Christmas Pasta for a Good (and Cheap) Night
We interrupt this season of political upheaval and cataclysmic climate change to bring you. . . Christmas Eve. Here in Miami, it’s also called Nochebuena, which means the Good Night. Well, honey, we could all use a little good.
In Italy, Christmas Eve is called Vigilia di Natale. By any name, it’s a special occasion calling for special dishes. Across Italy, each region celebrates the holiday with its own recipe, often featuring frutta secca — dried fruit and nuts. The ancient Romans ate these foods in winter in the belief it would ensure a bountiful harvest to come. It also made practical sense — dried fruit and nuts were local, abundant, cheap and could keep throughout the winter. They added affordable dazzle to dishes and kept people nourished in a season when fresh produce was scarce.
It all adds up to cucina povera, peasant cookery, using everything, wasting nothing. It’s an old-world tradition that never goes out of style. Michelin star chef Luigi Nastri showed how delicious cucina povera is at the recent Italian Cuisine in the World Miami master class. For his tomato risotto, he used tomato skins and leaves in the broth to build flavor and reduce waste. Italian olive oil, not butter, created richness.
makes use of simple ingredients that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. It means you don’t have to be rich to enjoy a holiday feast. It means everyone gets to have a good night.
The custom of studding pasta with frutta secca continues because, well, it’s delicious.
In Naples (that’s Italy, not Florida), that means Christmas Pasta. Also known as Trash Bucket Pasta and Cheapskate Pasta, it’s a clean-out-the-pantry concoction of pasta, nuts, dried fruit, tomatoes, garlic, capers, olives and olive oil. These disparate ingredients combine to create a rich, alchemical balance of savory, salty, sweet and tart, what the Italians call agrodolce.
As Italy’s Consul General said at the Miami culinary master class, Food is culture. It’s how we share and taste the world.
We draw on our cultural and culinary traditions this week in particular, with Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa all clustered together. Whatever you’re celebrating, let it be about food, certainly, but also about family, culture, community, the things we hold dear and hold onto in these uncertain days. Buono Vigilia di Natale, Feliz Nochebuena, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa. And while I’m at it, bonnes fêtes, the useful all-in-one French phrase that means happy winter festival. May we all have good nights.
I’m grateful to my Italian experts: the Consul General of Italy, and the Italian Consulate of Miami, Michelin star chef Luigi Nastri, Elena Cadel, Pamela Fuertes and Francine Segan, and the pasta pros at Barilla, Pasta Felicetti and Anatomico . Thank you for sharing cuisine, culture and wisdom.
- 1 pound fussilloni or other short pasta
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove sliced
- ½ cup assorted nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, chopped
- 3 tablespoons of any dried fruit such as apricots, dates or raisins, chopped
- 2 tablespoons salted capers rinsed
- 1 28- ounce can diced tomatoes
- 10 pitted oil-cured black olives
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley chopped, plus more for garnish
- Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta and set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat the oil and garlic in a large pan over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes or until fragrant.
- Then stir in the nuts, raisins, capers and tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the olives, oregano and parsley and cook 1 more minute.
- Toss the pasta into the sauce. Stir in some of the pasta water to help blend the flavors and create a smooth consistency.
- Serve topped with more parsley.