In this Italian-American family, food isn’t just a holiday tradition, it’s a celebration of life itself.
Growing up in a large Italian family, I learned how to respect tradition and embrace family ties through cooking.
I think my passion for cooking started when I was 7 years old, waking up early Christmas Eve morning to make homemade ravioli for our big Christmas dinner. When I say early, I mean the crack of dawn. You see, my mother couldn’t rest until the ravioli was finished. It was as if she, a perfectionist by nature, just couldn’t wait to see how beautiful they would turn out.
While the rest of the house was quiet, my mom would play soft Italian music really low and share her childhood stories, as my sister and I helped roll out the pasta dough. Forget about the men in my family ever helping in the kitchen. Our Italian tradition was that the cooking was for the women only.
Today, we all live down the street from each other, and my mother and sister come to my house to help my daughter and me make the ravioli, while I play Italian music and throw in some of my own cooking tips. We prepare the ravioli a few days ahead of time and freeze them for Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, we celebrate the feast of the seven fishes, a Roman Catholic tradition observing abstinence from the consumption of meat as well as a tribute to the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. It is not Christmas Eve in my family without baccalà (Italian salted cod) that must be soaked for at least two days in cold water to remove the excess sodium.
Every year, my parents and I take a trip to Little Italy, and I leave it up to my mom to pick out her perfect piece of baccalà. My mother fries the fish and tops it with fresh tomatoes, onions, Moroccan olives and hot red peppers. I prepare an easier version of this recipe, substituting Alaskan white cod for the baccalà. (See recipe). Other fish dishes we enjoy include deep-fried jumbo shrimp, calamari, sea scallops, crab, mussels and linguine with clam sauce.
Our Christmas celebration also includes a variety of nuts and fruit, including fresh figs, pomegranates, persimmons and tangelos. I also make Italian desserts, including cannoli, a fried pastry shell filled with a sweet, creamy filling of ricotta cheese and confectioners’ sugar; chocolate pizzelle, large, round waffle cookies from southern central Italy; amaretti, almond-based cookies; tiramisu, an Italian cake; and biscotti.
To fully appreciate our Christmas traditions, you need to know a little more about my family.
Born and raised in the town of Cirella, near the capital city of Reggio Calabria in Italy, my father and mother immigrated to the United States in 1957 and raised five children. Although they were far removed from their homeland, they were passionate about keeping their traditions intact.
My parents taught me that food is essential to the Italian culture and eating with family and friends is a celebration of life itself. I learned first from my father, the Italian farmer, to grow and enjoy foods in their natural state.
It was my father who started his own slow-food revolution in our family, a revolution I carry on in my family today. From picking olives and tending to his large organic garden of fruits and vegetables, including fava beans, escarole, rappini and broccoli, he cherished the Roma and plum tomatoes as his most prized possessions.
There was no such thing as fast food in our home; ingredients were simple and straightforward, yet rustic and fiery. The staples in our Italian pantry included pasta, bread, olive oil, sausage, prosciutto, goat cheese and hot peppers. Oven-baked bread with a vine-ripe tomato and a chunk of Pecorino Romano cheese drizzled with extra-virgin oil is all a Calabrese needs to stay happy and satisfied.
My mother took the fresh produce my father created and taught me how to prepare cucina Italiana by smell, touch and taste. As a child watching her in the kitchen, I was fascinated with the movement of her hands as she wove intricate details into preparing the made-from-scratch, mouthwatering meals that her mother had served, and her mother before her.
Even though none of the recipes is written down, they all remain in my memory and turn out the same delicious way every time. My mother is amazed at how I remembered everything just by watching her. She was a remarkable teacher and is still my mentor today.
I was always fascinated with how my mother described the food she prepared. For example, she could tell her pasta or pizza dough was perfect by the way it felt in her hands. She was animated with the food and emotionally attached to it, as if it had a life of its own. The day was not complete unless there was a beautiful meal on the table for her family. She infused love into each dish. That was her gift to us.
Anyone who visited was inaugurated with several helpings of handmade spaghetti and meatballs. I remember my husband, John, visiting often when we were dating, and bypassing me for the kitchen. You know the old saying: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I met John 30 years ago in high school, and we now have two grown children — Lucia and Frank.
