The Mamma Meets the Cucina: The Feast of the Seven Fishes

From the Mamma…

Christmas Eve’s Feast of the Seven Fishes or “La Vigilia” comes from a long standing Catholic tradition of avoiding meat on the vigil of (vigil = the night before) the Feast Day of Christmas. Tilapia is a favorite meatless dish in our house, which is why I chose to highlight it for this blog post. Now, our family might not have ALL seven dishes include fish, but we will throw on some shrimp fra diavolo, even if it is served sans capellini as an appetizer. But the tilapia and the pasta dish are a staple for us on Christmas Eve. It’s yummy enough to impress the crowds of friends and family, but easy enough to handle as we quickly end the game of Scopa and rush to Midnight Mass! So give these a try – even if it’s not for La Vigilia – they make a great accompaniment to each other.

PARMESAN CRUSTED TILAPIA
This recipe is one of easy, healthy , and tasty all at the same time. Even kids are huge fans – whaddaya know?! A kid-pleasing fish dish without the word “stick” in the title!

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated romano cheese
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup melted butter
4-6 tilapia loins

Coat the tilapia in the melted butter. Mix all dry ingredients. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Coat the tilapia i the bread crumb mixture. Place on parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees. Serve immediately with a side of GEMELLI PASTA!!

CHRISTMAS EVE GEMELLI
This dish is so simple, yet full of flavor. The red and green of the tomatoes and the arugula make a great addition to the Christmas tablescape.

1 lb. Gemelli pasta
1 can crushed tomatoes
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
e.v.o.o.
1 bag arugula
salt
pepper
crushed red pepper

Add 2-3 tbsps of e.v.o.o. to a large, deep skillet. Saute the garlic until light caramel in color. Add the arugula and cook until slightly wilted. (NOTE: you could use spinach here if you do not like arugula. The idea is to get the green color and an added distinct flavor) Remove and set aside. Add the crushed tomatoes, crushed red pepper, salt & black pepper to taste. Simmer for 20 minutes or so. Boil the gemelli till al dente. Just before draining, add the arugula back in. Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce. Serve immediately.

From the Cucina…  

My family has been celebrating Christmas Eve with the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes for as long as I could remember, and of course many years before that. For years, our meal would consist of most of the traditional dishes, such as baccala soup, smelts and shrimp. Non-fish dishes, such as spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and oil) and chicken cutlets would also be served for those not-so-much into seafood. Over the past few years, my cousins, my brother and sister-in-law, and myself have been stepping up to help relieve our aunts and Grandmother from the heavy kitchen duties, while at the same time trying to update the menu a bit with some more modern dishes such as seared scallops and crab cakes. However we still make sure to keep some of the traditional staples in the rotation.

This year I am very proud and honored to be taking over one of the crown jewels of the table, stuffed calamari. Now chances are that many of you are only familiar with the more popular Italian eatery appetizer, fried calamari. Unlike the fried rings, stuffed calamari is actually using the whole calamari tube, stuffed with a breadcrumb and cheese filling, and cooked slowly in a pot of red sauce (I don’t use the word gravy here because there is no meat involved). When cooked, they resemble a stuffed shell, and they are tender enough to cut without a knife!

If you have never tried stuffed calamari, I encourage you to do so. Whether you serve it along with pasta or on its own, I guarantee you it will make for a special part of your meal, especially if you are planning to celebrate a traditional Italian Christmas Eve.

STUFFED CALAMARI
Makes 8-10 pieces

1 lb. calamari tubes, cleaned (you can purchase cleaned calamari tubes in the freezer section of your grocery store)
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 teaspoon parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Olive oil (enough to add to mixture until proper consistency)
* you can also chop the unused calamari tentacles and place them in the stuffing mixture for extra texture and flavor. Uncooked shrimp will also work well

Sauce Ingredients
1 29oz can tomato sauce, plus 1 can water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

In a large pot, sauté garlic in heated olive oil. Add tomato sauce and sauce seasonings. Add water until desired consistency. Bring to a slow boil, then lower the temperature to simmer.

