My friend Sarah Lasky, a talented chef and the founder of online lifestyle magazine KosherStreet, asked me to contribute an article for Thanksgiving. At first I was intimidated: an Italian writing about the quintessential American holiday?
But it turned out that I had a few things to say….
It was eight years ago, just a few months after moving to the City, that I experienced my first Manhattan Thanksgiving: ironically, I ended up celebrating the quintessential American holiday at an Italian friend’s home. Daniela had arrived in New York one year before me, and was so smitten with it that she scored higher on the Time Out Magazine test “Are You a Real NewYorker?” than all our American friends. It was her idea to throw an Italian-style Thanksgiving dinner, incorporating the various traditional foods of the holiday into Italian recipes. Given that she is a superb cook, carrying the extraordinary legacy of three different Jewish Italian culinary styles – the Piedmontese, the Venetian and the Ferrarese – it’s no surprise that the meal was an absolute masterpiece. I had the impression that for the American guests, after 30+ years of cranberry sauce and sweet pumpkin pie, eating these Italian delicacies also felt a little naughty! While I can’t replicate the special atmosphere of that night (Daniela’s parties always turn into literary salons, as she has a special talent for inviting the most interesting people), after she moved to Israel I adopted her tradition of remembering the Pilgrims with the regional dishes from my own country.
I’m used to cooking around symbolic foods, because our Passover and Rosh haShana seders are built around them: actually turkey and pumpkin, the most recognizable Thanksgiving ingredients, also appear on my Rosh HaShana table, and again on Sukkot (in different recipes). The connection with Sukkot runs even deeper, as both holidays are harvest festivals: some historians have gone so far as to trace the roots of Thanksgiving in Sukkot, based on encounters the Pilgrims supposedly had with Sephardic Jews in Holland before they left for the Americas.
But whether or not this story is true, Jews celebrate Thanksgiving Day with an intensity usually reserved to our most sacred holidays, simply because we deeply identify with the pilgrims, who had to flee religious discrimination and persecution and travel across an ocean to find freedom – and with their sweat and unwavering faith, fought against illness and scarcity, finally turning America’s wilderness into their “Promised Land”. While the turkey and pumpkin are symbols of bounty, one food on the table is meant to remind us of the harsh winter before the first harvest, when the pilgrims barely had enough to eat. It’s the corn, as it is said that at one point there was so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day. Corn bears a similar type of double-symbolism in Italian history: when it found its way to Italy from the Americas, it immediately spread through the North, and landowners started reaping huge profits by feeding their workers only maize polenta – creamy, delicious and filling, but (eaten alone) so poor of vitamins and protein that it caused an epidemic of Pellagra (the same deficiency disease that spread in the American South during the great Depression, leading to deterioration and death. Somehow, native Americans had avoided it because they added wood ashes and lime to cornmeal, correcting its nutritional imbalance).
Cranberries could also be read as a symbol of suffering: of course we combine them with a lot of sugar to make them palatable, but their nature is extremely sour. This reminds me of the symbolism of sweet and sour dishes in Jewish Italian Cuisine, in which the sugar or honey represent the need to appreciate our present and future freedom/happiness/food, while the vinegar or lemon keeps us rooted in our people’s past suffering.
While we thank God for the plentiful new crop, and the many blessings that we enjoy each day, we also have a duty to remember those who didn’t make it through that terrible first winter. Does that ring any bells?
Have a meaningful Thanksgiving!
Switch things around this year with a savory pumpkin pie as a starter, instead of the usual sweet pie as dessert! Pumpkin arrived in Italy after the discovery of the Americas, and was such a hit with Northern Italian Jews that in Venice we call it “Zucca Barucca” (Holy Pumpkin – from the Hebrew “Baruch”). The filling of this pie is based on a very traditional dish served in Venice and Ferrara, for Rosh haShana, “Zucca Disfatta” (posted here). The mild bitterness of the radicchio pairs perfectly with the sweetness of the pumpkin, while the balsamic adds depth and the element of “Agro” (sour) typical of so many Jewish Italian dishes.
(for the dough)
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 whole egg, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
*** but you can also use store-bought brisee’ or puff pastry
(for the filling)
- 1 pound cubed pumpkin or butternut squash (you can also slice it very thinly with your food processor attachment)
- 1 small head (or 1/2 a large) of red radicchio
- 2 small scallions or 1 small onion
- 1 cup of vegetable broth
- 1 large egg (or 2 small eggs)
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- a pinch of nutmeg (if liked)
If making your own dough, sift the flour and salt in a food processor. Add the diced butter and process until the mixture feels like thick bread crumbs. Add the beaten egg and a couple of tablespoons of water. Process until smooth and elastic like pastry dough. You should work it for longer than you would for a regular pie with butter or margarine, or the result will be too crumbly.
Divide into two balls, one slightly larger than the other, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.
For the filling, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy pot, add the thinly sliced scallions and the pumpkin and a little salt; cover with 3/4 cup of vegetable stock, bring to a boil then lower the flame and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes or more, stirring occasionally and adding a little stock only if it dries out and sticks. Cook until the pumpkin is so soft that it can be easily mashed with a fork.
In the meantime, slice the radicchio into thin stripes; heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet, add 1 peeled garlic clove and the radicchio, season with salt and cook for 3 minutes. Add the balsamic, allow it to evaporate, discard the garlic, and turn off the flame.
Once the pumpkin has cooled down a bit, transfer it into your food processor and process till smooth (or you can use a hand mixer). Add the egg(s) and the radicchio and combine well. Dust your countertop with flour and roll out the pastry with a rolling pin; use the larger disc to line the bottom and sides of a baking pan (previously greased and floured, or lined with parchment paper). Pour the pumpkin and radicchio mix into the pastry shell, and cover the pie with the second disc. Seal the edges, cut a few holes in the top disc with a fork, and bake for about 45 minutes at 375 F.
