By Murray Schulman
Now that we’re officially in late autumn, Italian Americans are already stockpiling ingredients to prepare gallons of “Sunday Gravy.” This is the beginning of the preparations for Thanksgiving in Italian households across the United States.
Italians have big hearts and an unbridled desire to make sure that no one is hungry who crosses the threshold of their homes. Why would it surprise you to find that Thanksgiving dinner for Italian Americans consists of two or more continuous meals? No, I didn’t say courses, I said meals.
Eventually, we all get around to the Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. After all, if Ben Franklin had his way, the turkey would have been the county’s national bird. Instead, that turkey becomes the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving feast.
Wine is an integral part of Thanksgiving in many Italian-American homes. Wine is interlaced with every aspect of the pre-parations right through to the last morsel of dessert.
Antipasto takes on explosive proportions with an endless array of cured meats, aged cheeses, roasted and marinated vegetables, peppers, olives, and breads served with our best olive oil and favorite dipping vinegars.
Family members line up in the kitchen along the counters, forming an assembly line of mixers, scoopers and rollers determined to produce perfect meatballs.
Sweet and hot sausage sizzles on the grill before finding its proper home in a vat of Sunday Gravy. If you look, you will see the meatballs, sausage, maybe a few braciola, and pieces of the starter pork circulating in that slowly simmering sauce.
On Thanksgiving, baked pasta reigns supreme. Topping the list is a massive tray of baked lasagna. Tender noodles are layered with a magical blend of cheese and that rich Sunday Gravy, then baked until the edges get that perfect crispness. Magnifico!
Probably the most popular alternative to lasagna is baked ziti. Trays of pasta, platters of meat and bowls of gravy adorn the table. This is a feast by any standard – one that stretches over the entire day and well into the evening. It is an awe-inspiring experience. The best part is that there is plenty of leftovers to share.
While we are spending the better part of November here preparing for Thanksgiving, late autumn is a busy and exciting time in Italy. In the mountainous areas of Tuscany, the Chestnut Woods yield their bounty. Castagna are in abundance in locations such as Mount Amiata in the provinces of Grosseto and Siena and the hamlet of Caprese Michel-angelo, home to the marroni, a prized variety of chestnut found only in these small towns.
Chestnuts were a staple in the Tuscan diet. The woods in Eastern Tuscany and north of Lucca are thick with chestnut trees producing some of the finest varieties in the world. While looking into chestnuts, I came across what I consider to be the best method for roasting these Italian treasures that I have found anywhere.
Around the same time as the chestnut harvest is in full swing, the truffle harvest takes place all over Italy. The richest truffle area is Abruzzo. Truffles grow underground next to the roots of specific trees. While truffles grow in most areas of Italy, Abruzzo produces over 40 percent of Italian black truffles. White truffles are the rarest and are very expensive and difficult to grow and find. Truffles are not hunted with pigs as is a long-standing belief. In fact, truffles are hunted with highly trained and skilled dogs. With the onset of modern techniques and controls, truffles are available all year long.
Here or in Italy, November is a month filled with excitement and activity and plenty of reasons to be thankful. Enjoy the late fall season and have a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving.
Roasted chestnuts may be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days. To keep chestnuts, peel them while they are warm, removing all the woody shell. Allow them to fully cool. Place the peeled chestnuts in a container and place in the refrigerator. Use within two days. This is a great method if you are preparing roasted chestnuts to make your holiday stuffing. Chestnut and Italian sweet sausage stuffing is delicious.
EQUIPMENT AND INGREDIENTS Large pot Baking sheet pan Sharp serrated knife Cold water 16 ounces or more of chestnuts METHOD • Preheat oven to 425 degrees with rack placed in the center of the oven. (If your oven has a convection setting, use that setting). • Using the serrated knife, make an incision lengthwise along the full length of each chestnut. Lay the chestnut flat on a cutting board. Use a cutting glove and/or hold the nut firmly as it will tend to roll and be slippery. • Place the chestnuts in a pot of cold water. Bring the water to a full boil. As soon as the water boils, remove the chestnuts from the water with a slotted spoon. Place the chestnuts directly onto your baking sheet pan. • Arrange the chestnuts in a single layer on the sheet pan with the slit side up and the flat side down. Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes. • When the chestnuts are roasted, remove them from the oven and wrap them in a clean tea towel. Allow the wrapped chestnuts to sit in the towel for about 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately. Recipe Courtesy of Maria Vannelli, adapted from a method from chef John Mitzewich.