My Mother loves to tell this story…
It was the night before Christmas and I was eight years old. My sister and I had worked hard to organize the perfect plate of cookies, glass of milk and note to leave for Santa. Once it was all arranged by the fireplace, my Mother recalled how I was distinctly dissatisfied with our offering. According to her, I went back into the kitchen, took out some prosciutto and started rolling it around some breadsticks. When my mom asked what I was doing, I looked up and said, “Just in case Santa is Italian.”
For some, tinsel and bubble lights conjure up childhood memories of happy holidays, but for me, it’s cardones and cucidadas. To me, Christmas is always about food.
I have one man to thank for this, my grandfather, Papa Charlie –my hero and one of the funniest men I’ve ever known. A Sicilian-American with a heart of gold who treasured his family above all – with food, drink and a pack of Kent cigarettes a close second.
Preparing for Christmas eve
In my family, cooking, not shopping, was what kicked off our holiday season with Papa Charlie as the Captain of our Sicilian-America ship. His job was to keep us all on schedule for The Main Event – Christmas Eve dinner.
Two weeks prior we made the cucidadas. Papa told us it was a recipe passed down by Italian nuns from the town in Sicily from which we hail, Polizzi Generosa. Not sure to this day if his story was true, but nevertheless, the way he told it (always with a dirty joke about a nun) always made me laugh.
He would take out an old metal meat grinder (the one that we only saw once a year) and he would load in raisins, piñoli nuts, dates and molasses. He would let me turn the handle and every year he would pretend that I caught his finger in the grind. This of course would require him to take a “medicinal” swig of wine before continuing on with the baking process. To be honest, I never liked the taste of these cookies but I loved the part when his finger would get stuck.
The week before Christmas was for shopping and for making the Bolognese. I felt so special that he chose to take my sister and me on this annual trip – a ritual, really – heading into Brooklyn in his grey Cadillac. First, we would stop at the butcher, then the cheese shop, the ravioli store and finally to get the mushrooms, cardones and artichokes (all in wooden crates). Of course all the storeowners knew my grandfather by name and they always gave my sister and me some special treats. Once, a butcher gave us gold crosses that he kept in his pocket as if they were pieces of candy.
On the ride home from Brooklyn, the car literally bursting with food, my sister and I sitting in the front seat with no seat belts, he would roll down his window to smoke his beloved Kent and then pull into Carvel, “but only if you promise not to tell Grandma that I had two cones.” Papa was a big man who loved life and food equally.
Once home, we would unload the packed car, get rid of the Carvel evidence and my grandmother would make the Bolognese that we would use for the lasagna on Christmas Day.
The final preparations
Finally on the morning of Christmas Eve, our kitchen would be packed like the prepping stations at a busy restaurant. My sister and I would stuff the artichokes and mushrooms, while Papa would fry the cardones with a cigarette dangling out the side of his mouth. My mom would be busy cleaning and breading the fish.
Ahhh the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But don’t look to me for a recipe. Papa and I shared a common hatred for the smell of fried fish. So he made me what he called “Mariuccia’s Pasta” a.k.a. carbonara (MY FAVORITE). While my family would feast on eel and baccalao, Papa and I would have a delicious plate of pasta with just the perfect amount of pecorino, bacon (pancetta was too fancy for us), egg and black pepper, like we were our own special supper club.
Then wine, wine and more wine, which too was homemade by my grandfather and dad every October. At midnight, the kids would be allowed to open presents, while the adults would gather around the piano and attempt to croon their best Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra. My Papa Charlie would sneak me red wine with a sugar cube in it and laugh when I made a funny face upon the first taste.
Memories, smells and tastes
So here I am Christmas week, heading out the door to do my food shopping in a hurry. Of course, Papa is gone, I’m older and I now realize that those memories, smells and tastes were more precious than any of the wrapped gifts I received as a child.
These memories are so sacred to me. Here were three generations of people together in a room, sharing their recipes, stories, secrets, all the while laughing, crying (remembering the recipes of loved ones who had passed) and singing, always singing. I consider myself lucky that an artichoke can make me smile and remind me of Papa’s laugh; and that a cookie recipe, which may or may not have been created by nuns, allows me to recall the smell of my grandfather’s smoke-filled Cadillac.
I keep these memories alive by allowing the food that I serve to tell Papa’s story over and over again. I keep that tradition and of course, I still leave out some prosciutto-wrapped bread sticks every Christmas Eve…just in case Santa is Italian.
Carbonara Rice Balls (Arancini)
Makes approximately 40 bite-size balls
For the rice balls:
- 2 cups cooked white rice, prepared with a pinch of salt
- 24 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
- 3 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup Pecorino cheese, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 1 tablespoon of freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces pancetta, small diced
For the coating:
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 large eggs
- 2 cups seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
- For serving:
- Extra Pecorino cheese to taste, finely grated
- Cook the rice to the specifications on the package, adding a pinch of salt while it simmers.
- While the rice simmers, cook the pancetta on medium-low heat in a sauté pan, slowly rendering it until crispy. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
- In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients for the rice balls and mix well. Refrigerate the mix for 1 hour so that it has a firm consistency.
- Using a mini ice cream scooper, place individual scoops of the rice mixture onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Once the cookie sheet is filled, individually roll the scoops into even, tight rice balls, using your hands.
- Prepare the coating. In a shallow pan, add the flour and season with salt and pepper (a pie pan works well for this). In a second pan, whisk the eggs. In a third pan, add the breadcrumbs (this is the standard breading formula for most breaded and fried foods).
- Roll the rice balls first the flour, then gently shake them to remove any excess flour. Next, dunk the rice balls into the egg mixture to coat them. Finally, roll the rice balls in the bread crumbs, making sure each ball is thoroughly covered. You can repeat the egg wash and breadcrumb steps for an even crunchier coating. The prepared rice balls can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.
- Preheat a deep fat fryer to 350 degrees. Carefully lower the balls in the fryer in batches, cooking until golden brown.
- Drain on a paper towel. Serve on a platter, sprinkling them with fresh grated Pecorino.