At Thanksgiving I always cook the traditional turkey dinner so at
Christmas I definitely want to do something different. That lead to
having a tradition of an “international” Christmas – each year a
Christmas (or winter holiday) meal from a different part of the world.
Over the years we’ve covered quite a few different countries and
regions: Mexico, Germany, Middle East, Ethiopia, Czech Republic, Cajun, China, Ethiopia. Ironically we have never done Italian. I guess because your own ethnic heritage doesn’t always seem as exciting as trying something new.
But this year, having too much going on andfeeling overwhelmed and exhausted I really wasn’t up for my usual international culinary research project. So I decided on Italian. Easy, crowd-pleasing and delicious. Of course there’s no one typical Italian Christmas dinner because it varies very much by region. I decided we should roughly try to follow the Piemontese tradition since that is where my mother’s family is from. But I wanted everybody to be able to contribute a dish and I didn’t want to be too rigid about authenticity.
I planned to make the main/meat course (or il secondo, as it’s called in Italian) and have our other guests contribute appetizers (antipasti), first course (il primo), salad (insalata) and dessert (dolci).
Unfortunately one of the most traditional Piemontese meat courses for Christmas that my grandmother used to make is a “bollito misto” which is basically boiled beef and vegetables. I say “unfortunately” first because I don’t eat beef (I’ll have to do another post about why at a later date) and secondly because I am not a big fan of boiled meat or vegetables (taste wise, texture wise or nutritionally). So I ruled that out.
Another traditional main course for Christmas in other parts of Italy is baccalà (salt-dried cod fish). Also not a fan.
So after thinking about it I decided to make a stuffed capon. (This is the point where everyone always asks, “Wait, what is a capon again?”) Capon seems to be one of those birds that people are familiar with by name but then realize they don’t actually know what it is. Pigeon? No that’s squab. Not a pheasant, not a game hen, what is it? Simply put, it’s a castrated rooster. This basically results in something akin to a very large chicken with lots of tender meat.
On a side note, speaking of things Italian and castrated…(you must
be wondering where I’m going with this now…) this reminds me of a
hilarious 1950’s Italian film with the venerated Italian comedian Totò. It’s called “Un Turco Napoletano” and Totò plays a Neopolitan
petty criminal and womanizer who escapes from jail and pretends to be a Turkish eunuch. When a wealthy and jealous merchant hires the alleged eunuch to guard his attractive wife and daughter, comedy ensues. I’m not sure if the film is available in the U.S. or subtitled (I saw it on television when I lived in Italy years ago) but if you’ve never seen a film with Totò it’s worth trying to find one of them.
Anyway, back to our capon…I read through a lot of recipes for stuffed capon (cappone ripieno) on the Italian recipe website Cooker.net and also found an interesting one (in English) on the Canadian Food Network website. I decided to make a conglomeration of the “best of” of all these recipes.
That meant starting with a deboned capon. I have pretty decent knife skills for a home cook but I’m definitely not a chef, especially when it comes to these kinds of techniques. I’ve deboned a chicken only once and it was probably almost ten years ago. So I was a little daunted. I must say the process was a little intense and disturbingly
animalistic. There’s nothing like ripping the flesh off of a carcass
to put you in touch with your bestial nature.
In the end I actually was pretty pleased with my results (didn’t nick the skin once!) but it was fairly taxing. Actually, it wasn’t technically that difficult it was more my uncertainty about whether I was doing it the right way. Now that I feel like I know what I’m doing I’d like to try it again with more confidence.
After that I made a forcemeat stuffing of chicken livers, pancetta, Italian sausage, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, bread, parmesan cheese, onion and spices and ran it through my meat grinder.
I stuffed the boneless capon with the forcemeat, sewed the openings closed and trussed it. Since the boneless bird still was like a shapeless bag of jello, I also wrapped some twine (sloppily!) around it a few times to give it some form.
While the capon was roasting, I started a sauce by browning the
chopped up carcass (nothing like taking a meat cleaver to a skeleton to release any holiday tension) with a mirepoix.
Then I added some water, chicken stock, white wine and a little tomato paste. This cooked (and reduced) the entire time the bird was roasting (about an hour and a half).
I served the sliced capon with the strained sauce on top. Everyone
really raved about it and had multiple servings. Unfortunately I had
the experience that often happens after I’ve been in the kitchen all day–total loss of appetite. There’s something about inhaling all those delicious aromas that often fills me up and leaves me uninterested in eating the final result. Of course I did eat it anyway (pullease!) and it was tasty but I just felt like I was eating my tenth meal of the day.
Oh, I also have to give a shout out to my mom who made an enormous batch of homemade potato gnocchi (from my grandmother’s recipe) that were feather-light and delicious. That’s a lot of work by hand and we all appreciated it (I actually did have seconds of that course myself.)
As I count my many blessings this year, I guess I also have to be
thankful for coming from a culture that really knows how to eat!