Monday, December 28, 2015

Something New: An Italian Christmas Dinner

preteen Amey in front of the Christmas fire
I still love to sit on the floor in front of the fire.

Every year of my life, for as long as I can remember, my family has had Christmas Eve dinner at my parents' house. Back in the day, it was a particularly big and festive gathering. My mom's parents would be there, both of my mom's sisters, my cousin, my brother, my parents, and any other family members or partners who were in town. My grandfather in particular was such a special man, and he always wore a beautiful bright red vest with gold buttons on Christmas. We all dressed up, because this was a special occasion.


Christmas 1987
This is the only picture I could find of my grandpa in his red vest. Plus my darling parents, looking so young! 
And my mom's fashions looking so '80's! It's kind of nice that it was so hard to find any pictures of our Christmas eve dinners. I like that we were all too busy enjoying the time together. 

The great thing about traditions like this is that they build momentum. It's not really that you remember any one year necessarily, but you remember year after year after year. I could list out each moment of each Christmas past - the whole cadence of the evening, from the building of the fire to the beautiful toast my grandpa would stand up and deliver at the table, to the pumpkin pie, to the inevitable return to the fireside... which by then would need to be revived with new logs after a long dinner.

The problem with traditions like this, though, is that - like all things - they are impermanent. Several years ago, my grandparents died, first my mom's mom, and then my mom's dad. I miss them so much. I'm lucky to have known them and loved them as much as I did. But their passing changed things. Not as many family members come home since my grandparents aren't here. Things just feel different. I'll tell you: this has been hard for me to accept, mostly just because I liked it the way it was, and I was a little heartbroken that things just really can't ever stay the same.

Christmas 1987
Playing cards by the tree with my grandma, my brother, and some close family friends.
I like this picture of my grandma, this is really how I remember her. 


I think maybe this year was the first year since my grandparents' deaths that, in my heart of hearts, I finally sent up the white flag and surrendered to the hands of fate: fine! things will change! 

A few weeks before Christmas, I was telling my friends "I really want to do an Italian Christmas dinner someday!" But I didn't know when I would ever have the chance. Because every year in our family, for all my life, we've had the same sort of dinner at Christmas time that we have at Thanksgiving: turkey for the non-vegans, a vegan entree, mashed potatoes, veggies, gravy, pumpkin pie, etc. And, y'know, that's how we do it. So, when my mom - out of the blue - said "I was thinking maybe we could mix it up and do something different this year..." -- I was surprised, but I was also ready to embrace something new. We talked about a few ideas, and we quickly decided that everyone could get excited about Italian food for Christmas.

I did some research online about Italian Christmas dinners, and we started to come up with a plan... and something new was born: a wonderful, delicious Italian Family Christmas together. Maybe it will be a new tradition, or maybe our new tradition will be to do something different every year.


So, with that long, shmaltzy introduction, I present: 
Italian Christmas Dinner!
served in three courses

My mom sets a beautiful Christmas table
This is the same table that I grew up with. 
I used to hide my undesired peas on the little crossbar underneath the table.*

*one time my mom separated the table to add a leaf, and found lots of little dried peas hidden on the support bar under the table. hee hee. It's kinda funny, because I remember liking peas... but I guess that wasn't always true! 


First course: Antipasti

Antipasto Platter

My mom was in charge of most of the antipasti and she did an amazing job!! She spent all day marinating and roasting various veggies : Artichoke hearts, wedges of fennel, eggplant slices (holy macaroon, these were SO good), bell peppers, and string beans. There were two plates full of these goodies, circulating around the table. 


Beans beans beans!

She also prepared these simple and delicious white beans - they had a light, lemony dressing on them, plus a bunch of fresh parsley. I really love beans, and I gotta say, my mom has a magic touch with dressing, and the flavors in these beans really were great. I could have happily eaten that whole bowl of beans and called it quits!


and of course olives!
ya gotta have a few bowls of beautiful assorted olives!


