Due Spaghetti’s Christmas Eve Dinner Menu, and Holiday Wine Guide

It’s snowing today, just in time for Christmas.

Christmas is white in our corner of the Earth, so the rare lack of snow leading up to the holidays has been welcomed, but is also just slightly disconcerting.  Winter simply never skips Minnesota, though; sooner or later it will come.  So, as far as we are concerned it might as well snow now, on the eve of Christmas Eve, before we are all out on the roads traveling to the homes of family and friends.  A layer of pretty white snow will brighten the landscape and bring holiday cheer.

Plus, we’ve finished wrapping our gifts, bought the groceries for Christmas Eve dinner, and selected enough wine to carry us through the New Year.  Today we will start a fire, read a book or watch a movie and wait for Christmas to come.

Due Spaghetti’s Christmas Eve Dinner Menu
We smiled today as we read the many articles about the classic Italian-American tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fish on Christmas Eve.  This tradition, sacred to many Italian Americans, is unheard of in Italy.  Seafood, however, is commonly the focus of the Christmas Eve meal in Italy, in accordance with the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays and on certain holy days.

We are preparing the following seafood-based Christmas Eve meal for our family:

Antipasto
Insalata di polpo
Octopus Salad
Crostini con salmone e arugula
Smoked Salmon and Arugula Crostini
(Prosecco Rustico, Nino Franco)

Primo Piatto
Spaghetti del pescatore
Spaghetti with Seafood
(Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, 2010 Luchetti)

Secondo Piatto
Pesce al cartoccio
Red Snapper, baked ‘al cartoccio’
(Fiano di  Avellino, 2008 Jovis)

Contorno
Insalata di arance
Orange and Fennel Salad
Patate al forno

Oven Roasted Rosemary and Garlic Potatoes

Dessert
Parfait di panettone e zabaglione
Panettone and Zabaglione Parfait
(Moscato, Bartenura 2010)

Due Spaghetti’s Holiday Wine Guide
If you are wondering about wines to pair with your own Christmas Eve and Christmas meal, if you’d like to gift a nice bottle or two, or if you simply want to have some good wine on hand over the holidays, here are a few of Due Spaghetti’s favorites:

Sparkling Wines

Pass on the Champagne and toast to happiness and good health with an Italian Prosecco.  Produced in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Italy, Prosecco is light, crisp, aromatic and dry – a more uplifting sparkling wine than its French cousin.  One favorite is Col Vetoraz Prosecco.  

Another Italian sparkling wine we enjoy is Moscato d’Asti. Sweet and light, it is a traditional Christmas dessert wine.

Finally, for a sparkling sweet red also light with overtures of strawberry, try a Brachetto or Brachetto d’Acqui.

Whites

Sure, there are plenty of good bottles of Italian Pinot Grigio.  But there are even more exciting whites, many from from central and southern Italy.  A few of our favorites are:

Verdicchio – A wine from the Marche region on Italy’s Adriatic coast; its name is derived from the wine’s slightly green hue.

Falanghina – Produced from grapes that grow in the hills surrounding Mount Vesuvius, this wine was unheard of until recently, but is quickly becoming a hit.

Fiano di Avellino – This is another favorite wine that originates, like Falanghina, from the Campania region of southern Italy.  The Fiano grape also grows in volcanic soils, and Fiano di Avellino has a very slight sparkling quality.

Insolia – This Sicilian white is also lightly sparkling, and has a fresh citrus scent.

Arneis – This white is a stand-out from the Piedmont region, where reds rule.  It’s a full-bodied but refreshing and unique Italian white wine.

Reds

Distinguished Italian Reds recognized for their elegance and quality are Amarone, Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.  They will make a powerful impression on any table or as any gift.

Super Tuscans are also guaranteed to impress.  Super Tuscans are wines that are created when producers intentionally deviate from the standard blending requirements for DOC. and DOCG wines.  Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Ornellaia are excellent Super Tuscan wines.

