Welcome To Our Christmas Dinner! Italian Recipes From This Italian Grandma! Start A New Tradition!
Spaghetti Sauce Or Gravy? West Coast Or East Coast?
Christmas dinner in the Italian family has its own traditions and the traditions are very tasty! The menu is varied, but always centers around the pasta sauce or gravy, as my New York relatives call it. Italian recipes are different in every family, even when it comes to the spaghetti sauce recipe. For years, my grandma and great grandma (who was born in Italy) made their sauce the same way. It had the best fire-roasted plum tomatoes, pork neck bones, ground beef, onions, garlic, red pepper flakes and a little bit of wine. Sausage and meatballs were added to the sauce after they were browned, and it simmered for hours. The sauce recipe was used for everything, from spaghetti to lasagna, ravioli, veal, stuffed shells and manicotti.
Then my grandma changed the sauce recipe and I believe that it was an improvement. It is the recipe I have used since my kids were little and I never share it with anyone, except my son and daughters. Well, I am getting older and less protective about my favorite recipes, so I am ready to share our food traditions and hope that you enjoy them.
Thanksgiving is always the traditional American feast. Turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and the pies. But Christmas dinner is a different story! If we had a Christmas dinner without lasagna, it would just not be Christmas! From the sauce to the meatballs, the lasagna to the shells and even the antipasto salad and the braciole, I will share this year's menu complete with the recipes. Have a Merry Christmas!
A Feast For More Than 3 Kings! The Italian Christmas Menu!
For Christmas dinner, I double my sauce recipe, because everything requires sauce. This year we will be having:
- stuffed shells
- cheese ravioli (the only thing not made by me) The ravioli are made by Celentano's. They are frozen cheese raviolis from New York and they are the only ones that my family will eat. They are every bit as good as homemade! They are cooked in gently boiling water and then covered with pasta sauce.
- some pasta for the little ones
- sweet Italian sausage
- pork spare ribs
- antipasto salad
- garlic bread
- holiday fruit salad
- Chocolate peanut butter ice cream pie
Years ago, when I was a young girl, I assumed the roll of chief cook in my mom and dad's house. My mom, Italian and the descendant of great cooks, just wasn't. She was an artist, who at the young age of 17, was picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue as an up and coming designer. She was incredible! She would draw her designs and cut her own patterns out of newspapers. Her clothes all through high school were the envy of her friends. My grandma and great grandma taught me to cook and my mom taught me to sew, so I had the best of artistry in my genes. My mom created her own wedding gown at the age of 18. I had never seen a more beautiful gown than hers, but cooking was not her area of expertise. Both grandma and great grandma taught me that the best food was simple food. The best world cuisine had clear tastes, no one ingredient should ever overpower another, and that is why the following recipes, although simple, will evidence the best of cooking that they taught me.
The Pasta Sauce Recipe!
This recipe is simple, but not quick! The meats simmered for a few hours are the secret to the flavor and it is my everyday sauce, but good enough to be my holiday sauce, as well. It is spicy enough, but it lacks that overpowering heat that you sometimes see in spaghetti sauces found in restaurants. I have never been able to understand that! You want your sauce to complement the things that you serve it with; you don't want to overpower all of the other flavors that are a part of the meal.The holiday sauce recipe is double what I normally make. On any given Sunday, you will see me making sauce. The normal sized recipe (not the one here) makes enough for a Sunday dinner for four people with very healthy appetities and there will be enough leftover sauce to freeze for another meal. The sauce freezes really well and on those nights when there is no time for real cooking, the pasta sauce is ready in minutes, just pair it with any pasta you prefer. A little bit of garlic toast and a green salad and you have the perfect comfort food to calm you down after a hectic day.
You will need a very large stockpot for the holiday sauce, because you will be making almost 2 gallons of sauce, plus you will need additional room for the meats that are added.
Holiday Pasta Sauce (double the normal recipe):
- 8 large cans (12 ounce) of Hunt's tomato paste, Hunt's is required, no Contadina or Progresso or San Marzano- they are too acidic. Hunt's is the one my grandma always used and I have tried different brands here and there along the way, but the Hunt's tomato paste has the best final result.
