Christmas Eve

The 12 days of Natale, recipes for the Italian holiday table. Day 9: polpo

Today is fish day. No it will not be 7 fishes, rather just one veeeery long cooking octopus. Below are pictures of what is happening in my kitchen as I write.

Merry Christmas!

 


Polpo alla Luciana

Braised octopus

 

for 6 to 8 people

3 to 4 pounds octopus

salt to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 handful parsley

1 ripe large tomato-if in season

OR 2 or 3 canned tomatoes

OR 2 tablespoon tomato concentrate

2 garlic cloves

pepper to taste

 

Lightly sprinkle salt on the octopus and place it in a Dutch oven. Add the olive oil and wine.

Rinse and add the parsley, stems off.

Chunk the fresh tomato or smash the canned one with your hands. Smash and peel the garlic. Add them to the rest of the ingredients-or add the tomato concentrate.

Season with pepper-or red pepper flakes if you want to give it a kick.

Seal the pot with a layer of parchment paper and tie it around its circumference with kitchen twine. Cover tightly with the lid and place over the lowest heat your stovetop can dispense.

Cook slowly and lovingly for 3 to 4 hours, or more if you have a big octopus, without ever opening and unsealing the pot.

Bask in the fragrance until you deem it ready.

Open and drain the octopus from its water. You can serve it as is, cool it and make a salad with it, mince it for a pasta sauce.

Whatever you do, keep the stock it has produced so we can use it for our days of leftover fun.

NOTES

  • This is an old Italian classic, there are versions that use onion and/or celery for a richer stock
  • I have made this also without wine, or using basil in the summer
  • A pinch of oregano adds a delightful dimension
  • The stock will be rather intense so do not add salt or reduce, otherwise you will not be able to use it
  • Lastly: a picture of my child and some of his cousins after having eaten spaghetti with a sauce from the recipe above last summer in Tuscany
Topini che mangiano il polpo della zia Viola
Topini che mangiano il polpo della zia Viola

The 12 days of Natale, recipes for the Italian holiday table. Day 2: Tortelli di Silvia al baccalà e ceci

When it comes to showing holiday spirit, the table is the altar at which my family has always prayed. Food and the cooking of it have always been somewhat of an obsession for us, and no time of the year is marked by planning, discussing, concocting, experimenting as much as this. In this vein, my sister Silvia, who has already started making the cappelletti for which she's famous and sells throughout the month of December, found the inspiration in a central Italian specialty-baccalà e ceci-for a pasta dish to satisfy the requirement of a meatless Christmas Eve.

These tortelli are simply amazing. Grazie Silvia!

The pictures, by the way, are courtesy of my wonderful students.


Tortelli di Silvia al baccalà e ceci

Silvia’s codfish and chickpeas tortelli

 

for the filling and sauce

1/2 pound salted codfish (or fresh true cod)

2 cups chickpeas

1 small onion

1 carrot

1 celery stalk

1 bay leaf

3 black peppercorns

1/2 bunch parsley

1 lemon

2 eggs

1 garlic clove

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

 

for the pasta dough

5 large eggs (or 3 to 4 duck eggs)

500 grams flour (1 pound + 1.5 ounces)

salt

This recipe needs some advance planning. Three days before you plan to make it, wash the codfish to remove the surface salt and soak it in cold water.

The water on the codfish will need to be changed 3 to 4 times a day over the course of 3 days. Note that you can use fresh codin a pinch.

Place the chickpeas in cold water to soak for 24 hours.

After the chickpeas soaking period, clean and chunk the onion, carrot and celery and place them in a pot of water with the bay leaf, 2 to 3 parsley sprigs, the peppercorns and 2 tablespoons of salt.

Bring the water to a boil and add the drained chickpeas. Lower the heat to medium and cook the chickpeas until they are soft enough to be easily smashed with a fork. It will take about an hour.

To make the dough, salt the flour and mound it in a well on a wooden board. make a well in the center and add the eggs and a pinch of salt. Using a fork, start working the eggs gradually incorporating the flour while keeping the well from falling and the eggs from running.

When the dough and flour become too dense to work with a fork, bring the dough together by pressing it with your hands or working it with 2 bench scrapers in samurai like motions.

When you have a somewhat shaggy ball of dough, start kneading by stretching the top third of the dough with your fingers up and away from you, folding and pressing it into the middle third with the heel of your hand and finally bringing everything into the bottom third. Turn the dough 90˚ or 1/4 hour and repeat the motions described above.

The folding and pressing motion will slowly turn the dough inside out and outward in, ensuring that all of it is kneaded. Continue kneading until the dough is somewhat smooth and elastic and quickly snaps back into place when pulled. It will take about 15 minutes.

You can also use a mixer with a hook attachment, just place the ingredients and mix on medium until everything comes together nicely and the dough looks homogeneous and elastic. Wrap tightly and let relax for at least 30 minutes before rolling.

In the meantime, prepare the filling.

Bring the water to a boil and put in the codfish. Lower the temperature to a simmer and poach the fish for about 20 minutes.

While the fish is cooking, mince the parsley and grate the zest off the lemon.

Smash the fish and half the chickpeas with a fork and mix well with the half the parsley, the zest, 1 egg and 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

In a small bowl, whisk an egg with 3 tablespoons of water.

Using a pasta machine or the KitchenAid pasta attachments, roll the pasta into strips thin enough for you to be able to see the outline of your hand through them.

Lay the strips of pasta on a lightly floured surface and using a pastry wheel cut them into squares about 2x2". Spoon a small mound of filling in the center of each square.

