Showing posts with label Christmas Eve. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas Eve. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanks are owed



To me, the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without these two wonderful women.

That's my Aunt Anna on the left and Aunt Rita on the right. By the look of things I would say that they are taking a well-deserved break from feeding a whole mess of us at some family get together long ago.

Time has altered their appearance a bit. Rita will be 90 very soon and Anna isn't too far behind.

Each lost her husband at a young age. For decades now they have lived together, currently in an apartment in Queens that is just above Cousin Joan's and near to several other members of our family.

My aunts are about as close as any two people can be. I know marriages—good ones—that aren't nearly as inspiring.

Anna and Rita are in my heart always, but never moreso than around this time of year.

I am lucky to be a member of the Christmas Eve celebration they host each and every year. It is literally a feast—the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be exact, totally worth clicking on and checking out—and I would no more miss it than I would lop off my right hand, or even that other one.

For a long time I used to wonder when the holidays might finally, inevitably lose their allure. After all, the years have a way of grinding away at the starry-eyed idealism that's required to truly love this time of year.



But I haven't grown at all weary. And in a very large way I owe this to the optimism and love of these two extraordinary women.

I am over-the-moon thankful to them for that.

Happy Holidays everybody.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Christmas past



You would need to be pressed very hard to find a kinder, more generous, better loved, more widely respected man than Joseph Patrick Giamundo.

Though a general contractor by actual trade, his role in 65 years of life was not to renovate or repair people's homes and properties. Rather, the man's primary duty was to provide guidance, support, comfort and, most importantly, example to a family consisting of more than 30 people.

He had no children of his own. An early and rather horrific tragedy put an end to that.

Yet we were all Uncle Joe's children. And proud of it.

"Patriarch" falls pretty far short of describing the man's station in our clan. He was just completely and deservedly revered, by his family for sure, but by many others as well.

He still is. And it's been decades since he passed on.



I came across this picture not long ago and made sure to keep it in plain sight so that I could remember to share it with you for the holidays. It's one of Uncle Joe's homemade Nativity scenes, the kind he would throw together using scraps of plywood and two-by-fours leftover from his contracting jobs.

Nothing was so extraordinary about these annually assembled outdoor structures. And yet this one will stick with my entire family forever.

The hand-scribbled sign stapled to the top says it all.

TO THE S.O.B.s THAT STOLE THE FIGURES OUT OF THE MANGER
DROP DEAD

Yep, Uncle Joe's nativity scene figures got heisted.

His mood after discovering the overnight theft was more wounded than angry, at least that's how it seemed to me. The few figures that you see in the picture are extras that Uncle Joe gathered up and hastily placed in the manger after all the originals had disappeared. It was an incomplete set but, well,  at least it was something for us kids to look at and feel excited about during the holidays.

For a good couple days my uncle tried to hide his melancholy. When his sign appeared, especially the DROP DEAD part of it, we were all pretty shaken up. Uncle Joe just never spoke that way to people, no matter how much they deserved it. I remember feeling really badly for him, like something uniquely precious, perhaps even like the child he'd lost, had gotten ripped away from him once again.

On Christmas Eve Uncle Joe awoke to find that his Nativity scene figures had all been returned. His mood, of course, brightened considerably, and so did the rest of the family's. Just before leaving his house to attend the midnight mass at St. Rita's Uncle Joe put up another sign on his manger.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH AND MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!

I can't find a picture of that sign. But don't really need one either.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Anna's baccala & potatoes



Rarely are there surprises when I sit down to a meal with my family. Not when it comes to the food that's served. I live several hours away from them, you see, and so when I visit their inclination is to prepare my favorite foods, not experiment with new ones. (For the record, I am totally down with this strategy. It is exactly how I want it to be.)

Every once in a while, though, Aunt Anna likes to throw a curve. Take this salt cod dish. Baccala is a staple in our family. On Christmas Eve Anna always prepares it two different ways: one baked with cherry peppers, another shredded and tossed with garlic and olive oil and herbs and served as a cold salad. It has been this way for decades now. And so when a new version with tomatoes and potatoes turned up a couple Christmas Eves back I wasn't the only person at the table to take notice.

"What's this?" asked cousin Josephine as the serving bowl touched the bright red holiday table, positioned amidst the many traditional seafood dishes we all expect to be present.

Jo, I should mention, is Anna's daughter. Christmas Eve is her birthday. She and I often sit next to each other at this holiday's dinner table. Jo and Anna, who lost her husband at a very young age, lived in the apartment above mine when we were growing up and so Jo has always been more of a sister to me than a cousin. This is probably more information than you need or care about, I'll admit. But my point is this: If Josephine wasn't expecting this new baccala dish on our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes menu then that was really saying something. After all, she and her mother have cooked and baked and eaten together for a lot of years. How could such a thing happen?