- 10 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 nice-sized brown or yellow onions, finely chopped
- 3-4 Tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 1 and 1/2 pounds of ground sirloin (or ground beef, but go with the leaner ground beef)
- 1 pound of pork neck bones
- 1 rack of baby back pork ribs or pork spareribs (if you are unable to find pork neck bones, use 2 racks of baby back or spare ribs)
- 1 and 1/2 pounds of sweet Italian pork sausage
- start with 3 cups of water for each can of tomato paste, check consistency (you may need more water) because the sauce cannot be really thick- it will thicken as it simmers and if it is too thick to start with, it will burn.
- 2 Tablespoons of salt or more to taste
Heat the olive oil in the bottom of the stockpot. Add the pork neck bones and ribs. Brown the pork on both sides. Remove and set aside. Drop the ground beef and brown it thoroughly, adding the red pepper flakes halfway through. When the meat is browned, add the onion and garlic. Sauté until the onions are tender. Add some of the water and then begin adding the tomato paste. I usually fill each can about 1/4 to 1/3 full of hot water to get all the paste out (that is in addition to the 3 cups of water for each can of paste). Then add the remaining water and stir to blend, making sure that the paste and water are thoroughly mixed. Bring to a boil. Add the salt. Reduce to a simmer and return the pork to the pot. Place a lid (tilted) on the pot. As soon as you put the lid on, the temperature will increase quickly. Monitor the pot because you want this to simmer, not cook at a full boil. Remove the lid every once in a while to check, stirring each time.
In a separate pan, brown the sausage on all sides. When it is all browned, add the sausage to the stockpot.
Your sauce should simmer (I look for bubbling in the middle of the pot) for at least 3 hours. I usually let it go for four. Remove the lid and stir the sauce at least every 30 minutes. In the last 2 hours, you will add the braciole. Then, an hour before the sauce is done, add the browned meatballs. At this point, check the salt level. You may need additional salt.
I make the sauce on Christmas Eve. It takes too long to do it on Christmas Day. When the sauce is finished, I put all of the meats into a large container, with a little sauce. Then, I split the remaining sauce up into 2 smaller pots. Allow these to cool before placing them into the refrigerator.
The Best Meatballs Recipe Ever!
Christmas Day Meatballs are made in larger quantities than at any other time because there are many ways to use them. On Christmas Eve, they are great in sandwiches on Kaiser rolls or Sub rolls with some sauce and melted provolone or mozzarella over the top. An awesome preview to the next day's feast! When people leave on Christmas Day, the meatballs are usually packed up along with some of the other leftovers. I have actually frozen them in small packages and when thawed later, become a great addition to pizza toppings for homemade pizzas or even those great meatball sandwiches.
These meatballs don't contain ground pork or veal. There is enough pork in the meal already and no one ever complains about the lack of pork or veal!
Best Meatballs Ever:
- 3 pounds of ground top sirloin
- 1/2 cup of bread crumbs
- 3 eggs
- 4 Tablespoons of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
- 3 pieces of sourdough bread, soaked in milk and then wrung out a little and then broken into pieces (Aunt Jean, my grandma's sister, told me the milk is the key to a moist, juicy meatball)
- 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
Mix all ingredients by hand, being careful to not overmix. Form them into medium-sized meatballs. With everything else on the Christmas dinner table, people seem to prefer a smaller, rather than larger meatball. Place on a sprayed cookie sheet and place in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, turning once with a spatula. When done, gently add them to the pasta sauce during the last hour. If I remember from last year, this recipe makes about 18-20 meatballs.
My Grandma's Best Braciole Recipe For Christmas!