Other lesser known Italian reds that we like are:

AglianicoAglianico is the name of a black grape from the south of Italy that produces a deeply hued and intensely flavored red wine.  Two to look for are Aglianico del Vulture and Taurasi. These wines have yet to attract widespread attention, but it is only a matter of time.

Primitivo – The Primitivo is a parent grape to Zinfandel, and comparisons between Primitivo and Zinfandel abound.  This is an economical, pleasant and out-of-the-ordinary Italian red.

Lagrein – Made from grapes grown at the foot of the Swiss Alps, this powerful red from Italy’s Alto Adige region is making a come back.

Here’s to cold nights, warm friends, and good drink to give them!

Pesce e patate al forno

Roasted Whole Fish with Potatoes
Some people just aren’t used to eating a whole animal.  The roasted pig sitting on our kitchen cupboard, head and all, garnered a good deal of admiration at Stefano’s recent 40th birthday party.  It’s too bad he (the pig) was not cognizant for it all – a classic case of posthumous fame.

The same is true with fish.  Not everyone is prepared to find a whole one on their dinner plate.  We found our freshwater friend’s underbite amusing; but teeth and eyeballs cause some squirm.  Besides, many of us never learned what to do when presented with a whole fish for dinner.  How does one go about removing the head, skin and spine in order to get to the the tender white fillet inside?

In many cultures, though, eating whole fish is commonplace.  Whole fish is  more economical than fish fillets, and also much better tasting.  Meats and fish cooked in their bones and skin are always moister and more savory than slices of meat or fish separated from the carcass.

In Italy, roasted fish with rosemary potatoes are a common Sunday afternoon meal.  Stefano’s mom, Maria, visits the fish market on Saturday and picks out whichever fish looks the best – sometimes spigola (seabass), other times trota (trout).  Freshness is important – signs of a not-so-fresh fish include a fishy smell, cloudy eyes, and a dry tail.  In Italy, they will typically gut and scale your fish right there for you.  In the States, they will often come scaled and gutted.

On a side note, an Italian fish market is a spectacular sight – be sure to visit one when you are there.

At home, Maria washes the fish, stuffs their cavities with herbs and spices, and bakes them with diced potatoes seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and a bit of crushed red pepper.

The first step in eating a whole roasted fish is to remove the head.  Place your fork under its gill, and use your knife to separate the head from the rest of the fish.  Use your knife to remove the tail.  Then, slide your knife under the skin; it should lift right off exposing the tender, flaky fillet below.  Don’t try to turn your fish over to remove the skin on the bottom side.  Instead, carefully lift the fish fillet up and off, leaving the spine intact below.  Remove the herbs that you will find there then, starting from the top, carefully lift the spine away from the other fillet below.  Finally, turn the bottom fillet over and remove its skin.  When you serve whole fish, remember to place a few extra plates out on the table to hold the skin and bones.

Ingredients
1 whole fish per person.  Trout or sea bass work well.
1 potato per person, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
1 clove of finely minced garlic per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
1 sprig of fresh rosemary per fish, plus extra for the potatoes
Salt
Pepper
Crushed red pepper
Olive oil

Directions
Wash the exterior and the cavity of the fish under cold water.  Coat the bottom of a baking pan or roasting pan with olive oil.  Add the diced potatoes.  Salt and pepper the potatoes liberally, and add a handful of finely mined garlic and rosemary stems.  Rub olive oil on the skin and in the cavity of each fish, and lay them in the baking pan on top of the potatoes.  Salt the cavity of each fish liberally and add the minced garlic.  If you wish, you may also add some crushed red pepper.  Place a sprig of rosemary inside each fish.

Bake at 375° F for approximately 30 minutes.  Once or twice during cooking, use a flat spatula to lift and turn the potatoes, being careful to not prod or poke the fish.  Do not turn the fish.  Cooking time will vary according to the size of the fish; it is done when the skin loosens and the meat is tender but firm to the touch.  Your potatoes may require additional cooking time.  If this is the case, remove the fish and return the baking tray to the oven until the potatoes are golden brown.