I’ve never been to Sicily, or any part of Italy for that matter, but through obsessive fantasizing that borders on delusional behavior I sometimes forget that.
Italians are known for going all out for Christmas, and the traditions vary geographically. A meaty ragú is often found on a Calabrian table, while tortellini in brodo—a broth usually made from capon, or a mix of capon and beef or veal—is a favorite across Emilia-Romania. Italian-Americans celebrate with The Feast of the Seven Fishes; as the name might suggest, it’s a seafood banquet of epic proportions. Is there any better way to spend the holidays?! This is my Sicilian inspired holiday menu. It might not be steeped in traditions of Sicily, but rather borrows from its flavors and ingredient a bit.
First is Green Beans alla Trapanese. We always had green bean casserole at Christmas growing up. I have fond memories of loving it, craving it, devouring it. It was creamy, crunchy, and salty—it was everything. That said, I have little interest in eating it now; it doesn’t live up to the taste of my nostalgia so I’d rather leave it as a memory.
But I can’t help but feel a sense of emptiness when I see an absence of green beans on my table. That’s when pesto Trapanese came to the rescue, as it so often does. This Sicilian pesto replaces the pinenuts of pesto Genovese with almonds, its basil with tomatoes, and adds anchovies for a little punch—some versions, including my own, rely on olives for a little extra salt. Typically the tomatoes would be raw, but being that they’re not in season now I give them a quick trip in a screaming hot oven to help boost their flavor a bit (you can make this in the summer when they are in season and just roughly chop them, raw). The sauce here is a little rougher and rustic; the tomatoes are just stirred together with everything else, falling a part a bit on their own, and roughly chopped almonds are scattered over the dish rather than being finely blended or ground—nothing is blended or “pesto’d”.
The green beans themselves are simply blanched in boiling salted water and then shocked in ice water to stop their cooking—dry them off and they can lay in wait at room temperature for a few hours. From there, I sauté them in a bit of oil before splashing in some extra dry white vermouth, clamping on a lid, and steaming them for just a few moments to reheat and soften up a bit more, though you can cook them as much or as little as it suits you. The pesto can be made in advance, save the nuts, as can the blanch-and-shock of the green beans; finish the green beans while the turkey cooks, assemble everything in a wide and shallow casserole dish, and put it into the now turned off oven once the turkey comes out. So good.
Then there’s my Baked Mascarpone Semolina. This is the new mashed potatoes (and while I would never totally abandon my favorite mash, this is so good and so much faster it’s hard not to consider it). I know that semolina cooked in this manner isn’t quite typical of Sicily, it being more of a Northern Italian concept, but with Sicily being such a hub of durum production I couldn’t help but include it here.
Semolina is ground durum wheat—the stuff of pasta! It’s got a natural sweetness to it, a bit like corn, that works well with other sweets things; sugar, honey, vanilla, cinnamon. When it really shines for me, though, is when it’s fed well on salty and savory goodness… cheese. A hefty helping of Parmigiano-Reggiano—salty, nutty, and glorious—opens up the nuances to the semolina that beg, no, force you to take another bite. And then another. You can’t help it. Each time you taste it is like the first time. You can’t believe it. You have to try it again—for research purposes, of course.
It’s really as simple as bringing some water, milk, and cream to a gentle boil, seasoning liberally with salt, and gradually sprinkling semolina into it while you whisk with all your might—it’s not that different that making grits or polenta. It only takes mere minutes at a low simmer to soften. After that, fold in some butter, mascarpone (to heighten its silken creaminess), Parmigiano-Reggiano, a bit of nutmeg, and some more cream (it is the holidays after all). From there you can serve it as is or turn it out into a buttered baking dish and bake until the top just browns. You can even make it in advance a bit and stick in the oven once its shut off and the turkey is out to stay warm.
Speaking of turkey… This is going to change your life; my Herbed Sicilian Butterflied Turkey. The turkey is butterflied (or spatchcocked, if you want) so it roasts in record time—a 9 pound turkey could take up to 3 hours to roast whole, but butterflied we’re talking about an hour. AN HOUR. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, either. Flip the turkey over so it’s breast-side down and, using kitchen shears snip out the backbone. Make a small slit in the cartilage that connects the breast—on the underside of the turkey where the breasts come together at the top of the bird—then flip it over and press on the breasts with your palms to crack the bone so it lays flat. Done.
From there you make the marinade—an herby little number. Lots of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme get blended in olive oil with garlic, a red chili, some toasted and ground fennel seeds, lemon zest, and orange zest. It’s the orange that really makes this special and gives it a Sicilian feel to me. If blood oranges, which hail from Sicily, are available you could always use those, but I love the fresh, citrusy, slightly floral essence you get from oranges here. Don’t let this deter you, though; this isn’t an orange turkey, but rather a turkey layered in such nuanced flavor that your mouth will water for more even while you’re eating it.
The marinade gets rubbed under the skin, right on the meat, so all that flavor gets into the flesh rather than just sitting on the skin—doin’ a whol’otta nothing, making tasty skin but bland meat. Simply slip your fingers in between the skin and the meat to separate the two. Take your time separating the skin so you don’t tear any of it, taking care to not neglect the thighs or legs (it can be a bit tough to get between the skin and meat on the wings but do your best). I then spoon some of the marinade between the skin and meat and start working in throughout the chicken, massaging the skin. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once that’s done set it on a wire rack set over a roasting tray, and then into the fridge, uncovered, for about 24 hours, giving it time to marinade and for the skin to dry out so it roasts to a golden, golden crisp.
It roasts the same as any other bird—on a wire rack over a roasting tray of stock or wine—but it does so even faster. Serve it with some gravy that’s been fortified with Marsala and you’ll be reeling in the festive spirit.
The recipes here are written to serve 6, but as you can see they can easily be adapted to serve more—you’ll just need to utilize larger pots, pans, baking dishes, and (obviously) a larger bird. The turkey recipe also works incredibly well with chicken, so feel free to swap out two 4 – 5 pound chickens for the turkey. I also want to mention that, for what I feel are obvious reasons, the chickens would be great for the summer, too (especially on the grill!). I might make up a larger batch of the marinade and reserve some to doctor with a bit of lemon juice and serve as a sauce in lieu of a gravy.
This may not be the traditional Sicilian Christmas menu, and having never been I can’t even make the argument that it’s authentic at all, but I’m not worried. Given the spirit of the season—friends, family, celebration—I think it’d be a welcome festivity by all.
And wait until you see dessert…. Stay tuned.
And follow me on BLOGLOVIN’. It’s all I want for Christmas.