Una Musica, by Caravaggio.
Recipe below: Baccalà With Marsala, Roasted Tomatoes, and Pine Nuts
As a pantheist and therefore a nonbeliever in Jesus as the son of god, I find that much of the standard religious aspect of Christmas escapes me. It did even when I was a child. Catholicism never resonated, except possibly as a bunch of idle threats. I already had rewards, guilt, and punishment coming at me from all sides. I didn’t need more, no matter how alluringly packaged.
I do love most Catholic churches, and I was captivated when I was young by their abundance of red and gold. But I loved red and gold anything—frames for fancy paintings, nail polish, ribbons, book edges, tights. And I enjoyed staring at the clumsy but sweet nativity scenes that dotted my New York neighborhood, with the loving and serene Mary, her oddly chubby kid, and all those sheep. They showed me a rural world I had no experience with. It seemed so exotic.
Christmas is for the kids, I always heard the adults say. And it’s true that children absorb excitement while their elders just try to keep it all together without too much stress and hold the vodka consumption down to a moderate flow. Kids have always had mystery gifts to anticipate , while adults pretty much knew what they were getting. There was wild kitchen activity that as a kid I wasn’t really part of, shiny decorations my sister and I were instructed to arrange, making a mess of them until finally Dad had to intervene, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Will he light the tinsel on fire? Will he light us on fire? And in our family there was music all day, all night, not religious, more the usual lineup of Italian-American singers of the sixties and seventies. Connie Francis with Christmas in her heart and the Italian favorites her father forced her to sing. Jerry Vale, Louis Prima, Sammy, Dean, and of course Frank. But also the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, the Kinks, Joan Baez, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a sprinkling of opera’s greatest hits, from Madama Butterfly, Tosca, La Traviata. Loud music, and the aroma of shellfish, tomatoes, and wine bubbling away in various pots. Cats smashing tree ornaments and dragging raw squid under the beds. It was a good kind of frantic.
The gorgeous Caravaggio above sums up what I now, as an adult, want from Christmas. Music. All the music that moves me, and loud. This year I’ll soak my salt cod listening to Osvaldo Pugliese, Caetano Veloso, maybe early Leonard Cohen, probably Van Dyke Parks, and Callas, always Callas. And just like when I was a kid, there will be a constant need to check that the cats aren’t up to no good. And now, making sure my sister, or someone, isn’t hunched up in a corner crying, or even worse, silently rocking and withdrawn. Silent night.
I give thanks to all the good things this year has brought me. A long desired cottage in the Hudson Valley, a clearer sense of my culinary mission, good friends, and decent health. I’m still fascinated by icicles, and by the birds of our New York winters, blue jays, pileated woodpeckers, and the stunning cardinal, the male a brilliant solid red, the lady done up in soft green with red accents. Truly a miracle of nature.
For Christmas, I’ll try to let the bad stuff—family problems, personal crap, and the seemingly endless barrage of political and social injustices—recede into the background, and just enjoy life.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a sweet time.
(Serves 4 or 5 as a main course)
1½ pounds salt cold, choosing the thick, white middle cut, sliced into approximately 2-inch-wide chunks (easiest to do with a good kitchen scissor)
1 pint grape tomatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (not the baby ones), peeled and thickly sliced
About 8 big scrapings of nutmeg
¼ teaspoon fennel pollen
5 medium sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped, plus a few small sprigs for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
⅓ cup dry Marsala
1 cup light chicken broth, either homemade or low-salt canned
¼ cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Salt, if needed
Soak the salt cod in cold water for at least 24 hours, changing the water 10 times to remove excess salt. Taste a piece of cod to see if enough salt has been drawn out. If it still tastes too salty, soak it for another 6 hours.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Lay out the tomatoes on a sheet pan. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until lightly browned and just starting to burst, about 15 minutes or so. Remove the pan from the oven, and let it sit.
Dry the cod pieces with paper towels. In a skillet large enough to hold everything more or less in one layer, heat about three tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. Add the cod, skin side up, and brown it on one side. Lift the cod from the skillet, and set it aside for a moment. Turn the heat to medium, add the onion and the potatoes, and sprinkle with the nutmeg, fennel pollen, rosemary, and some black pepper. Sauté for a few minutes to brown everything lightly. Add the Marsala, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.
Put the cod back in the skillet, and simmer, covered, until the cod and potatoes are both tender, about 10 to 12 minutes (the really thick pieces of cod should be turned once, so they cook evenly). When done, the cod will flake when poked through with a knife. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the grape tomatoes. You should have about an inch of liquid left in the pan (add a splash of warm water if you don’t). Taste to see if it needs salt (it may or may not, depending on the saltiness of the cod). Drizzle with fresh olive oil and a sprinkling of the Piment d’Espelette. To serve, lift the cod pieces out, and place them on a large, warmed platter. Pour the potatoes and the rest of the sauce over the top. Garnish with the pine nuts and the rosemary sprigs.