Monday, May 31, 2021
Christmas Eve is a very special occasion for Italians. The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is an annual
tradition in which the entire Christmas Eve meal consists of different preparations of seafood. Some of my grandmother’s specialties include crispy fried calamari, pan fried baccala (salt cod), two types of octopus salad—cold and warm—and the dish I wait for all year round, spaghetti and calamari. Only on Christmas Eve does my grandmother prepare a special light version of her tomato sauce, devoid of meat, and flavored with onions, garlic, and the calamari itself. The calamari cooks slowly in the sauce until becoming meltingly tender and then is combined with the always al dente spaghetti. Topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the dish is complete and provides an abundance of nostalgia and joy.
The octopus my grandmother traditionally prepares for the Feast of the Seven Fishes are braised in white wine and lemon juice for a couple hours, then thinly sliced and marinated with garlic, onions, vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. A bit of parsley and red chili flakes accentuate the aromatic qualities of the dish, and it’s ready to serve.
My grandfather on my mother’s side had his own culinary arsenal from an Eastern European perspective. Never allowing us to forget about the Polish part of our heritage, Grandpa would slice up his favorite Kielbasa and serve it with spicy mustard and sauerkraut for us to enjoy on special occasions.
I will never attempt to recreate the dish or dare to disrespect its tradition with any pretentious re-interpretation. However, this book would be incomplete without the inclusion of a concept to pay homage to the great culinary tradition which inspired me to follow my passion for food and cooking.
The main flavors of this kielbasa—paprika, garlic, cayenne, hickory, and onion—reminded me of an octopus braising preparation I once used while working in New York. The powerful force of nostalgia combined with valuable culinary experience allowed me to create this thoughtful composition of a smoked octopus in honor of both of my grandparents.
Using a large octopus, remove all eight tentacles from the head, and blanch in boiling salted water
until slightly firm, and moisture begins to bead on the surface of the meat. The smallest of the tentacles will cook quicker than the larger ones, so be sure to monitor them independently. Heat a braising liquid—consisting of lemon juice, white wine, paprika, cayenne, garlic, onions—and cook the octopus until tender, approximately two to three hours. Take care not to overcook the octopus in order to maintain its integrity and identity. (There will be plenty of room on the dish for purees, and no need to turn the star of the plate into baby food.)
Allow the braised tentacles to dry near a fan in the cooler. This will ensure maximum adherence of the smoke during the next step, which will aromatize the octopus. During the smoking process, hickory wood chips create the perfect aroma for this particular preparation. Smoke the braised tentacles for a half hour, just until the octopus takes on a sufficient amount of smoke flavor and the texture becomes more reminiscent of the kielbasa which helped inspire the dish.
The mustard element of the dish helps to bring about a sharp and rich acidity to counterbalance the smoke and savory elements of the plate. Since the octopus may become overpowered and upstaged by the use of pure mustard, crème fraiche is whipped with whole grain mustard to tone down its pungent nature. This mixture delivers the traditional component in a much smoother package.
Onions and garlic supplement the preparation with an added layer of depth and flavor. Both members of the allium family are tossed in olive oil, seasoned with salt, and roasted while in the peel for approximately 30 minutes at a temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking the onions and garlic with the peel prevents the delicate flesh from burning, steams them to cook thoroughly, and maintains the maximum level of flavor within the peel. Once golden brown and tender, puree the onions and garlic separately and season to taste with salt.
My grandfather’s sauerkraut simultaneously brought about puckers and smiles upon our faces when we enjoyed it with kielbasa! As a happy medium between the Polish technique and Italian flavors and ingredients, Radicchio serves as the perfect choice for this dish. Slice the beautiful deep purple and white radicchio into thin strips and begin by sweating in butter and olive oil. Once wilted, deglaze the pan with balsamic vinegar and a touch of salt and sugar. Cook the mixture down until almost dry and the radicchio is tender, adding a bit of water if necessary. This crisp, sweet and sour preparation not only adds that sought-after characteristic quality of sauerkraut, but also mimics the color scheme of our feature protein.
Red onions are a cornerstone ingredient for flavor optimization in Italian cuisine. My grandmother chopped them up and marinated them in the octopus salad to add crunch and flavor to the dish. In this case, red Cipollini onions get sliced into thin rings, coated in Wondra flour and briefly fried until crispy and golden brown. Season with salt and onion powder, and these red onion rings will whimsically grace the final plate for this dish.
Slice the tentacle on a slight bias into half-inch segments and arrange in a scattered fashion throughout the plate. Neatly dot the plate with the onion and garlic purees, being cautious not to overwhelm the palate or overshadow the octopus kielbasa. Gently dry the excess moisture off the radicchio kraut to avoid bleeding on the plate, and place alongside the sections of tentacle. Balance the rings to stand up with the tentacle inside, giving height and dimension to the plate. Garnish the dish with chopped parsley, extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to finish this celebratory tribute to two important influences in my culinary life.