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Well, here we are, back from the hols. As I drag myself away from the scene of carnage that is my kitchen, I feel just about ready to write about food again, after three weeks doing nothing but cook and eat it in what I would like to think of as heroic quantities.
You will no doubt be expecting a blow-by-blow account of my culinary escapades, but that would be like asking Homer if he could turn The Odyssey into a Mister Man book, or requiring Dickens to condense the plot of Bleak House into a haiku. It just can’t be done. And how my family managed to consume so much without the help of a black hole is quite frankly a mystery. So I’m afraid you’ll just have to settle for veiled hints at the awful truth. As Dylan so aptly puts it, “the human mind can only stand so much”.
First things first. The results of my “What do Sicilians eat at Christmas?” survey on facebook led me to the conclusion that consensus on the subject is somewhat limited. The closest we came was two people saying they always ate polpettone al sugo, a Sicilian meat loaf cooked in tomato sauce. And two is hardly a consensus of opinion, let’s be honest. Others opted for fish, or meat, or the deep-fried delights usually reserved for Christmas Eve (see below). Some even do turkey, English-style.
Christmas Eve, meanwhile, proved to be more of a traditional stronghold, with practically everyone agreeing that something fried was in order, and in particular vegetable fritters and fish, with baccalà leading the way. So I fell in with the locals, and duly did fried cardoons, cauliflower fritters and fried baccalà in batter on the 24th, and then ate what the hell I felt like on the 25th. Which in my case meant roast capon, about as Victorian English Chrismas as you can get.
Of course, I could give you the recipes for the fried cardoons, baccalà in batter etc., but to be honest with you I can’t face it. I don’t think I can contemplate any more deep-fried food until about Easter. (A resolution subject to review, however, probably sometime next week.)
As for New Year’s Eve and Day, local traditions seem even thinner on the ground, and despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find any suggestions at all, so ended up falling back on the traditional (but essentially northern Italian) dish of cotecchino sausage and lentils. And in line with this dearth of local specialities, on New Year’s Day I just decided to abandon the Sicilian-or-broke commitment and whipped up a starter of my own invention. It’s not at all traditional, but since the guests seemed to appreciate it, I’ll share it with you anyway, this brief, scandalous liaison with frowned-upon, French-influenced delights.
But before we got to that, I prepared a few almonds. Slowly toasted in a large pan with the lightest drizzle of good olive oil, some chopped fresh rosemary, the odd clove of garlic, sea salt and a few chilli flakes, these are one of the most addictive things known to man. Perfect with a glass of dry sherry, some bubbly, or even a beer for that matter. Whatever your poison, you’ll definitely need something – they cry out for liquid accompaniment. By the way, these also work well with blanched nuts, but I personally prefer the extra taste and crispiness of unpeeled almonds, not to mention the colour.So, having dealt with the aperitivo of bubbly (Les Crêtes, from Val d’Aosta, since you ask) and salted almonds, it’s time to return to the salad. It started out as a classic French bistrot frisée and lardon idea and then sort of acquired a life of its own. The combination of textures – soft, crunchy and creamy – and of sweet fruit and salty cheese and bacon is great for waking up your taste buds. Which was just what I needed, seeing that it was followed by pasta al sugo di maiale, the pork itself with mash and braised broccoli, then panettone, pignolata, stella di Natale, torroncini, fruit and nuts…
Not Particularly Sicilian New Year’s Day Salad
Serves 12 as a starter (yes, I know, but that’s how many of us there were…)
- 1 frisée lettuce (a.k.a. curly endive), washed, well drained and torn into large pieces
- 30 walnuts, shelled and broken into halves or large pieces
- 1 pomegranate
- 250g roquefort, crumbled into cherry-sized chunks
- 250g guanciale or pancetta, sliced into thin batons
For the dressing:
- 2 tablespoons of the cooking fat from the guanciale
- 1 tablespoon of walnut oil
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ tablespoons of pomegranate balsamic glaze (that’s what I happened to have, miraculously, and it’s divine, but plain balsamic glaze/reduction or even aged balsamic vinegar would work)
- 1 tablespoon of pomegranate juice
- a pinch of sea salt
- a few grinds of black pepper
For the cheese sauce:
- 100g mild gorgonzola (dolcelatte)
- 100g mascarpone (but Philadelphia would do at a push)
- 100g or so very low fat natural unsweetened yogurt (this is not some kind of mad concession to calorie-counting, my equivalent of “a half-pounder, large fries and a Diet Coke”; no, I was way past caring at this point. It’s simply that the lower the fat, the runnier the yogurt, unless it’s Greek. And its purpose here is to dilute)
- Fry the guanciale in a very little olive oil (it gives off a lot of fat itself) until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper, reserving a couple of tablespoons of the cooking fat for the dressing.
- While the guanciale is cooking, split open the pomegranate and separate the seeds. Work over a bowl to collect the juice that will inevitably be released, since you will need this for the dressing.
- Mash the gorgonzola together with the mascarpone using a fork. Work until creamy and smooth. Add the yogurt a bit at a time, mixing as you go until you obtain a thick but just about pourable sauce.
- Measure out your lettuce into a large bowl – calculate a handful per person (I actually tried putting a handful on a plate to check if it looked like the right amount). It’s hard to say if you’ll need the whole lettuce, since sizes vary massively, and I actually only used half of mine. For the dressing, simply whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl with a fork. Toss the lettuce with dressing.
- Distribute the lettuce among the plates. Scatter over the guanciale, walnuts and roquefort. Drizzle over some of the cheese sauce and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.
OK, so it’s full of oil and cheese, and walnuts. And guanciale. But at least it looks green, and red for that matter. And it is a salad, of sorts. So dig in, casting aside any feelings of guilt, as you try to convince yourself that the new year diet has already begun…