Vegan cheeses & carbs

We also had some vegan cheeses and bread and crackers. When we were in Puglia (Southern Italy) a couple of years ago, my parents and Mr. VE&T and I all fell in love with taralli - these super crunchy ring-shaped crackers. I was so happy to find some in the local natural foods store (imported from Puglia!), especially in the classic Fennel Seed flavor

I contributed a few top-shelf vegan cheeses: Winter Truffle and Black Ash from Miyoko's Creamery, and the Herb & Scallion cheese from Treeline. All very different and very good.  Plus, my parents got some fresh "Herb Slab" french bread from Trader Joes/Acme Bakery (you can see my mom slicing it up in the back corner). That bread is delicious, and was perfect with the marinated veggies and cheeses. 

goofball
My dad is a perennial goofball and before we even started eating, he had two taralli for eyes! 


I love this beautiful centerpiece. I think it came from my parents' friends in Denmark. If you look closely, you can see the little red hearts around the frame. It also has four spikes for poking into fresh apples and four candle holders. It's so pretty, and it reminds me of every Christmas celebration ever.


Main Course : Lasagna!!

Foreground: My Vegan Lasagna
Background: Vegan No-Salt, No-Oil, No Noodles Lasagna

Well, as you may know, we are a complicated culinary family! My brother and his family prefer to eat a standard American diet, more or less. My aunt and her boyfriend are vegans like me, but, unlike me they also eat no salt, no sugar, no oil, and very few foods that are processed. So, in order to have a lasagna course that satisfied all hearts and palettes, we had 3 different lasagnas in attendance! ha ha.

My brother's fiance brought a decidedly non-veg lasagna (which I obviously didn't take a picture of!). I made myself my favorite lasagna.  I don't make 'zag all that often, but I really really love it. While I was making my vegan lasagna, I also made a smaller version for my aunt and her partner - I used roasted slices of zucchini and eggplant instead of noodles, and just left the salt/oil/miso out of the tofu ricotta, cashew creme, and tomato sauce. I also added about a cup of cooked green lentils to the tomato sauce for both versions - I got that idea from Somer's book The Abundance Diet - they add a little extra nutrition, but also a little extra chew and bite. 

As a vegan, I know how it is to feel either included or left out, so I wanted to make sure my aunt and her partner felt like they were part of our lasagna vision! When we sat down at the table, I realized that we hadn't prepared any crudite or SOS-free (salt-oil-sugar-free) antipasti for them, and I felt sorry. I'll remember that for next year.

My Christmas Dinner

My Aunt brought along some delicious roasted butternut squash slices. I love roasted butternut so much, partly because it's just so darned tasty, and also because it was one of my grandma's favorite foods, and so I feel a little closer to her whenever I enjoy a slice. 

My mom also made a giant bowl of simple steamed chard, and then had some nice high-quality vinegars out of the table to douse the greens with. And she made some DYNO-MITE baked polenta wedges that were somehow the most tastiest polentas ever of my whole life. How did she do it? Maybe she will leave a comment and tell us, since she is a loyal blog reader. 

In the end, only Mr VE&T and I tried my lasagna, so we went home with a ginormous platter full of vegan lasagna! I guess it woulda been kind of nice if more people were curious about my vegan contribution, but on the other hand, we just finished eating leftover lasagna for four nights in a row, which is truly a best-case-scenario as far as I'm concerned. Tomorrow I"ll have to get back in the kitchen and cook again, and I'll be missing that never-ending lasagna for sure. 

cheers!
Here's our festive gang (minus Mr. VE&T who was behind the lens!)


Final Course: 
Sweeties, Fruits, and Nuts

Almond Coffee Cookies

I found this recipe online and it looked promising - and it really delivered! These cookies were easy to veganize, and were naturally gluten free. Here are the changes I made:

I made a half batch - and instead of soaking/blanching/grinding almonds, I just started off with a 1/2 lb of almond flour. (way easier!). I used most of a decaf Starbucks Via packet for the ground espresso. And I used the liquid from a can of chickpeas (aka aquafaba) for the egg replacer. I used 4.5 tbsp to equal roughly 1.5 eggs. 