My grandma was born in 1908. When I was born in the mid 1950s, she had been making braciole for years, and my great-grandma, who was born in 1885 had been making it even longer. When I came along in the mid 1950s, they had both been making braciole for years and they made it the same way every time. I still use their recipe. Depending on the size of the crowd, I will make either one or two. This year, one should be plenty. At that time, flank steak was a cheap, common cut of meat. Today, it runs me about $8.00 per pound. And since I don't have chickens in a coop the way my great-grandma did, I use store bought eggs. By my calculation, this recipe is well over a hundred years old and may be the only thing my great- grandma made that didn't contain some sort of liquor!
My Grandma's Best Braciole:
- 2-3 pound flank steak, tenderized by pounding
- 2-4 Tablespoons of olive oil and then some extra for browning
- 1/2 cup of bread crumbs (homemade if you have them)
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in pretty rounds
- 4 Tablespoons of finely chopped, flat leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup of grated, whole milk mozzarella cheese
- sprinkle of salt, garlic powder and some red pepper flakes
Take the flank steak and pound it out with a meat tenderizer. Do not let the butcher do it. They have a machine that they use and it will end up looking like a thin salisbury steak. That is the wrong texture for braciole. As you pound it, the meat will stretch out a little bit. Try to get it as rectangular in shape as you can. That will make it easier to roll. Spread both sides liberally with olive oil. Lay it out on your cutting board so that the narrowest edge is closest to you and sprinkle the stuffing side with salt, pepper and the garlic powder. Spread the bread crumbs across the entire steak. Then, do the same with the parsley and the mozzarella. Remember to keep a little bit of the outer edges free of the bread crumbs and cheese (about an inch). Lay out the hard boiled egg slices in two or three rows, beginning at the side closest to you. That is where you will begin rolling. Go no further than one half of the flank steak with the egg slices or you will have difficulty rolling. Grasping both sides of the steak and while rolling, gently force the eggs, cheese and bread crumbs to stay in place. Continue to roll the flank steak, trying to keep those ingredients within the imaginary boundary line. Once rolled, cut enough cooking string to make 4 lengths about 18 inches each. Gently slide the string under the rolled steak, in equally distant spots. Beginning at each end, tie the two end pieces and knot. Then tie the two middle pieces. Make sure that the string is tied tightly enough to hold the steak firmly. After the steak is tied, sprinkle the outside with salt and pepper.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan and brown the flank steak on all sides. Once it is browned, gently drop the braciole into the cooking pasta sauce. It will need to cook for at least two hours. The next day (Christmas) you will reheat all of the meats in a baking pan with sauce. When serving the braciole, slice it like you would slice a pork loin roast. Once a slice of the braciole is on your plate, If it is cooked correctly, it does not require a knife to cut. Each piece should be about 1/2 inch thick.
Braciole, when sliced, is beautiful! It is also delicious! The meat becomes stringy, yet so tender, that it melts in your mouth. It may become one of your favorite Italian dishes! You will definitely want it more often then just Christmas!
The Centerpiece Of The Day! The Lasagna Recipe That Even My Uncle Bobby Loves!
My mother's younger brother, my Uncle Bobby, is only about eleven or twelve years older than I am and was born, raised and still lives in Staten Island, New York. New York most likely has the largest Italian population outside of Italy, and they definitely have the best Italian food I have ever had. I adore my Italian uncle and several years ago, when he was visiting my family in California, I told him I would make him some lasagna. He looked at me and said, "Yeah! It's gonna taste like all that Mexican crap youse (New York dialect) call food!" My feelings were hurt (we adore Mexican food!) and I almost cried. I was younger then and still sensitive. But I insisted. This was the man that took my husband aside on our wedding day and told him, quite simply, "Welcome to the family! You ever hit her and I'll kill ya!" In my book, that is love!
Obviously, my uncle knows and loves good Italian food, so I was under alot of pressure. His son, my cousin, is a fine Italian chef. I made the sauce and he tasted it every step of the way. He would take a spoonful (he double-dipped, those damned New Yorkers!) every few minutes and about 2 hours in, he said, "Hey! The sauce tastes just like grandma's!" When he had finished his second helping of my lasagna, he said, "How'd you learn how to cook like that?" The next morning when I caught him eating cold lasagna for breakfast, I knew I had impressed, and now every time he visits, he requests lasagna. That may very well be the best endorsement any Italian cook could ever hope to receive! Now that I am a grandma, it means even more to me because I have succeeded in carrying on the legacy of the matriarchs who have gone before me!
