Thursday, January 9, 2014

Christmas With Royalty, The Neighbor Series: Part 1

Scavengers need farmers and friendly neighbors to get by.  The convergence of these mighty forces left this scavenger feeling like Tiny Tim with Mrs. Crachit's plum pudding on Christmas Eve. 

Let's face it, each of us would be lost without the sunscreen slathered souls who pick rocks out of tilled soil and place seeds there instead.  Ah, the sunbeaten kind, with their soil parched lips, the squash scrapes on their arms, creaky knees in the dirt, or those with dull miles of prairie to harvest to the tune of a lowback throb and Kenny Chesney, Korn or Lil Wayne on the satellite radio: we're nothing without our farmers.  Disclosure:  I'm lucky enough to live with one.  Thanks to Bee, Duchess of the Black Garbanzo,  the keystone of our Christmas table was Marina Di Chioggia.  

Warty pumpkin of the sea, your surface belies the sweetness hidden beneath your skin.  What is it with Chioggia and the tendency of folks to append the town's name to various superlative fruits and vegetables?  This pumpkin, the famous, candy-striped beets as well as the globular variety of radicchio most familiar to Americans- all are associated with this salt-glazed island-town in the Venetian Lagoon.  Looking at photos of the modern island, it's tough to see how any food could be grown in a space so packed with tile-roofed buildings.  But the Veneto, the Italian region that cradles the Gulf of Venice and surrounds Chioggia, is known for its agricultural products.

The Marina Di C. was an experiment when ordering seeds this year and we were excited about its possibilities- particularly in the realm of stuffed pasta.  Winter squash addicts might happily roast and eat the Marina any which way, (drizzled with melted butter or pureed into soup) but it is almost as if the pumpkin was destined to become filling.  Or so we read.  

Mild apprehension set in when we consulted our recipe for Cappellacci, squash-stuffed ravioli.  Marcella Hazan unequivocally states in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, that the right squash for the job is the one and only zucca barucca.  Any other squash would be an abomination.  Usually, Marcella reluctantly provides some alternative for pathetic Americans who can't find the proper Italian ingredients, but, in this case, she says that sweet potatoes make an excellent substitute.  However, with squash in our pantry, we weren't going down that road. 

It is characteristic of our relationship with Hazan (who skewered Mario Batali for using the wrong pan to cook risotto on his cooking show) that even as we are cowed by her admonitions, we are tempted to rebel against them.  We could well imagine Marcella rolling over in her fresh-mounded grave when we decided to forge on with the Marina Di Chioggia.

We had a feeling that things were going to be all right when we pulled her steaming out of the oven and tasted the candy sweet, caramelized pulp.  I mixed the pulp with grated parmigiano-reggiano, chopped prosciutto, an egg, a couple of pulverized biscotti (Marcella calls for amaretti cookies), parsley, salt and a scant grating of nutmeg.  

This delectable mixture would have been a lost cause without the able hands of Upstairs Z, our Flour Queen.  Married with her highness' careful pasta touches, the squash paste was lifted to silky perfection, trapped in tender parcels until released by a fork in small, deep-orange floods.   


For the sauce, I heated 6 tablespoons of butter, threw in 8-10 fresh sage leaves and let it bubble.  We placed three ravioli in each bowl, doused them with the butter and the heated sage leaves and sprinkled a generous pinch of parm-regg overtop.  


Obviously, we were all impressed by Marina Di Chioggia's performance.  Convinced that Marcella must have overlooked the sea pumpkin when testing alternate squashes for Cappellacci, I looked into the matter a bit further.  Imagine my astonished gladness when discovering that the Marina Di Chioggia and zucca barruca are ONE AND THE SAME.  Zucca Barucca is a Venetian colloquialism - zucca meaning pumpkin and barucca being a clever amalgam of verruca (Italian for warty) and the Hebrew baruch, meaning blessed.  The blessed squash, Blistered Pumpkin of the Gods!
But I've gotten ahead of myself.  To kick off the evening's gustatory procession, we devoured a tender rack prepared by Upstairs Bubba, the King of the Tuscan Ribs.  I did not manage to get a good photo as I was transfixed by eating them.  And they went fast.  Slow-roasted and succulent, encrusted with whole fennel seeds, ground New Mexico chili and various other secret substances- these were the kind of ribs that leave you speechless and fill a famished soul.  

Without intending it, we continued in the Chioggia vein by pan frying radicchio quarters wrapped in pancetta and prosciutto ala Batali.  Upstairs Bubba made a bowl of quick pickles out of a sliced red onion.  The quarters were hell to keep together in the skillet and they didn't look super pretty when plated- kind of like ragged hearts on a bed of onions- but they were extremely tasty.

Somewhere, perhaps between the ribs and the radicchio, we freshened things up with a simple arugula and shredded carrot salad.  And our distant neighbor Dids, Princess of E. MO., brought a bottle of bubbly and a jar of cranberry simple syrup.  Spoonfuls of the thick syrup sank to the bottoms of the tall glasses like tiny placentas through which bubbles struggled.

The evening ended with strong coffee and wedges of Upstairs Z's rosemary-olive oil cake.

The portioning was perfect and I didn't feel too full or too drunk .  I'm already looking forward to next year.
Who needs Santa Claus when you've got good neighbors?

No comments:

Post a Comment