Mix stuffing ingredients, add oil and mix with hands until you get a nice, meatball-like consistency. Using a spoon, loosely stuff each calamari tube. You don’t want to pack the tubes, because the stuffing will expand and the calamari will shrink when cooked. Secure the open ends of the tubes with a toothpick. Add the tubes to the sauce, cook on a medium-low simmer for 2 hours. You’re looking for a string cheese consistency when you slice into the calamari. Serve and enjoy!

– We would like to wish all of our readers a happy and peaceful holiday and the warmest wishes for the New Year. Buon Natale!
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New Guest Recipe – Gingerbread

It’s beginning to look (and feel) a lot like Christmas! As we quickly approach the holidays, what better way to celebrate than with a delicious gingerbread! This week, my good friend Emma shares with us a fantastic gingerbread recipe, and also works her magic to give us a gluten-free version! Enjoy!

Where to begin with this month’s blog? I guess I should start by telling you that I had every intention of blogging about Struffoli (aka Honey Balls) for the Christmas season. My intentions were so good that I actually went out and bought an expensive, imported bottle of Limoncello for that exact purpose. However, a million other little things happened to prevent me from getting the chance to make it. For example, my cat got sick…twice! And I took in some foster kittens even though I said I was going to take a break until after the holidays. And, of course, I got hit with the cold from hell. All of this in between wanting to spend as much time with all of the people whom I love that happened to be visiting from out of town this month.

So, I decided to blog about a recipe that I had made before and knew would turn out well. It’s a gingerbread recipe by Emeril that I came across a few years ago. This recipe has been bulletproof for me. Seriously, I have made countless substitutions to this recipe and each time I’ve had perfect results. I’ve done everything from using dark molasses in place of the regular (and/or a combination of the two when I’ve fallen short of one or the other), to adding bittersweet chocolate chips. In case you’re thinking about adding the chocolate chips (which I highly recommend), let me just warn you that they did sink to the bottom of the pan during baking. I’m pretty sure this can be remedied by coating the chips in 1 – 2 tbsp of the flour mixture before adding it to the batter, or you can always try sprinkling the chips on top before baking. Either way, I think they were a delicious addition and worthy of trying again.

When making this recipe into the gluten-free version, I discovered that I didn’t have quite enough of any of the various gluten-free flours that I keep around. So, I ended up using equal parts of two different gluten-free flour blends. In the end, the recipe worked. My only complaint is that it rose a little too high and collapsed slightly in the middle after baking, but that can easily be fixed by adjusting the amount of baking soda in the recipe. Most importantly, it had no negative effect on the taste or texture of the bread.

Oh, and did I mention that dark beer plays a huge role in this gingerbread? I didn’t, did I? Well it does, and I think it may be what sets this gingerbread apart from all other gingerbread recipes. Since making this bread a few years ago, I have learned that while I don’t care for the taste of dark beer on it’s own, I love the flavor it lends to baked goods. And, more often than not, I will have a few bottles of it stashed in my fridge just in case I get the urge to bake with it.

GINGERBREAD
by Emeril Lagasse

Ingredients
1 stick unsalted butter (room temp)
1 cup turbinado sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup molasses (regular or dark will work, but I prefer the dark)
1 cup Guinness, or other dark beer

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch cake pan and line with parchment paper. (Please note: I usually use the mini foil loaf pans instead of the cake pan and bake for approximately 10 minutes more than called for. I get two loaves, which are the perfect size for gift-giving. On several occasions, I’ve even made it in a full loaf pan. I can’t quite remember how long it took to bake but I want to say about an hour and 15 minutes, and you may need to tent the pan with foil to prevent the top from getting too dark.)

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves, and nutmeg, In a third bowl, combine the molasses and beer and stir to dissolve. Add the dry ingredients and beer mixture alternately to the egg mixture, starting with and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pan and bake until puffed and set, about 35 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool in the pan on a wire rack.