As you can see, these cookies turned out super cute and perfectly plump. As you can't see, they also turned out super delicious. You'll just have to take my word on that! I'll definitely keep this recipe in mind for future cookie needs, especially for my gluten-free loved ones! 


Soft Anise Cookies

I saw several mentions of these delicate Christmas cookies, and so I went with them. I doubled the anise extract suggested in the recipe, but they were still quite subtle. I tend to prefer a more sassy cookie, but I enjoyed these. I especially enjoyed how they all poofed up PERFECTLY and were round little balls of cuteness. They're essentially a gentle sugar cookie with a super cute round shape, dipped in icing and covered in sprinkles. Maybe not my favorite cookie ever, but I still ate several... so not my least favorite either! ha ha. Plus, really, I think a plain cookie like this has its place in the world. If you are a fan of sugar cookies, you will like these too.

As with the previous cookie variety - I made a half-batch of these, and subbed almond milk for the dairy-milk, and used 4.5 Tbsp of chickpea liquid instead of 1.5 eggs. The results of my veganizing were really superb! Also, if you try your hand at this recipe, I probably got 20-24 cookies out of a half-batch, so I think the numbers in the original recipe are a little off.


Sweeties!

In addition to the cookies, I also had a special Panforte that one of my friends had brought back from Italy for me earlier in the year, and I had been saving it for a special occasion. I love Panforte so much, and so do my parents, so this was a fun thing to share. 

Also, I love my new holly plate that I got at Marshalls right before Christmas -- and I really love the beautiful platter that the cookies are on. I have a smaller platter that matches it that my mom and dad gave me a while ago. On Christmas morning, my mom and dad and I were talking about this pretty platter, and my dad was telling me that this was the nice china that they used for special occasions when he was growing up. It had so many memories for him! I was so honored when they gave it to me on Christmas day! I promise to take good care of it, and keep it together with its smaller companion.


Fruits & Nutzos

I also arranged a big platter of nuts and fruits (and there was a bowl of whole walnuts in the shells too). These are all winter fruits - apples from our tree, persimmons from a friend's tree, red & black grapes from the farmers market, tangerines... all surrounding a bowl of raw almonds and pecans. By the end of the evening there was pretty much nothing left of this bounty. As the fireside chatting went on and on, the little nibbles also continued into the night. 


three wonderful Christmas doggies:
Santa Dottie Bonkers, Elf Snoopy, Santa Stevie Wonder


the bitter is a little more bitter, because of the sweet
& the sweet is a little sweeter, because of the bitter

Of course it's all a little bittersweet. Accepting Change feels both easier and harder than resisting it. Hopefully we can keep the warmth and the feelings that were in our hearts all those years, even as life evolves. I think we've done that pretty well over the last several years. I totally loved our new Christmas cuisine this year, and I had such a wonderful evening. But also, I still miss those old years. I think those two feelings will just have to learn to live side-by-side in my heart from now on. 

16 comments:

  1. i love this post. not only does the food look amazing, but i totally agree with you on the bittersweet memories. we used to always have a huge christmas eve dinner at my parents' house but then i moved out to california and had kids and now we have our own traditions, which are fun, but i still miss the old ones.

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  2. How do you do it? You captured the whole sweep of our evolving Christmas tradition so beautifully -- not just the specifics, but also how your perceptions and appreciation of it have changed over time. Yes, it was a truly wonderful celebration! xxxxoooo

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  3. What a beautiful post, Amey! I feel like I got to know you and your family better through your sharing. <3

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  4. I love this post, Amey. You capture the essence of change so well. And I always love reading about your family; it is clear how much love and acceptance there is between all of you, and has been over the years. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. This is such a beautiful, heartfelt post Amey. What a wonderful family you have, and I loved reading about your Italian Christmas :)

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  6. I loved reading this post Amey. Accepting change is super tough, Nick and I were Skyping with his sister the other day and we were talking about how Christmas will just never be the same now that their mum's passed away and their dad's remarried. It's so true that we need to keep moving forward and creating new traditions (like your awesome Italian feast) but it's hard not to look back and miss the old days.