Long story short, and as often is the case with my dearest aunt, the answer remains a mystery.

"Do me a favor," Anna said after I and several others echoed cousin Jo's query about the new dish. "Just shut up and eat before it gets cold."



Saute an onion, a couple garlic cloves and around a quarter pound of pancetta in olive oil until the onions have softened.



Add a large potato that's been sliced like so ...



... some salt cod that's been properly soaked to reduce its salt content ...



... and a can of tomatoes. Then simmer at medium heat for around an hour or so, longer if you wish.



Don't thank me, thank my aunt.

Just don't ask too many questions.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Aunt Rita's fried shrimp


I'm man enough to admit that I've got nothing on this woman.

Just look at her. Eightysomething and still strong enough to carry a load like me.

I can only hope that the family genes are as reliably hearty when or if I get to that age.

You may know Aunt Rita from the occasional reports that I post here from the Christmas Eve dinner table. We celebrate the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes in our family, and the extravagant, multi-course, multi-hour meal is always expertly prepared by Rita, Aunt Anna and Cousin Joanie.

Over the years I have prepared most all of the various holiday recipes in my own home, but never Rita's shrimp. And so when charged with preparing an hors d'oeuvre the other evening I figured why not give it a shot.


These are the original. The photo was taken at the Christmas Eve dinner table. Which year I'm not sure, but it hardly matters. Rita's shrimp always look and taste exactly the same, which is to say perfect! In fact, only two dishes on the holiday table NEVER have leftovers: Anna's Baked Clams and Rita's Shrimp.

Considering how extraordinary my aunt's shrimp are, I was more than a little surprised to finally discover her secret to preparing them. Shocked is more like it.

"I don't need to look it up," Rita said when I called to ask for her recipe the other day. "It's only three ingredients. And I couldn't tell you how much to use of each."

It's not the lack of directions — for a recipe that the woman has prepared every Christmas Eve for decades — that shocked me. The cooks in my family often prepare dishes by feel, even those passed down through generations. I'm the same way. I'll write down ingredients and proportions when I know I want to share the recipe on this blog, but even that isn't an exact science around here. Sorry.

What threw me about Rita's shrimp recipe were the ingredients themselves. They just seemed so ordinary.

"I use Bisquick, beer and breadcrumbs, that's it," my aunt told me. "As for the proportions, what can I say, honey? You're on your own."


So this is two cups of Bisquick and a cup of beer. I arrived at these proportions by following the package directions for making pancakes, just not with the egg. (In hindsight, and having consulted with Rita's daughter Cousin Joanie, I would suggest going a little heavier on the dry mix than I did here, and making the batter a bit thicker.)


A whisk does a much better job than a fork and so I always go with that.


Rita's shrimp are always on the large size and so go with the biggest shrimp you can get your hands on. Dip them in the batter...


... then dredge in breadcrumbs (on both sides of course).


Line the coated shrimp on a wax paper-lined tray and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (Both Rita and Joanie insist that this step is critical.)


Then fry very quickly in hot olive oil. The trick here is to not overcook the shrimp. I've never had one of my aunt's shrimp that were hard or tough, in other words overcooked. Remember, shrimp cook extremely quickly. I doubt these cooked for more than a minute or two.


Line a plate with paper towels and allow the cooked shrimp to shed some of the frying oil. At this stage I also sprinkled the hot, just-fried shrimp with Kosher salt.


This step is a big variation, and so let me explain. Every time I eat Rita's fried shrimp they're on a dinner plate that includes Aunt Anna's Fish Salad, a traditional Christmas Eve dish. The thing about having both the shrimp and the salad together on the same plate is that I get to dip Rita's plain fried shrimp into the seasoned oils and garlicky juices of Anna's fish salad. Since my shrimp were being served alone I thought a little extra flavor was needed, and so I caramelized some garlic (in olive oil and with a few anchovy filets).


After plating the shrimp I drizzled the garlic and anchovy over them, a little freshly chopped hot pepper, and some chopped parsley.


These shrimp were delicious, but they weren't my aunt's. For those you'll need to find your way to Queens the night of December 24th.

I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pasta with garlic & hazelnuts


I just couldn't not think about Christmas. Last night, I mean. As I was cooking this stuff.

See, nine out of ten times Aunt Rita serves a version of this pasta to start off our big family meal on Christmas Eve. That would be right after we've plowed through a couple trays of Anna's baked clams, of course.


First thing to do is lightly toast the hazelnuts, either in a pan (as shown) or on a baking sheet in the oven. This is around two-thirds of a cup of nuts and it took less than five minutes to toast them. Then set them aside for later.


