Celebrating the Holidays Italian Style

Most people who meet me don’t know my family background is Italian. When they ask for my maiden name that doesn’t help them out either, “Fernandes?” they say questioning if I even know what I’m talking about. That’s a story for another day. 
My parents hail from Southern Italy, Calabria to be exact and came to Canada with their families, my mother as a young girl and my father later as a young man. With them they brought a rich desire to keep traditions alive within their own families. 

As a young girl, growing up with my grandmother I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have a grandmother who was an awesome cook, and still is by the way, but also how much she cared for her family by showering them with food. It truly is a way to show love among families. The holidays were always a favourite time of mine as a child and more so as I became older. I started to understand the history of my parent’s culture and which I was immersed in and still growing up in and all the food that went along with it. I wanted to make sure that when I had children that they too could experience all this amazing culture and tradition. For my family two really big holidays are Christmas and Easter, not to mention all the Saints we celebrate throughout the year too!

What I found out, is that for most families they never really knew why they did what they did during the holidays, like enjoy a deliciously huge seafood and fish feast on Christmas Eve-“La Vigilia”. They only did it because it was a family tradition.  So many stories are told why we enjoy such a delicious array of shrimp, calamari, cod or loving referred to as “baccala” and sometimes even little smelts or anchovies fried up to enjoy with a sprinkling of red wine vinegar.
The celebration of Christmas Eve varies throughout Italy and can be in some parts of Italy a two day feast! I certainly would have no problems with that. Each region throughout Italy has its own rituals and recipes but the thing that the Church imposed long time ago; is that everyone eats fish to purify the body, so no eating meat, in order to enjoy the big meal that follows the next day. It’s a nice thought, but in most cases I’m just as full on Christmas Eve as I am Christmas Day! For me it is a special time to enjoy dinner at my mom and dad’s with aunts, uncles, cousins and my sister and my own family to continue these traditions that I grew up with. We are now a smaller family as my grandmother lives in Sault Ste. Marie along with lots of other aunts and uncles and cousins. But as I have gotten older times have changed and families have spread out further which makes it difficult to all be together during the holidays. I strive to try and keep those traditions alive and more importantly the food of my youth and my parent’s youth so that one day I can be the grandmother at the table and help my family put on a delicious dinner for La Vigilia for my children’s families.

In Italy some of these meals consist of many courses which before even sitting down, enjoying a variety of appetizers which include salami, cheeses, olives and other morsels to pop in your mouth. The meal itself could start off with a light soup or pasta dish. Many of the courses or dishes will have fish or seafood as an ingredient or as the main course. I think this year my sister is going to make a shrimp linguine and my mom is going to make her classic battered fish.  She has a great batter that she uses for the cod, but it also works well for any firm whitefish like tilapia, halibut or haddock. Also some fried calamari and shrimp are favourites for the kids along with some salads to make up the meal and some vegetables too to round things out. Whether the fish or seafood is fried, baked, grilled or poached it all tastes great, especially with a squirt of fresh lemon juice. 

Now after all that what more could you eat? Easily the fresh fruit platter comes out along with a dessert tray of cookies and sweet treats. A classic that my grandmother and mother have always made each year are Turdilli. A celebrated Calabrian wine cookie, it is a preferred favourite for many but can be an acquired taste and texture for some! I was feeling very nostalgic and missing my grandmother so I decided to whip some up and share the recipe. I did cut the recipe in half because I didn’t think you needed 80 of these little nuggets at once, but if you did to know you could double the recipe. 
Many cookies and desserts are fried in oil for a great texture and to celebrate the richness of the land where olives grow beautifully and provide sustenance of life for many. Then coated in honey to add sweetness and good fortune for the New Year. What lovely thoughts to have when enjoying dessert, sometimes other desserts just don’t have the same meaning.

Whether you are making Christmas Eve dinner or not, I think spending time with your family is key. So over the holiday season be sure to give out some hugs, make some phone calls or emails and reach out to family you may not have seen for awhile. And if you can make them some food or share a meal at a table and talk about what’s been going on and what the future may hold might just make 2010 brighter for everyone. Happy Holidays! Buon Natale!

A wine cookie that has very little wine flavour after frying and coating in honey. For longer storage, freeze the cookies before coating them in honey and then warm them up in the hot honey to serve when you need them. Perfect with a shot of liqueur or espresso after your holiday meal.

½ cup (125 mL) red wine
¼ cup (50 mL) extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp (15 mL) granulated sugar
1 tsp (5 mL) vegetable shortening
1 cup (250 mL) all purpose flour (approx)
1/3 cup (75 mL) liquid honey
Vegetable or canola oil (for frying)

In a small saucepan, bring wine, oil, sugar and shortening to boil. Remove from heat and gradually stir enough of the flour to make a soft dough. Dump dough onto floured surface and let cool until easy enough to handle and knead remaining flour into the dough adding up to 2 tbsp (25 mL) more flour if needed to create a soft, supple, smooth dough. 

Cut dough into 4 pieces and roll each piece into 10 inch (25 cm) long rope. Cut into 1 inch (2.5 cm) pieces. Roll each piece on the back of a fork to create ridges on one side and an indent on the other side. Set aside and repeat with remaining dough.

Meanwhile in a deep fryer or high sided saucepan heat oil to 325 to 350 F (160 to 180 C). Fry about 4 to 6 turdilli at a time, turning over occasionally for about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Remove with slotted spoon onto paper towel lined plate. Repeat with remaining cookies. 

In microwaveable bowl or saucepan, heat oil on HIGH for about 40 seconds or until bubbly. Place cookies into a bowl and pour honey over top and swirl bowl for honey to coat cookies evenly. Place on platter and sprinkle with holiday sprinkled if desired.

Makes 40 cookies.

Tips: Use a deep fry thermometer in the oil if using a saucepan and try to keep it at the temperature range of 325 to 350 F (160 to 180 F)
I did do a little experiment in my own kitchen and if you don’t want to use wine you can use cranberry or grape juice instead. It works well and they also are a lighter colour when you fry them.

Fritto Misto
This light batter creates a golden, crisp coating for any fish. My mom also uses this batter to coat shrimp or calamari. A great recipe for fish and chips for anytime of the year too.

6 cups (1.5 L) vegetable oil
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
2 tsp (10 mL) baking powder
1/2 tsp (2 mL) each salt and grated lemon rind
Pinch pepper
1 cup (250 mL) water
2 lbs (1 kg) fish fillets, such as cod, tilapia or haddock
1 lb (500 g) small squid (calamari), cleaned
1 lb (500 g) large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
Lemon wedges

In a deep fryer or large deep saucepan heat oil to 375 F (190 C).

In bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, lemon rind and pepper. Whisk in water until smooth; set aside. 

Cut cod into 3 inch (8 cm) chunks. Cut any tentacles off squid; discard. Pat shrimp, cod and squid dry with paper towel.

Dip each fish fillet into batter, letting excess drip back into bowl. Place a few pieces at a time, in batches into deep fryer and fry for about 3 minutes, turning once or until golden. Remove with slotted spoon onto paper towel lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining fish and seafood. Serve with lemon.

Makes 8 to10 servings.

Tip: Keep the fish warm in a 250 F (120 C) oven for up to 30 minutes.

Cut the squid into smaller pieces if they are large.


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