    Also, your pups have never looked more adorable!!

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  7. Awwwww. You've warmed the cockles of my heart once again. Very bittersweet indeed. I've never seen an Italian Christmas table but that sure looks authentic to me! Thank you for the info about the fruit & candle centerpiece because it caught my eye - I love it and have never seen anything like it. Aren't grandparents the best?

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  8. I'm finding that as I get older, I'm appreciating more and trying to replicate (to an extent) things I grew up with that involved my grandparents who all passed away roughly five to seven years ago. I'm doing some family history research too and yes, it's all quite bittersweet. Your Italian table Christmas looks really awesome. We do the 'same old same old' foods etc with family every year and it's funny because sometimes we say let's do something totally different. So we have the different dishes but my mum will still cook the same stuff. Except we always end up agreeing that while it's nice to have 'new' things on the table, it wouldn't feel like Christmas without the 'old' foods! Have a great new years :D

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  9. What I wouldn't give to be invited to this feast!! :)

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  10. You really have a way with words, Amey - reading your post, I could totally feel the "heartfeltedness" with which you wrote it.
    I'm with you on the bittersweetness of it all - the sadness of seeing cherished family traditions being transformed or abandoned, the fun of trying out new ideas that may turn out to be traditions-in-the-making... Old style or completely new, your celebrations are so obviously filled with love that they're bound to create wonderful memories either way!

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  11. I'm super impressed with that antipasto platter, and those almond coffee cookies are adorable, too!

    Growing up in a family that always ate nearly the exactly same meals on holidays, I understand that feeling of being torn between the old and the new. There are Christmas cookies that I don't love but used to feel obliged to make every year for the sake of tradition and memory. As the years pass, I feel less guilty about forging new traditions, in part because I know those cookies my grandmother made every Christmas will always be special to me and remind me of her, whether or not I make them every single year. I can't imagine a Christmas season where I don't think of her, and that remembrance is really what matters, and is what makes the cookies so special in the first place.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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  12. We had set Christmas traditions for so long at home too, even after I went vegan we adjusted them slightly to fit. A few years ago I lost some of those traditions, though I have also made some new ones. As seems to be the case so often, it was the passing of a loved one that changed Christmas for me (in my case my beloved Gizmo). Also my brother is not at home for Christmas anymore, because he lives in the UK.
    I love your Italian theme, the lasagna sounds amazing. And everything looks so beautiful!
    Your pups are adorable in their Christmas outfits. The kitties didn't get in on the action? ;)

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  13. Oh Amey, your family dinner looks so special! If I were there, I would definitely help you guys out with that tasty vegan lasagna! Mmmmmhmmmm.... I have never made a pasta one from scratch before. Always wanted to, but chickened out lol. Thank you for sharing your past and present memories of Christmas with us all. It's a beautiful tradition you have.

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  14. This was my first time cooking Christmas dinner all by myself and it was small but great. I take some traditions I had growing up and combine new ones that fit with my family. I think my theme next year will be Mexican -vegan Tamales, posole and other authentic dishes. T

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  15. Aw this is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories of Christmases with your family, especially your grandparents. I love the pictures. And I can appreciate how you feel. My dad used to always make Christmas a huge deal and I loved that when I was growing up - when he passed away several years ago, Christmas just wasn't the same. We started making our own traditions over time, his spirit will always be with us.
    And wow! What a wonderful feast you guys had. I love all of the food - the Italian theme was a great idea. I really like how you made a special one for your aunt and her boyfriend!! I wish people in my family would do things like that for me.
    Glad you had such a wonderful holiday Amey. Happy New Year =)

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  16. What a feast. Everything looks really delish. Your lasagna is gorgeous.

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