The holidays remind me that I grew up elsewhere. I enjoy watching children working at their gingerbread creations, but I don't have my own personal experience. While I have no urge to recreate familiar Italian traditions wholesale, I like to pay homage to my roots, even it it's just with a dish on the table.
My upbringing included some food traditions from the area where my parents grew up, not far from Rome, some from Perugia, the city where I grew up, and others from Italy as a whole. On Christmas Eve, we had a light lunch and a substantial dinner, which my mother prepared in the afternoon and served later than usual. This was quite different from our routine, which revolved around lunch as the main meal and in which dinner was often a simple repast of cheese and prosciutto, followed by a salad and fruit.
The dishes my mother served on Christmas Eve were the same every year. I think my father in particular would have felt the world was coming to an end had he not been able to eat his traditional family dinner. Hence, he took it upon himself to shop for the items that my mother did not cook: marinated fried small fish (pescetti) and marinated eel. The former was for him, the latter for my mother, and for my brother and me there was the rare freedom to eat them or not, as we wished. I wished not.
Dinner started with spaghetti col tonno, spaghetti with tomato and tuna sauce ("Spaghetti col Tonno," March 29, 2007). We then had battered and fried cauliflower florets, the marinated fish and eel, and an orange salad. My father was wild about the fried cauliflower florets. Even though my mother closed the kitchen door while she was frying and warned him to keep out every time he tried to sneak in, he always managed to steal one or two hot fritters from the platter and often burned his tongue with them.
My favorite item on the menu was usually eaten much later, before going to sleep: a slice of panettone — fragrant, soft, studded with raisins and candied citrus peel that burst sweetly in the mouth.
I miss panettone, especially the freshly baked ones I ate when I lived in Milan, the city where it was created, but I can make all the orange salad I want. This simple, palate-refreshing side dish takes just a few minutes to prepare, is light and tasty, and can easily be made for one person or 10. Perfect for the holiday table, wouldn't you say?
This dish is all about the balance of the ingredients, but it is an orange salad: The olives are not supposed to take center stage. Rather, they offer a contrast of flavor, highlighting the citrus notes.
Ingredients and method:
Oil-cured black olives or kalamata, to taste (cured olives are salty, so keep that in mind as you season)
1 medium orange per person
Fine sea salt, to taste
Good olive oil, to taste (but with a very light hand)
Pit the olives if necessary, then halve or quarter them, depending on their size.
To prepare the salad, you don't need the orange peel, but that doesn't mean that it should be completely discarded. Cut the peel in sections lengthwise, then make candied orange peel; or grate the zest and freeze or dry it. If you zest the orange, remove and discard the pith before proceeding with the recipe.
Cut the peeled orange(s) into 3/16-inch slices crosswise and arrange them on a serving plate or on individual salad plates. Distribute the olives on the orange slices. Salt the oranges lightly (keep the saltiness of the olives in mind) and season with a bit of olive oil.
Serve and enjoy.
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen and her Italian heritage on her blog: www.pulcetta.com