As an alternative to the pie, here is another way to present pumpkin: in a creamy and delicious risotto!
- 1/2 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into small dice
- 2/3 head of red radicchio
- 1 1/2 cups Italian rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano type)
- 1 medium white onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup dry wine
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
- About 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 to 8 cups vegetable stock
- 4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (to taste)
- salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add the pumpkin and half of the onions and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Season with salt, nutmeg, pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the pumpkin is tender, another 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor and puree the pumpkin. Rinse the skillet and heat another tablespoon of oil in it. Add the radicchio (sliced into thin stripes) and cook for 5 minutes, seasoning with salt. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat and keep it hot.
In a heavy pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the remaining onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, for a few minutes. As soon as it starts sticking to the bottom, pour in the wine and allow it to evaporate. Immediately lower the heat and pour in one ladleful of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Gradually add more hot stock, 1 ladleful at a time, stirring frequently until absorbed before adding the next. After about 15 minutes, stir in the pumpkin puree and continue cooking, adding more stock, 1 ladleful at a time, until the rice is tender but “al dente” (about 5 to 15 minutes longer, depending on the type of rice). The risotto should be creamy and loose. Add the radicchio, and more salt if necessary. The risotto will be quite loose. Spoon the risotto into warmed soup plates and drizzle with little balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately. Of course if you want to be really fancy and impress your guests, you could also serve the risotto in the pumpkin shell.
*** For a slightly different result, you can also cook the pumpkin with the rice. Just add the pumpkin to all the onion at the beginning, and then add the rice. Try both versions, and see which one is your favorite! In the context of a dairy meal, this risotto tastes delicious with the addition of butter and parmigiano. On the other hand, the creaminess and sweetness of the pumpkin make it very enjoyable as a Parve (non-dairy) dish!
If you don’t have enough guests to justify roasting a whole bird…..
Ingredients (serves 8)
- 1 boneless turkey breast half, about 3 pounds
- 1/2 pound high-quality beef sausage, crumbled
- 1 pound mushrooms (wild is best, but white or champignon also work)
- 2 scallions (or one small onion), finely chopped
- 2 slices bread, crust removed, crumbled
- 3 tablespoons brandy (or 1/2 cup white wine)
- 2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add the finely chopped scallions and cook until translucent. Add the crumbled sausage, the finely chopped mushrooms, and the parsley, salt and pepper and cook for about 5 minutes or till the mushrooms are cooked and the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and add the crumbled bread to the mix, combining well.
Lay the turkey breast on top of plastic wrap on a large cutting board; cut the turkey opening it into one large piece, flat and even (some butchers will do this for you). Cover with more plastic wrap and pound down to a little less than 1/2-inch. Remove the top wrap and spread the stuffing over the middle; then roll it, using the plastic wrap to help. Carefully remove the wrap and tie the roulade with kitchen string. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large sauteuse pan or skillet over medium/high heat, and brown the turkey roulade on all sides, turning it often (10 to 12 minutes). Pour in the brandy or wine and allow it to evaporate. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 50 to 60 minutes or until ready (a thermometer inserted should read 170 F), turning often and adding little hot stocks if it sticks to the bottom. My mom calls this technique of roasting meat on the stove top (rather than the oven) “arrosto morto” – “dead roast”, which I always found very funny, as no meat we roast is alive – thank God! I like it because it makes the meat more accessible during the cooking, so you end up basting it and turning it more often; you also control the flame, turning it higher if you need some liquid to evaporate, lower if it’s starting to stick to the bottom. Serve sliced, accompanied by its juice.
This recipe follows the same cooking technique as the previous, and the only difference is in the stuffing: try both!
Ingredients (serves 6-8)
1 lb spinach
1/2 lb mix of salami and pastrami, coarsely ground
1/3 lb ground veal
1 large egg1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg (or to taste)salt and pepper
Boil or steam the spinach,and drained very well squeezing the liquid out with your hands or through a sieve. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Add the ground veal, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the ground sausage and cold cuts, season with little salt and pepper, and cook for 10 minutes.
Transfer into your food processor, and process with the spinach; add the egg and a big pinch of nutmeg, and use this filling to stuff the turkey breast: just follow the meat quantities and stuffing and roasting instructions in the previous recipe!
While the turkey and pumpkin are symbols of bounty, one food on the table is meant to remind us of the harsh winter before the first harvest, when the pilgrims barely had enough to eat. It’s the corn, as it is said that at one point there was so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day. Corn bears a similar type of double-symbolism in Italian history: when it found its way to Italy from the Americas, it immediately spread through the North, and landowners started reaping huge profits by feeding their workers only maize polenta – creamy, delicious and filling, but (eaten alone) so poor of vitamins and protein that it caused an epidemic of Pellagra (the same deficiency disease that spread in the American South during the great Depression, leading to deterioration and death. Somehow, native Americans had avoided it because they added wood ashes and lime to cornmeal, correcting its nutritional imbalance).
Cranberries could also be read as a symbol of suffering: of course we combine them with a lot of sugar to make them palatable, but their nature is extremely sour. This reminds me of the symbolism of sweet and sour dishes in Jewish Italian Cuisine, in which the sugar or honey represent the need to thank G-d for our present or future freedom/happiness/food, while the vinegar or lemon keeps us rooted in our people’s past suffering.
While we thank G-d for the plentiful new crop, and the many blessings that we enjoy each day, we also remember that terrible first winter, and those who didn’t make it. Does that ring any bells?