GLUTEN-FREE GINGERBREAD
adapted from Emeril Lagasse

Ingredients
1 stick unsalted butter (room temp)
1 cup turbinado sugar
3 large eggs
2 cups gluten-free flour mix (I used 1 cup King Arthur Flour’s g/f flour blend and 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill g/f flour blend)
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
2 teaspoons ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda (I had a minor issue with this recipe puffing up and collapsing slightly in the middle, so you may want to adjust the amount of baking soda used.)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup molasses (regular or dark will work, but I prefer the dark, especially since the g/f beer I used is not as dark as the Guinness)
1 cup Redbridge Gluten-free beer

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch cake pan and line with parchment paper. (Please note: I usually use the mini foil loaf pans instead of the cake pan and bake for approximately 10 minutes more than called for. I get two loaves, which are the perfect size for gift-giving. On several occasions, I’ve even made it in a full loaf pan. I can’t quite remember how long it took to bake but I want to say about an hour and 15 minutes, and you may need to tent the pan with foil to prevent the top from getting too dark.)

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. In a medium bowl, sift the gluten-free flour, xanthan gum, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves, and nutmeg, In a third bowl, combine the molasses and beer and stir to dissolve. Add the dry ingredients and beer mixture alternately to the egg mixture, starting with and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pan and bake until puffed and set, about 35 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool in the pan on a wire rack.

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Deck the Malts with Hops and Barley – The Holiday Beer Post!

December 5, 2010 Menu 3 Comments

‘Tis the season for cheer, celebration and merriment, and holiday spirits are no doubt one of the key ingredients to a festive evening. While a good bottle of wine, a nice mixed drink, or a glass of spiked eggnog are among the top choices to fill your glass, Christmas beers have taken on a tradition of their own over the years. Being one who has come to appreciate the complexity and craftsmanship of a good beer, I get to enjoy this time of year as much as I did when I was a kid playing with my new toys.

Before we go any further, I would like to say that I am not by any means a beer connoisseur. I just enjoy certain styles of beers that I have come to appreciate, and am able to b.s. my way through a beer conversation if needed. So to help make the most of this post, which I have been looking forward to writing for a while now, I will be referring to two of my most trusted sources. First, my good friend Matt Pesotski has offered some great words of wisdom. Matt not only has a great appreciation for all things beer, but is also partially responsible for introducing me to better beer. Second is one of my favorite books, Christmas Beer: The Cheeriest, Tastiest, and Most Unusual Holiday Brews, by Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack). Mr. Russell is an award winning writer who has traveled the world in search of great beers and great stories. He is also a helluva a nice guy! His book is phenomenal, loaded with great stories, recipes and photos of every beer mentioned. The photos really comes in handy when you are searching a library bookcase-sized shelf at a specialty store for a specific bottle. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Christmas beers.

What is Christmas Beer?
From the wassails and solstice celebration ales of years past to wee heavies and barleywines of today, winter seasonals represent a huge category of beer. Winter warmers, also known as Christmas beer or holiday beer, are brewed with the intentions of celebrating both the holidays and the winter season. They are quite often laced with flavors and spices such as citrus, nutmeg, cloves, honey, extra hops and sweet malts. They also tend to have a higher alcohol content, which helps keep you warm on those blustery cold nights!

As Mr. Russle states in his book, Christmas beer is technically not a style. Unlike other recognizable beer styles such as a pilsner, bock or brown ale, the Christmas beer/winter warmer/holiday seasonal beers can’t be defined by color, alcohol content, or flavor. There are no rules, no brewing guielines. They are whatever the brewer wants to make. The only criteria is that the beer must be special. It must be produced specifically for the holiday season and its packaging must reflect this. In essence, they are like little gifts, just waiting to be opened!

