It’s Christmas on Arthur Ave and so every vender gives Edward panettone. When he left the Bronx to drive home there were so many panettone in the back of the car he practically couldn’t see out his rear view mirror. (BTW, panettone makes a great bread pudding—I’ll be taking a few off Edward’s hands.) Our schedule got thrown off because Wednesday is Christmas Eve, when Edward cooks his best dinner, seven fishes seven ways, a fast that is a feast, and what Edward describes a meal composed of momentum and restraint. That’s because diner have to get through all those courses without feeling full before the end of the meal. Otherwise, you are snoring on the couch when the messiah is born. Anyway, instead of meeting Friday, he is going to Arthur Avenue Tuesday morning. And he will be there at around 6 am, waiting for Randazzo’s to open up, and staking out his territory in a crowd of Italian ladies who play hardball when it comes to getting an advantage in the line. Italians in general are not very good at staying in line, as any of you know who have ever flown Al Italia.
This is Edward’s dinner and he runs the show. Fried whitebait (spearing) with champagne, the antipasto: stuffed clams, boiled shrimp with marinated peppers, smoked eel with scallion pesto, spaghettini with shrimp shell sauce, baked fillet of sole stuffed with crab and ricotta and dressed with a light tomato cream sauce. Salad, and I will make a lemon meringue pie (we always have lemon desserts after La Vigilia).
My favorite part of the meal is actually afterwards, when we listen to Dylan Thomas reciting A Child’s Christmas in Wales. My parents started playing the recording in order to get us kids to calm down enough to sleep, but it is an exquisite poem and has influence me as a writer more than any single piece of literature.
Christmas day we eat an antipasto of cured meats, followed by a Christmas specialty from Le Marche, where Edward’s family is from: fried cauliflower, pears and raisings, the capon with broccoli di rabe, roasted potatoes, and mushrooms, usually followed by a nut pie, or applesauce cake. I don’t miss eating a pasta course at all, because the fried cauliflower and pears is sweet and savory and crunchy and soft—an absolutely wonderful way to start a meal, comforting but rather exotic (Edward thinks it was introduced by Saracens in Le Marche a millennium ago).
Fried Cauliflower, Pear, and Raisins
2 cups cauliflower, trimmed to bite sized pieces
2 Bosc pears, peeled, quartered, with cores scooped out (I use a melon-baller)
1 cup white raisins
2 cups flour
3 cups lager beer or dry white wine
3 teaspoons baking powder
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt to taste
Combine the flour, beer, baking powder, and a pinch of salt in a bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour (a little more or less is okay).
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over a high heat. Add the cauliflower and cook for a few minutes, until it is al dente (probe the pieces with the tine of a fork. You should be able to spear the cauliflower, but still feel some resistance).
Place 1/2 of an inch of vegetable oil in a large non-stick skillet. Heat the oil over a high heat. The oil must be very hot. You can test it by throwing a dash of flour into the oil. If the flour pops, the oil is ready for frying. Dunk the cauliflower and pears in the batter and place them gently in the hot oil. Don’t put too many in at once or it will bring down the temperature of the oil, and they mustn’t touch or they will stick together. To fry the raisins, drop a spoonful into the batter, and then pull them out on the tines of a fork and fry.
The raisins will fry very fast. But both the cauliflower and pears go fast, too, a few seconds on each side.
Drain the cauliflower, pears, and raisins on paper towels or brown paper bags. Sprinkle with salt. Do not add more battered cauliflower, etc, until you are sure the oil has come up in temperature again. Serve with lemon wedges.