How Food Brought Meaning to Our Agnostic/Jewish ChristmasFrank Matijevich
Though I grew up a Sicilian-American Catholic, my family now is a blended one: my wife grew up celebrating Christmas and later converted to Judaism while I no longer adhere to any one particular religious belief. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, and Christmas in a secular way.
When my wife and I were figuring out how to reinvent the holiday season in a way that was meaningful to us, I decided to revisit the Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The traditional version of this belongs to Italian American Christians — they prepare and serve a huge seven course meal, with each dish made with fish, celebrating the religious aspects of Christmas. Even though I no longer adhere to the religion, I will forever be a Sicilian American (who doesn’t happen to like fish) — so I created a new twist: the Feast of the Seven Dishes. For the last two years, I’ve woken up at about 5am on Christmas Eve morning and started cooking my seven dishes — the centerpiece of which is an Italian dish called Braciole (pronounced bra-jo-le.) Braciole is thinly sliced beef filled, rolled, and slow braised in homemade tomato sauce for about six hours. When it’s done, the meat is fork tender and literally melts in your mouth. Preparing the feast together has become a tradition we all love.
Starting at age two, even my youngest daughter has helped to cook it. Obviously, kids can’t do much in the way of real food prep at that age, but I would typically prepare some items that she could drop in a bowl (pre-cut garlic, herbs, etc.) and mix without danger of injury. The easiest recipe is my Olive Tapenade, which is just a mix of green and kalamata olives, some garlic, olive oil and a small touch of salt and pepper, blended in a mixer until finely minced. She loves dropping the ingredients in and holds her ears when the mixer buzzes away. The Tapenade is great as an appetizer (1 dish down) and is also an important part of my Eggplant Caponata (second dish). Caponata is a chutney of diced vegetables, slow cooked with some tomato sauce. I use eggplant, celery, some sundried tomatoes, a few capers and my tapenade. Add some lemon juice and the dish elevates to a yummy, butter mixture that is great on pasta, under some over-medium eggs or just a spoonful on its own. I’ve found that getting the kids into the kitchen to help prepare dishes offers the opportunity for them to taste what they’ve helped to create. My 11 year old was once a very picky eater at 8 years old — I got her into the kitchen with me and it made her much more adventurous when it comes to food.
Rounding out this year’s menu is my Eggs Francesco (dish 3), Spinach and Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms (dish 4), Stuffed Rigatoni (dish 5), the Braciole (dish 6) and for dessert, homemade Cannoli (dish 7).
I still think about the crispy exterior and warm soft interior of the sliced pizza rolls my Sicilian grandmother would make for me since she knew I didn’t like fish. But Christmas, for me, is now all about my Feast and the fun and joy of preparing it with my wife and daughters.
4 Slices of Chuck Steak (Thin and wide, about the size of dinner plates, ask your butcher to cut special)
2 Cups Breadcrumbs
1 Cup Fresh Spinach (chiffonade)
1 Cup Fresh Basil (chiffonade)
2-3 Cloves of Garlic, minced
1/3 Cup Fresh Parmesan, Shredded
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Black Pepper
2 Tblspn Olive Oil
Pinch of Red Pepper Flake (optional)
Salt and Pepper
4 long strands of twine
First prepare the mixture of breadcrumbs, spinach, basil, parmesan, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil in a bowl and set aside.
Layout one of the slices of chuck steak on a clean counter and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides. Take two to three tablespoons of the mix and place it in on the meat, about two to three inches from the edge, then roll until the meat is in a tube shape. Use the twine to tie the meat until a good seal is in place and the stuffing can remain intact for cooking. Repeat process for each steak.
In a medium skillet, brown each of the rolled meat steaks until a good sear on each side. About three to four minutes per side is a good measure. Remember that the browner the meat, the more flavor. Once all the steaks have been browned, remove them from the pan and place in an oven safe pan. Take a ladle full of sauce and add to the skillet to remove all the brown pits at the bottom. This will add additional flavor to the dish as we are now changing cooking vessels.
Pour the sauce from the skillet over the meat and add additional sauce until the sauce just touches the bottom edge of the meat. Putting too much sauce will boil the meat and it will not cook properly. You can always add sauce along the way if necessary.
Cover with aluminum foil and place in a preheated 275 degree oven. Cook for four to six hours, checking every hour or so to ensure that the liquid hasn’t evaporated.
Serve and enjoy. Happy Holidays!