The food and fun doesn’t end with Christmas Day. I love to cook for my family, and we celebrate life all year long. I hope you will, too. Mangiare bene, vivere bene! (Eat well, live well!)
BEEF AND SPINACH RAVIOLI
Makes 8-10 servings
For the ravioli dough
9 large eggs (reserve two eggs for egg wash)
4 tablespoons extra- virgin olive oil
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
All-purpose flour, for dusting
In a mixer, beat the eggs and olive oil until foamy. Change to a dough hook, add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix until it forms a ball. On a lightly floured work surface, knead the dough until smooth. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for about 30 minutes.
FOR THE FILLING
2 pounds raw, lean ground beef
9 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 cups Italian bread crumbs
5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and drained of excess water
Add all the ingredients to a large bowl and incorporate thoroughly.
To make the ravioli: Divide dough in half. On a floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a 24-by-24-inch sheet about ¼-inch thick. In a small bowl, prepare egg wash by beating the remaining 2 eggs until foamy. Brush egg wash evenly over one entire sheet, then carefully spread the meat filling evenly over the top. Place the other sheet on top of the sheet with the meat mixture and press down on the edges with your fingers to create a seal. Generously dust flour over the top of the sheet (this helps the dough from sticking to the ravioli roller).
With a wooden ravioli roller, carefully roll over the dough from edge to edge, applying gentle pressure to ensure the two dough sheets connect to make the squares. Cut each square with a ravioli cutter and place on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap and dusted with flour (this keeps the ravioli from sticking). Repeat with plastic wrap and flour as needed. Cover ravioli and place in freezer. Once frozen, remove ravioli squares from baking sheet and place in resealable freezer-safe plastic bags. No need to thaw frozen ravioli before cooking. Gently place ravioli in a large pot of salted boiling water and cook on medium to medium-high heat for approximately 35-40 minutes (see note) or until meat inside is thoroughly cooked. Ravioli will expand and float to the top, so be sure to use a pot with plenty of room. Remove ravioli with a strainer or slotted spoon and serve with your favorite jar of marinara sauce or my marinara (see recipe). Top with grated Pecorino Romano Cheese.
Note: Fresh ravioli take a little less time to cook, approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until meat inside is thoroughly cooked.
MARIA’S MARINARA SAUCE
Makes 8-10 servings
12 medium-size ripe tomatoes, roasted (directions follow)
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
Red wine (optional)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Chicken seasoning, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
6 bay leaves
3 tablespoons dried basil
3 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
1 tablespoon fennel seeds (optional)
Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Arrange the tomatoes on the sheet pan and roast for 30 to 35 minutes. When tomatoes have cooled, remove peel, core and purée in small batches in a blender.
Transfer tomato purée to a large saucepan. Bring to a slow boil and add tomato paste. Using a whisk, add water until you reach desired consistency. (I like to substitute a bit of red wine for some of the water). Add remaining ingredients. Simmer over low heat covered for about 25 to 30 minutes.
ALASKAN WHITE COD WITH TOMATOES AND MOROCCAN OLIVES
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
6 Alaskan white cod fillets (6 ounces each) (boneless and skinless)
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 large white onion, sliced
6 ripe Roma tomatoes, chopped
11/2 cups Moroccan olives, pitted
Handful of hot red peppers (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place fish in baking dish. Season fish with salt and pepper and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Scatter garlic and onions over the top. Cover baking dish with foil. Bake approximately 20 minutes or until fish is cooked through. Remove from oven and top with tomatoes, olives and red peppers. Cover and let rest 5 minutes before serving.
CANNOLI WITH BING CHERRIES AND PISTACHIOS
8 store-bought cannoli shells
2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Juice of 1 orange
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon amaretto
1/4 cup chocolate chips, finely chopped
1/4 cup pistachios, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried Bing cherries, finely chopped
8 maraschino cherries, halved
Powdered sugar, for dusting
In a large mixing bowl, stir together all ingredients (except shells) until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour to let flavors set. Do not fill the cannoli shells until ready to serve.
Spoon cannoli filling into a pastry bag with an open tip and stuff cannoli shells. Garnish each end with a half of a maraschino cherry. Lightly dust with powdered sugar and serve.
Recipes by Maria Desiderata Montana
*This story by Maria Desiderata Montana first appeared in the U-T San Diego.