Recipe for Christmas Lasagna:
- 2 pounds of Barilla lasagna noodles, cooked al dente (about 9 minutes), drained and rinsed in cold water to stop the cooking process. I highly recommend Barilla pasta for all of my pasta dishes. It remains firm and never gets mushy or too starchy.
- 3 pounds of Frigo whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 3 pounds of Frigo whole-milk mozzarella cheese, sliced
- enough pasta sauce to layer the pan. It shouldn't be hot, but warm.
- about 2-3 Tablespoons of parmesan cheese
Every Italian woman has a lasagna pan. It is a law, I believe. I may have been born with it because I think it is that old. I just measured it and it is 11 inches wide and 16 inches long, so you will need a large pan for this. Begin by ladling enough sauce to cover the bottom of the pan so that the first layer of noodles does not stick to the pan. Start by putting a layer of noodles across the bottom. With a tablespoon, drop some dollops of ricotta across the top of the noodles. Do not be stingy with the ricotta. You will be making about 5 layers so divide up the ricotta accordingly. Then ladle some sauce onto that first layer. With the spoon and your hands (no doubt you will need your hands), if necessary, spread the ricotta across the noodles and while spreading the ricotta, you will be combining it with the sauce. Then put slices of mozzarella on top of that about one half inch apart. Then start your next layer, beginning with the noodles again. The top of your lasagna should be noodles, some sauce and mozzarella. Sprinkle the parmesan across the top. Make sure that all of the top layer is covered with sauce, especially the corners or the noodles will dry out. Put the pan into a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Do NOT cover the pan with foil!
The one caution with lasagna is this: Do not use too much sauce or your lasagna squares will flatten out and spread all over the plate. The layers will not stand up if there is too much sauce. It is easy to add sauce to the top of the lasagna when you serve it at the table. It is impossible to fix if there is too much sauce. Also, when the lasagna comes out of the oven. allow it to sit for at least 15 minutes prior to cutting and serving.
This lasagna can be frozen! Move aside, Stouffer's! The best time to freeze the lasagna is right after you have completed your layers. Freeze the pan prior to baking. I cover the pan with plastic wrap and foil and place the entire pan into the freezer. I also freeze the leftovers after Christmas dinner. Same method (plastic and foil). Just make sure that you freeze some extra sauce in a small plastic bowl, too!
Stuffed Shells Recipe, Anyone?
Every member of my family has their favorite pasta dish, so I have to make shells. Any other day, the stuffed shells are a wonderful meal on their own, but Christmas is different. The stuffed shells without the lasagna? Can't happen!
Stuffed shells recipe:
- 1 pound box of Barilla stuffed shells, again cooked al dente, about 1 minute less than the package directions
- 2 pounds of Frigo whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 pound of grated Frigo whole milk mozzarella cheese
- 5-6 Tablespoons of finely chopped, flatleaf parsley
- 1 beaten egg
- enough sauce to almost cover the shells
- water to thin the sauce
Combine the ricotta, mozzarella, parsley and egg together in a bowl, making sure they are well-combined. Drain the shells and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking process. With a teaspoon, fill each of the shells and lay them side by side in a large baking pan and make sure they are going in the same direction. Leave about one half inch between the shells because they will expand when baking. Gently pour sauce over each of the shells. Do not completely immerse, because you will need to add water to thin out the sauce. Start with one cup of water and add it at different spots throughout the pan. You may need one more cup. When the shells are almost covered with sauce, cover the pan with foil and place into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Whe the 45 minutes has lapsed, open one corner of the pan and take a look. The shells should have almost doubled in size. If that is the case, remove them from the oven and just leave that corner open. Allow the shells to sit for about 15 minutes prior to serving.