Here’s what Matt had to offer, regarding the style of winter warmers: “Overall, winter is the beer season to go big. We’re not sitting in the back yard pounding crisp pilsners while listening to the Phillies on the radio or cooling off at a BBQ. It’s about sitting, sipping, and savoring. Hopefully, you’re not going anywhere, because we’re often talking about some high-octane stuff, and with the sweet flavors that are prevalent this time of year, it’s easy to go past your normal threshold, and in a hurry. Perhaps more than any other beer season, winter/holiday is the perfect time to stock up with variety. You won’t want a whole case of a lot of these if you’re just trying to fill your fridge, rather than plan for a party, so I like to get a few sixers, a variety case, or find someone to split a case with since it’s hard to get beer in bulk without getting 24 of the same beer.”

These are some of my favorite beers….
If you are like me and you get caught up in presentation and labels, you will also have a lot of fun checking out the fun packaging, labels and bottles that fill up the shelves this time of year. Many of your holiday beers are packaged with catchy holiday-related names and characters. Elves have a reputation of being mischievous little buggers, so it is no surprise that the elf character has overtaken many a Christmas beer. There’s the Rude Elf, the Bad Elf, the Really Bad Elf and the Criminally Bad Elf to name a few. But the elf that reigns supreme in my opinion is The Mad Elf, by Tröegs Brewing Company. It’s a ruby colored Belgian strong dark ale, flavored with cherries, honey, ginger and clove spiciness. It also packs a walloping 11% alcohol volume…no wonder why the elf is so mad! Being that it has such a unique, flavorful taste, this is definitely one that sneaks up on you, very quickly. This may also explain why this is one of the most sought after beers in the northeast, as it moves very quickly off the shelves during this season. I suggest you share one of these with your friends, or plan to nestle in for the night if you are drinking alone!

As expected, Santa himself plays a major role in much of the holiday beer packaging. From classic Dickens-type images to cartoonish comical situations, Old Saint Nick is very well represented. One of my favorite Santa beers is St. Nikolaus Bock Bier, a malty, smooth, dark Munich-style lager by Pennsylvania Brewing Company. Though not as strong as Mad Elf, it does have a heavier alcohol content than your everyday beer, and serves well with a hearty winter’s meal.

One of my seasonal stand-by’s is anything by Samuel Adams. They’ve actually gained more of a reputation as of late for their seasonal offering as opposed to their flagship Boston Lager. The holiday season offers a nice variety of Sammy Adams brews. From their Winter Lager with wheat and spices and their Holiday Porter to their cinnamon and ginger spiced Old Fezziwig Ale, there is something for everyone to try. All three of these beers, along with a few other interesting offerings are available in a nice mixed case.

Another winter’s beer that I enjoy is Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale, a spiced winter warmer brewed with vanilla beans and aged in oak bourbon casks. Right off the bat, this beer gets some unnecessary flack because it’s an Anheuser-Busch product, and not a craft brew. How in the world can one of the big beer companies make anything that tastes good? Well, give it a try and see for yourself…it’s a nice, flavorful beer. Blue Moon gets a pass, right?

The last main holiday beer that I tend to enjoy most is Anchor Brewing’s Our Special Ale, which is a spiced winter warmer that changes up both its label and recipe each year. Flavors such as ginger, evergreen, licorice and cooked fruit have all been part of past years recipes.

I realize that I have only scratched the surface of the vast variety of holiday and winter beers. There are countless incredible offerings from all over the United States and all over the world. So what I have done is set up a special discussion board on the Cucina Domenico facebook page. I encourage you to visit the board and offer up your favorite holiday beers, comments and suggestions. You can visit the board by clicking here.

To my friends who have helped me understand that there is more to life than Bud Light and Rolling Rock: Matt, John, Evan, Elisa, Deanna, Zack, Andrea, Abby, Alice, Conni, Steve, Paul, Brian, Barb, Craig, Tony, Dan, Jeff, Carl, Charlie (Cholly), Neumann, my brother Anthony, and of course Mr. Joe Sixpack….I raise a glass to you this season. And to all of my readers…Salute e la felicità!

For more information on these beers, you can visit beeradvocate.com

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