Twelve days ‘til Christmas and it’s just been snowing in the mountains. A clear starry night now beckons us outside promising roasted chestnuts, a glowing fire and a steaming glass of vin brulè mulled with warm spices! We’re celebrating!
Tomorrow is December 13th an important date here because it heralds ‘La Festa di Santa Lucia’ – but the kids are getting excited for tonight…..before Babbo Natale entered Northern Italy’s culture it was Santa Lucia, patron saint of light and eyes, who brought presents for the children.
Arriving by donkey on the night of 12th December, she distributed gifts of food, sweets and candles to deserving children but left only coal or ashes for those undeserving ones – although of course now the ‘coal’ is a slab of dark chocolate!
Along with their list of wants, the children originally had to leave Santa Lucia a cup of coffee and some bread, plus water and hay for the donkey…..I’m sure she gets more these days, even in our household us kids were firmly told Father Christmas liked a very large brandy and several mince-pies!
Santa Lucia was one of the first Christian martyrs and came from Syracuse in Sicily where they celebrate with a week of festivities, fireworks and eating, but – in recognition of her also saving the city from famine – they abstain from eating pasta and bread.
I’ve just discovered that she’s also patron saint of Mantua – very providential as I’d devised a no-pasta version of the traditional “tortelli di zucca” (pumpkin ravioli), a pasta dish originally enjoyed at the medieval court of the Gonzagas and now enjoyed by all!
When we visited Mantua a few months ago the city centre was under scaffolding, a reminder of the huge restoration work still being carried out after the 2012 earthquake which devastated the surrounding area and cracked some of the glorious medieval buildings of Mantua.
Earthquakes apart however, nothing could rock the stable foundations of the “cuisine of princes and the people” with its specialities of salame mantovana; cotechino (traditionally served at Christmas-time in northern Italy with lentils); agnoli in brodo and tortelli di zucca; luccio in salsa (pike); caponne still cooked and served according to the Gonzaga family chef’s 1622 recipe; gran padano & parmigiano reggiano cheeses; the famous sour apple and pear mostarda mantovana and light, flaky desserts such as sbrisolana…..to name but a few!
For my ‘no-pasta’ version I’ve substituted wafer-thin slices of raw topinambur or Jerusalem artichoke for the ravioli pockets, sandwiching teaspoonfuls of the classic pumpkin and amaretti filling between two slices.
I happen to love Jerusalem artichokes – raw or cooked – and being health-conscious I love to use them whenever I can (within reason as they’re not referred to as ‘windy’ for no reason!). They’re not only packed with B-Vitamins, potassium and iron but are also highly recommended for diabetics as they help to reduce and stabilise blood sugar levels.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE & PUMPKIN TORTELLI
For 4 (as a pasta course – makes about 40 small ‘tortelli’)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Preheat oven: 200C/400F
2 medium/large-sized jerusalem artichokes or topinambur
1 small pumpkin or zucca (about 1 kg)
100g grated parmesan cheese
100g crushed amaretti biscuits
50g chopped mostarda mantova (or use an apple or pear chutney)
Zest of ½ lemon
Salt & pepper
½ tsp grated nutmeg
Pomegranate seeds for decoration
Halve the pumpkin, remove all seeds and stringy bits and slice (you can keep the skin on).
Bake for about 20 minutes.
Remove from oven, allow to cool slightly, then spoon out the flesh and put into a bowl.
Add all the other ingredients, tip into a food processor and mix until you get a smooth-ish puree.
Wash the artichokes well – I prefer keeping the skin on, but you could also peel them. I cut off some of the knobbly bits to make the slices more equal.
Finely slice both artichokes – it’s easiest with a mandolin and you should get about 20 slices per artichoke this way.
Spoon small amounts of pumpkin puree (very small teaspoonfuls) onto half of the artichoke slices and cover with the remaining slices.
Take a steamer – here I have my bamboo & wok ensemble.
The bamboo steamer-stack means I can fill each layer with ‘tortelli’ and steam them all together. But if you have another form of steamer you could put parchment paper between layers. Steam for 8-10 minutes until soft to touch.
Serve warm on separates plates dusted with nutmeg and grated parmesan cheese and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.