The Antipasto Salad Recipe
An antipasto salad is traditional in many Italian families. It is always enjoyed, but never the favorite, because the meats and pasta are always the home run dishes that everyone waits for! Mine is simple, yet very, very good. It has the favorite salad goodies that my kids enjoy, but does follow the traditions.
Antipasto salad recipe:
- 1/2 jar of Italian garden vegetables, drained and rough chopped. The vegetables are usually carrots, cauliflower, some celery and onions
- Pepperocini, 5-10, depending on your family's tastes
- 1/2 can of kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 can of black olives, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup of shredded or grated mozzarella cheese
- 1 pint of cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 of a cucumber (with the grandkids coming, I will increase to 1 whole cucumber, seeded and sliced)
- a few ounces of sliced pepperoni
- 1/2 head of romaine lettuce, chopped into small pieces)
- Italian dressing, homemade
Assemble all of your ingredients and place the lettuce in the bowl first. Then add each of the vegetables and the mozzarella across the top of the bowl. Pretty counts! Along the sides of the bowl, place the pepperoni, as a decoration, lining the entire bowl. Just prior to dinner, sprinkle the top of the salad liberally with salt and garlic salt.
The dressing is simple using Regina Red Wine Vinegar and a good olive oil. In a bowl, pour about 1/2 a cup of the vinegar, some salt, garlic salt and black pepper. Whisk in about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of olive oil. Sprinkle this across the entire top, and after the salad has gone to the table, then mix it all together. You want everyone to see how pretty it looks before it is mixed.
Two Desserts! Holiday Fruit Salad And Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Crem Pie!
Our Holiday Fruit salad is on the table, served with dinner, but it is basically a dessert that is made every holiday in our family. My best friend in college has a beautiful Italian mother and she introduced me to and taught me how to make this fruit salad. It has been in our family now for 40 years and my grown daughters make it for nearly every party they have. It is a crowd pleaser, and the ingredient that is key: homemade whipped cream. Not Cool Whip, not Reddi-Whip out of an aerosol container, but homemade whipped cream. It takes 6 - 7 minutes to make and is delicious!
Helen's Holiday Fruit Salad Recipe:
- 2 large cans of fruit cocktail, drained and rinsed
- 2 large cans of mandarin oranges, drained and rinsed
- 1 large can of crushed pineapple, drained
- 1 large jar of red cherries, drained and rinsed
- 8 ripe bananas, sliced
- 1/2 to 2/3 of a bag of miniature marshmallows
Combine the above ingredients in a large bowl. Make sure that the bananas are stirred in and have been thoroughly combined. The remaining moisture from the other fruit will help to keep them from turning brown. Make the whipped cream. Mix in completely. Cover and refrigerate.
Homemade Whipped Cream Recipe:
- 1 pint of heavy whipping cream
- 1 Tablespoon of vanilla
- 1/3 cup of sugar
Chill a clean stainless steel bowl in your freezer for about 30 minutes prior to making the whipped cream. Remove the bowl from the freezer and pour in the whipping cream. With your mixer on high, mix for about 5 minutes. When you notice the cream forming soft peaks, add in your vanilla and sugar. Continue mixing on high until stiff peaks form. This should take another 2 minutes. Pour into the fruit salad and combine. Refrigerate.
I always make the fruit salad on Christmas morning.
The second or real dessert recipe is an ice cream pie. It has become a family favorite.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie Recipe:
- 1 large graham cracker crust
- 1/2 gallon of vanilla bean or French vanilla ice cream
- 1/2 cup of peanut butter
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup of honey
- 1/2 cup of cashews, rough chopped
- 6 - 8 ounces of chocolate fudge topping
Allow the ice cream to soften. Mix in the peanut butter and honey. Put half of the ice cream into the pie crust. Spread the top of the layer with chocolate fudge topping and then sprinkle the cashews across the layer. Cover the first layer with the remaining ice cream and top with dollops of fudge topping. Get this into the freezer fast! Allow to harden and serve plain or with some whipped cream and cherries.
My Hopes For Everyone! Have A Merry Christmas!
Whether you choose to adopt an Italian Christmas or not, I hope that these recipes can come in handy for other days as well.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!