For those of you who read my previous post, a sad tale of feeding tubes and culinary confusion, I’m now reporting something more uplifting. Originally, in a desperate attempt to keep things cheerful for the two members of my family who can’t eat normally anymore, I said I’d sneak only one dish onto the table on Christmas Eve, no fuss, no tears. Those of us who are lucky enough to still eat would just wolf it down fast. But the more I envisioned this evening, a severely pared down Christmas Eve, it just seemed so wrong. La Vigilia di Natale, the parade of fishes, has always been my favorite food holiday of the year. Could I let it go so easily?
I’ve thought it over, and I now feel it won’t do the infirm any good to see the world around them sink to their level. It might just bring more sadness. And, I ask you, who’s holidays are perfect, and would we even want them to be? My one lone dish, conceived so as not to offend, now seems silly. I’ve decided to just do what I love, and that’s to cook my little Italian heart out.
So in the spirit of the evening, I’ve decided that in addition to my clams with fregola, I’ll also include mussels baked with a Sicilian nut pesto, something that has become a classic in my house. And I definitely will make rosemary-and-garlic-marinated olives, and possibly some type of fish crudo to start, maybe scallops with orange zest. Raw fish goes really well with prosecco. It’s a little late to start soaking salt cod, so I’ll scrap that, but an octopus and potato salad would be nice. I always serve a blood orange salad with red onion and mint. It’s a must after so much seafood. And then, who knows, I might even make a ricotta cheese cake, mainly so the apartment will smell like orange blossom water. La Vigilia returns. Tradition prevails. We’ll see how it goes.
Mussels with Sicilian Nut Pesto
(Serves 4 as an antipasto)
For the pesto:
¼ cup shelled unsalted pistachios
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup blanched almonds
1 small clove fresh garlic, roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably an estate-bottled Sicilian one such as Ravida
The grated zest from 1 lemon
For the mussels:
1½ pounds very fresh mussels, washed and, if necessary, debearded
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup freshly grated grana Padana cheese
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
Place all the nuts and the garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to give them a rough chop. Add about ¼ cup of olive oil, salt, and the lemon zest, and pulse a few more times, just until you have a very rough paste (you want to keep some texture).
Put the mussels in a large pot with the white wine, and turn the heat to medium high. Cook them, stirring frequently, until they open, about 4 minutes. With a big strainer or slotted spoon, lift the mussels out of the pot, and transfer them to a bowl. Let them cool a bit. Strain the mussel cooking liquid into a small bowl.
When the mussels are cool enough to handle, remove them from their shells. Then choose the nicest looking shells, and place one mussel in each. Add about 2 tablespoons of the mussel cooking broth to the pesto, and give it a stir. Top each mussel with about a teaspoon of the nut pesto and then with a little of the grana Padano. Place them all on a sheet pan or in a shallow baking dish, and drizzle them with a little fresh olive oil.
Run the mussels under the broiler, about 6 inches from the heat source, just until the cheese starts to turn golden (you don’t want to burn the nuts), probably about 2 or 3 minutes. Arrange them on a serving platter (or keep them in the baking dish), and garnish them with the parsley leaves. Serve hot.