The (late) Sunday post: New Year’s Eve

This is a belated post, I know: I needed some time to recover after the holidays, and I tried to stay away from the computer. This is also somewhat a special post: Sunday was New Year’s Eve here, and I managed to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen, trying to come out with a special treat to say goodbye to 2006. Since it would take a book to write about everything I did, something I don’t have time to write and my readers definitely don’t want to read, you will have to cope with short summaries and a few pictures. I promise I will return to full recipes in a short while. Without further ado, then, here we go with a wrap-up of what a typical Italian New Year’s Eve dinner looks like.

We started off with some appetizers, namely Parma ham, lard and salmon on canapés. Smoked salmon has become a tradition over here, and this was nothing fancy to prepare, except for the home-made bread which was mixed with nuts and olives. Nice to see, easy to do and good to eat, while having a chat and waiting for the first course. The only trick to note is about getting the right temperature for the lightly toasted bread to allow lard to slightly melt: cold lard is nice but requires some marinating in oil and chili to perform at its best, while melted lard tastes too greasy and slimey even for me.

Pasta was the special deal for the night, and it required quite some work: we wanted to have three different kinds of filled pasta, and we figured out that it would have been better to make large quantities of each, in order to fill our freezer up and get a few dinners for free. It took us no less than 2kg of flours and 16 eggs to come up with the amount of dough we needed, then it was time to roll it into thin layers, prepare the filling and assemble the whole thing. Quite a hard work, but definitely worth the effort, as we finished up with a nice layout of:

  • tortellini, the most traditional filled pasta you can eat during the Holiday Season. This belly-button shaped pasta is usually filled with Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, but we like to add some plain ham and mortadella (a large, lightly smokey italian sausage) to the mix, to soften it up. Tortellini require some skill in properly revolving pasta around the filling, something which is as easy to show as hard to write, but the real problem comes with the filling: Parma ham doesn’t like the food processor at all (it becomes stringy), and the only alternative if you don’t have a meat grinder lying around is working your way with a knife and a lot of patience;
  • pansotti, straight from my homeland: triangle shaped pasta filled with vegetables and ricotta filling (I know, my fellow countrymen: I shouldn’t use ricotta, but then again there is no prescinseua in Milano…), seasoned with the traditional walnut sauce made with mortar-crushed walnuts, milk soaked bread, some garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese;
  • ravioli, a traditionally-shaped pasta cut in squares, which is usually filled with meat or vegetables. We opted for an unusual yet great filling (probably this was the best pasta we had): minced roast pork (a fortunate leftover!), crushed nuts and a mashed potato to tie everything together. All this was seasoned with sage-flavored beurre-noisette and the obligatory sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

We had no less than two main courses after all this. Actually it was slightly more than a bite, as we were pretty much filled up with pasta, but I wanted to try galantina, something deemed very difficult to cook, and we couldn’t do without some cotechino with lentils, as we will see in a minute.

Chicken galantina is (surprise!) a traditional festive dish for the Holiday season, and it requires some work and a bit of luck. Our version starts with a carved chicken breast, laid out on some cellophane foil and slightly beaten/rolled to form a layer of meat. This is the external part of a roll, which is filled with finely minced veal, ham, mortadella, a couple of beaten eggs, some Parma ham thick strips (which become cubes when sliced) and a few pistacchios (the more the merrier, according to my wife). The tricky bit is understanding the right quantity of filling, as it will grow during cooking, and possibly make the whole roll explode. We took our bet, and started rolling the chicken breast using the cellophane foil to help us out, with a technique that reminds of sushi rolls. We wrapped the whole thing in cellophane and let it rest for a while, then took the cellophane off to firmly roll everything in a 100% cotton kitchen towel, which we tied at both ends using some kitchen string (warning: it has to be tight).

I used the ham and meat leftovers, together with onion, carrot, celery and parsley, to make a light stock, in which we poached our chicken roll. A bit more than an hour, at simmering heat, and the roll was ready to be squeezed between two plates with some considerable weight on top (this helps expelling the liquid and consolidate the filling), with no less than 3-4 hours ahead to rest and cool down. Meanwhile the stock is filtered twice, then brought back to boil for five minutes with a couple of egg whites slightly whisked: the egg whites perform some magic and grab all the dirty bits from the stock, without affecting the flavour, and it’s enough to remove the egg white chunks using a sieve to obtain some crystal clear liquid which is perfect, with some de-alcoholyzed white wine and a couple of agar-agar sheets, to provide the jelly to top off the sliced chicken roll. A few hours in the fridge, and the galantina is ready for your eating pleasure!

The second, and final, main course was cotechino with lentils: we really couldn’t take it anymore, but during New Year’s Eve you’re supposed to have lentils, as they bring good luck and money, so we indulged. Cotechino is a typical raw sausage of pork which requires a painful long cooking: the sausage needs to be soaked in cold water for no less than ten hours, then pierced with a wooden stick to let some fat out, and finally slowly cooked for no less than 4-5 hours. The alternative is buying a pre-cooked version which requires just some heating, but since it just tastes like crap, I went for the real thing and let the whole thing cook for the whole afternoon (and believe me, it tastes great but smells awful in the early cooking stages). Lentils were the easy stuff, even though using the dried version we needed to soak them as well for a few hours: a touch of soffritto, some finely diced pancetta, a couple of tomatoes, a cup of stock and an hour simmering on the stove was enough to provide the best lentil stew I ever did. Usually I can’t stand lentils, but I must confess I really enjoyed them this time, and the leftover on New Year’s Day was even better.

Time to celebrate, finally! The table shows the typical panettone, a dessert bread made with raisins and citron. I might be so brave to try and bake one at home next year, but since it requires a lot of dedication, a full three days’ work and a great oven, we usually buy it and, to add some kick, we cover it with some butter, cocoa and sugar glaze which tastes just wonderful. My wife is a purist, but I like my panettone with some good old custard made with eggs, cream, milk, vanilla, sugar and a lot of patience. Some good italian prosecco wine (no french Champagne over here), and the obligatory twelve grapes where the perfect finish for our New Year’s Eve feast!