Dip a small pastry brush in the egg wash and wipe off excess liquid. Very lightly brush the top and left sides of each square.

Fold one square into a triangle and seal it by matching the bottom right corner onto the top left one and lightly pressing along the 2 longer sides, paying mind to pushing out excess air.

Grab the 2 smaller corners of the triangles in between your thumbs and index fingers and lift it off the table-the 90˚ angle should be pointing down

Bring the 2 tips towards each other until they kiss. Slightly overlap them and press them together.

Repeat the process starting from the rolling of the pasta strips until you have finished the filling and/or the dough.

Line a baking pan with parchment paper and dust it with flour. Arrange the ravioli on it so that they do not overlap. Refrigerate until ready to cook.

Drop the tortelli in salted boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes after they float to the surface.

In the meantime, process the remaining chick peas and the garlic clove with a few spoonfuls of the tortelli cooking water and enough olive oil to yield a rather runny, shiny purée. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Douse the bottom of a warm serving platter with 1/3 of the chickpeas purèe.

Drain the tortelli with a slotted spoon and arrange them on the platter. Douse with the sauce, dust with the remaining parsley and sprinkle a few drops of lemon juice. Serve immediately.

Winter holidays fare: baby octopus and calamari salad

It's become tradition, every early December my friend Elisabetta Fagioli and I mark the advent of the Christmas season with a holiday food and wine pairing workshop at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco. Elisabetta is a 3rd level sommelier specialized in Italian wines and for an hour or so she and I chat about the Italian holiday table and the whys and hows of dishes likely to be served during one or another of the many festivities this season brings.

For the eating and drinking part of the evening, we choose 3 different dishes from various regions, I prepare them and Elisabetta expertly picks wines most suited for the flavors. This year she focused on bubbly wines.

Such fun was had last Tuesday, on the very day when I woke up to find my voice almost completely erased by a sore throat. Since I could say very little, the food needed to speak for itself. Apparently it did, as several attendees have asked for recipes and information about my classes.

Here is how to make the starter, my take on an octopus salad that my Sicilian friend Maria Luisa Manca tells me is a staple on Christmas Eve in her region.

Insalata di polipetti e calamari Baby octopus and calamari salad

for 6 people

the dish with the sprkling wine Elisabetta recommends

1.5 pounds baby octopus (or an adult octopus will also work) 1.5 pounds calamari 1/2 yellow onion 1 celery stalk 2 to 3 sprigs parsley 1 Meyer lemon splash dry white wine 2 tablespoon salt 1 handful parsley leaves olive oil salt and pepper to taste 1 garlic clove

Before we delve into the procedure, let's chat about what to do when you first bring tentacled creatures to your kitchen.

One can generally find them clean. I prefer performing the task myself, because if they are whole they are less likely to have been previously frozen, but I also find the job deliciously relaxing, my brain wonders off into a cottony, fishy cloud of which I enjoy the sensorial aspect and the sense of accomplishment which comes with completing the work.

Should you decide that you are going to clean them yourself, here's how you do it.

Octopus (baby or adult): turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Now cut a little slit around the head, enough to be able to turn it inside out, and strip away the guts, brains and ink sac (you can keep that for other cooking if you'd like). Rinse and you're done.

Calamari: turn over the tentacles and squeeze out the beak that is hiding underneath in the center hole. Turn back over, snip the eyes with scissors and squeeze them out. Sneak your finger into the body to pull out the bone (you will feel it, it rests on the side where the little flaps are, it is hard and feels a little like a feather in the center). Grasp the body at the tip and squeeze your way down to eliminate the guts and brain. Rinse and you're done.

A few more tips: I like to leave the skins on, as in my opinion it makes it that much tastier. If you'd rather doff the skin, it is much easier to do so once the critters are cooked, though you can also patiently do it while cleaning.

My zia Milla, one of the best cooks with whom I grew up summers in Italy, is of the school of thought that you only remove the beak and bone, but leave in the guts and brains. My mother used to remember my 5 year old self in awe of the gustatory experience that was zia Milla's stewed octopus. Apparently I said "And she leaves the brain in!".  The dish since became polpi col cervello (octopus with brain) and to this day, it is one of my favorite dish of octopus, in itself one of my top 10 foods.

Back to the recipe now...

Once the seafood is clean, fill a pot with water and add the parsley sprigs, onion, celery stalk, 2 slices of lemon, the white wine and tablespoons of salt. Bring to a boil.

Drop the calamari in the water, cover with the lid and turn off the heat. Let sit for about 20 minutes. Strain out of the water with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool.

Bring the water back to the boil and drop in the baby octopus. When the water starts boiling again, turn the heat down and simmer until the octopuses are tender and easily chewable. (It will take about 20 minutes for the baby ones and longer for large ones, with timing depending on the size). Drain and set aside to cool.

While the seafood is cooking, grate the zest and squeeze the juice of the Meyer lemon, pick and clean the parsley leaves and smash the garlic clove.

Place the juice, zest and parsley in a small food processor with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the blade while gradually adding olive oil in a stream (this can also be done with a handheld immersion blender). Continue until you reach a balance of fat and acid your palate finds satisfying. Adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Transfer to a jar and drop in the garlic clove.

Divide the bodies from the tentacles of the calamari and baby octopus. Cut the calamari bodies in thick rings. (If using large octopus, cut in pieces suitable for a salad).

Combine the seafood in a bowl and season generously with the dressing from which you will have removed the garlic clove.

NOTES:

  • When buying large octopus, choose those with 2 rows of suction cups, they are the ones that live in the rocks and are tastier and more delicate than their sand dwelling brothers.