid lentil dish than others. So, use your judgment, according to your taste.
If you’re making this for New Year’s, at this point, you add the cotechino. (If you don’t want to include meat, just follow the next step.)
Cook uncovered for about another half-hour. If you feel that the lentils are too hard, cook longer.
Anna says that the tradition is that lentils will bring money in the coming year. I feel that although I didn’t necessarily have more money, I did receive good fortune. So, I wish you all good fortune, whatever it means to you.
When we returned from our New Year’s Eve celebration, we all enjoyed a very small bit of the lentils and cotechino that Anna had made.
Merry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, please accept our wishes for a Happy Chanukah, Good Yule, or even the joyful renewal of the coming year. My offering is a recipe that is most unusual. It did not originate in our travels to Naples, although our recent visit sparked Jim’s memory of his mother’s Christmas Eve eel stew.
We have never spent Christmas in Naples. We come back to New York to celebrate various holidays with our families. Christmas now begins early in Naples and I was a little surprised. We visited Salerno on October 31st, a quiet holiday just before All Saints’ Day (November 1st), when people visit cemeteries to leave flowers or other offerings for loved ones who have passed on. Salerno was quiet, yes. But the Christmas decorations were up and ready to usher in a holiday that was still about two months away. The weather was still warm, and in the sunshine along the coast it felt like summer. The narrow streets farther inland, however, were dark and windy, foretelling the winter.
There was more heralding of Christmastime in Naples. Returning to our apartment in Naples, we walked along Via Tribunali. We came to a street that we had passed many times before – it seemed to be more of an alleyway than a street – but for some reason, unknown to us, we decided to go along Via Trinchera just to see where it led. It led to the Largo dei SS Apostoli
and a very plain-looking church that we read was built by Constantine upon a former Temple of Mercury.
When we entered the church, we were dazzled by its baroque chapels. And in one of those chapels, was a presepio.
The presepio is a grand Neapolitan tradition. It starts with the Nativity – the Holy Family, of course, along with the magi, shepherds and angles; but includes the people of Naples. There are pizza bakers, pastry makers, woodcutters, folks of the village eating in cantinas or drawing water from a well. Families add to this scene every year. And it ascends. Like going up a mountain. This presepio signaled to us that Christmas is coming and we would soon be going to our other home.
And the idea of Christmas caused us to think of our own upcoming Christmas Eve celebration and reminded Jim of his mother’s eel stew. He told me the following story:
“Every Christmas eve my Mother, following her family tradition of seven fishes, would prepare a Fish Stew whose main ingredients were eels and fennel (including lots of the feathery tops). The recipe was her Mother’s and a long standing tradition.
Of course being familiar and disgusted by slimy, wiggly eels that I used to catch in traps on LI Great South Bay, I and my brother gave her lots of grief about eating any. In the end for traditon s sake we held our noses & had a bite. That was hard to do.
Fast forward 40 years or so, just after Christmas and also after my father’s funeral, I visited my Mom’s house upstate. After an early morning ride I arrived around noon and as I entered her kitchen there was a delicious odor coming from a pot on the stove, I asked if I could have a taste.
Her indignant immediate response was NO!! Not after you & your brother gave me all that grief many years ago. The she said it was her families Ell Fish Stew from Christmas Eve.
So I begged. Delicious food is wasted on the young, etc. etc. She relented and it was truly wonderful.
One of my regrets was not thinking to get the recipe then. Many years later I polled all the family cooks, it was not to be found.”
Our project for this Christmas Eve became the attempt to duplicate eel stew. Working from Jim’s memory and checking the internet for ideas and suggestions, we came up with something that approximates his recollection, but is still a work in progress.
First, because we are back in New York, we went to Chinatown to buy live eels.
Once they were killed and cleaned,
we set out to cook them as follows:
1 lb eel.
1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 cups fennel, bulb and fronds only (make sure that the tops are light green and fluffy)
1 medium onion
4 cloves of garlic
¼ cup fresh parsley leaves
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
3 tablespoons additional olive oil
1/16 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
3 cups vegetable broth or water
Salt to taste
Cut eel into one-inch pieces and sauté in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salting to taste. Cover pan and set aside.
Using only the tender bulb of the fennel, slice it thinly. Remove the fluffy leaves from the stalks and add them to the bulbs.
Thinly slice the onion.
Mince the garlic and sauté it in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the herbs and onion. Cover the pan and continue cooking over medium heat until the onion slices are transparent and parsley is wilted. Add the sliced fennel bulb and fronds and the white wine. Cover and cook over medium heat. This dish is meant to be eaten with a spoon, so make sure there is plenty of broth.
When fennel begins to soften, add the broth. Cook until the fennel is tender. Put stew in a serving dish and top with the sautéed eel.
The stew is not exactly as Jim remembers it, but he says it is close. We’ll keep trying. He said there is definitely no tomato as there was in every recipe for eel stew we found on the internet. His sister recalled having a lot of thinly sliced onions in the stew, and Jim said his mother would use onion and garlic together. (I have been told that Italians don’t mix these two, but the Italian woman who taught me to make sauce had no objection when I mixed them.)
We enjoyed our Christmas Eve eel stew and will keep trying to improve it.