Saute a couple good-sized garlic cloves and a little crushed hot pepper in extra virgin olive oil.


Okay, you can consider this next step optional. Those are anchovy fillets I've added, but I know a lot of you don't go for that and so skip this step if you want. (I'd up the amount of garlic, though.)


Add the hazelnuts and turn up the heat to high. (I've left the nuts whole here but you can lightly crush them too if you like.)


Add your pasta of choice (angel hair here) and enough of the pasta water (be sure to save a couple cups) to keep things moist. This is around a half pound of pasta and I used a good half cup of the pasta water. (About the water: It's a pretty important ingredient in this dish, so make sure that it's very well salted.)


And there you go. Christmas in May.


Aunt Rita would've liked this version, I'm pretty sure.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Pasta & toasted bread crumbs


Aside from the air, the water and a good sfogliatelle, the two things that I most require to function in this world are bread and pasta.

Big surprise, then, that a bowl of spaghetti and bread crumbs is a favorite around here.

If your people trace back to southern Italy, Calabria especially, this might be a traditional dish on Christmas Eve. It isn't part of my family's holiday tradition; Aunt Rita usually goes with a hazelnut sauce over angel hair. And so I make this spaghetti with bread crumbs pretty much whenever I please.


Use any plain bread crumbs that you like, of course, but you'll never convince me that homemade isn't best. The bread crumbs that I keep around the house come from leftover crusty loaves made by talented bakers right here in town. This is about a cup's worth of crumbs, which is enough for at least a pound of pasta, probably more.


In a hot pan toast the bread crumbs. You don't need to coat the pan first, but make sure to stir the crumbs frequently and make sure that they don't burn. This should only take a few minutes at medium heat, so do not—I repeat, DO NOT—leave the bread crumbs unattended—say, while texting your pals a link to that preposterous YouTube video of Dylan singing "It Must Be Santa." I know. I've been harassing people with that one for a couple holiday cycles now myself. Just remember why we're here, okay. The crumbs have got to come first.


This is where individual taste comes into play, and so feel free to adjust the ingredients however you like. Translation: you people who refuse to use anchovy in your cooking can just forget that they're here and stick with a straight-up aglio e olio.

Where was I? Right. I'm not shy about using extra virgin olive oil. It's the basis of this dish and so I'm not about to measure it out in tablespoons; I pour out what I pour out, that's all. The other ingredients are garlic (there's gotta be four good-size cloves here at least), hot pepper to taste, and of course plenty of anchovy fillets. (Deal with it.)


The only other ingredients are the pasta and the all-important (well-salted) water that it's boiled in, so don't throw all of the pasta water down the drain. I use tongs to transfer the cooked spaghetti from the water and into the pan, then ladle in as much water as needed to properly incorporate the ingredients. This stage should be done quickly and at very high heat.

What we've got here is less than a half pound of spaghetti, by the way. I'll incorporate two or three good pinches of bread crumbs while the pasta is in the pan, then sprinkle about as much over the top after it's plated.


This is some seriously good peasant food we've got here, friends. I'll take it over air and water any day.

The sfogliatelle? That I'll need to get back to you about.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Scenes from a Christmas Eve


These are my aunts Anna and Rita. They cook an amazing meal for at least ten members of our family every Christmas Eve, and all of us love them very much. A lot of my friends ask me to email them photos of our annual feast, and so I decided to make it easy and upload a bunch here. I hope you all had a great holiday. We did.


I came across some lard bread in the morning and couldn't pass it up.


Neither could Joanna and Josephine.


Anna's baked clams. One day I hope to make them as good, but I'm not holding my breath.


Rita's angel hair with garlic, hazelnuts and almonds. Simple and perfect.


Rita and Joan's fried shrimp will make you weep. Two platters and not a single shrimp was left.


It's not Christmas Eve without seafood salad, and Anna's is excellent.


So much so that these two are always sliding it to their side of the table.


These mussels were a surprise dish. Simple and extremely tasty.


Broiled baccala with cherry peppers. Love, love, love it.


Also a baccala salad. Even the non believers were all over this salad; it was terrific.


Cousins Alec and Joan discuss strategy over the next dish to show up. Will they or won't they?


Stewed eel with olives and prosciutto. They did eat it. So did everybody else. One of the best eel dishes I've ever had, and I eat plenty of eel.


And of course a couple baked lobsters. Just in case we were still hungry.


I've said this before: Josephine may be the finest baker that I know. I always look forward to her Christmas cookies and biscotti.


Christmas Eve is also her birthday, and Goombah Joe remembered.


Anna went above and beyond this year and surprised us all with homemade pasticiotti. I damn near cried.


Yeah, we had a little wine. Just ask cousin Frank, he'll tell you.

We'll be back next year. I hope.
 
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