Get ready for Christmas: Home-made Advent Calendar, Holiday Gift Guide, Ten Course Menus for your Family, DIY foodie gifts, Cooking Marathons.
Just take a breath. Breath. It is not a marathon, not a race, nor a competition. It’s just December. December is a month that has many reasons to be appreciated other than Christmas: the stillness of the open countryside, the most incredible colours I have ever seen in the nearby woods, the crates of oranges and clementines at the market, the avocados from Calabria and Sicily, new cookbooks to cook from, the detective stories I always feel attracted by in this time of the year. It is a game of darkness and light, a suspended time that has fascinated people since the beginning of times, a liminal space between two years, two worlds.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not the Grinch speaking, I love Christmas. I love creating new family rituals, baking traditional treats, gift-wrapping with care even the most simple gifts, but I want to do it with my own timing, at my own pace.
This year more than ever I felt a social pressure to be performing, to be creative, and to share content, recipes, DIY ideas. Guess what? I’m going to ignore that pressure.
We haven’t made an Advent Calendar for Livia. Our house is still in its everyday attire: cookbooks scattered everywhere, dogs carpets near the wood-burning stove, a few candles on my desk to keep me inspired when I write. I’m focused on December, living it day by day, eating an orange and drying its peel, and working frantically to close our cookbook manuscript before the end of the year: that is an actual marathon.
The key to surviving busy weeks like the ones we are living now is to lower the expectations, lower the pressure on what you should do, and give yourself small, manageable goals. Everything else you will get to realize, that will be an extra gift.
Vegetable ragù, a pantry staple
We’re navigating through a difficult time. I had cleared my schedule for the week, prepared a blog post and three newsletters, all because I had planned to write and close two chapters of our cookbook manuscript. I was ready. I was focused. Then Livia caught a nasty flu at the nursery school, decided she didn’t want to eat anything but clementines and became clingy and whiny. One thing is to know that young children can have a very high fever, but another is to witness the temperature go up, up, up. I was working at my desk while she was reading her books and watching Heidi on TV with my mum right there on the sofa. I don’t know what I would do without the nonni safety net.
Add also coughing nights, an evening spent at the ER, and my grandma being admitted the very same night to the hospital for bronchitis. Eventually, I managed to complete 80% of a single chapter – not bad seen the situation -, and relied heavily on pantry meals – God bless the prepared vegetable ragù – and grilled bread with our new olive oil.
That’s why I decided to open the December month not with a Christmas recipe, but with this smart pantry staple, a vegetable ragù that can save busy parents, but actually all busy human beings, at dinnertime.
It is very similar to sugo finto, but it has inside more vegetables. Along with the trustworthy soffritto base – carrot, celery, onion, and garlic – I added the outer leaves of a Savoy cabbage, three stalks of broccoli, and the fibrous outer layers of two fennel bulbs: this vegetable ragù is also a virtuous way to upcycle kitchen scraps. Along with the fresh vegetables, I also added a jar of preserved sun-dried tomatoes, giving the sauce a meaty texture, providing it with the umami kick typical of a meat-based ragù.
I prepared it one night after dinner while trying to catch up with my to-do list at my computer: I do not recommend it. Instead, opt for a movie, some music, or a good book that will keep you company while the vegetable ragù will simmer away on the stove.
Notes on the recipe and variations
Before making the vegetable ragù, prepare all the ingredients. I minced separately all the vegetables in a food processor. Aim to coarse rather than finely minced, as they will give texture to the sauce. Ideally, once cooked, the vegetable ragù will have the same texture of a meat sauce.
As I wanted to use this vegetable ragù for the whole family, I omitted mushrooms. If you are catering for grown-ups, though, consider adding a handful of minced dried porcini mushrooms, previously soaked for about half an hour.
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, minced
- 1 celery stalk, minced
- 2 carrots, peeled and minced
- ¼ leek, minced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small bunch parsley, minced
- Outer layers of a fennel, minced
- 3 broccoli stalks, peeled and minced
- 3 outer Savoy cabbage leaves, hard stalks removed and minced
- 280 grams olive oil preserved sun-dried tomatoes, drained and minced
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 kg tomato passata
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Pour the olive oil into a large pot over low heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, leek, garlic, parsley, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring, for 10 minutes, until soft.
- Add the minced fennel, broccoli and Savoy cabbage to the pot, stir thoroughly to combine, then cook on medium heat, stirring, for about 10 minutes. The sauce will be quite green at the moment.
- Now add the minced sun-dried tomatoes, stir, and cook for 10 more minutes. The vegetable ragù il slowly taking its typical red-brownish colour.
- Pour in the red wine, stir, and cook on medium flame until reduced.
- Now move the pot on the lowest flame and add pour in the tomato passata. Pour 1 cup of water into the tomato jar or can to collect all the remaining sauce, and pour that into the pot, too.
- Stir thoroughly to combine. Increase the heat until the mixture is simmering vigorously, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally to prevent the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
- When the surface of the sauce will be dotted by small puddles of red, shiny oil, the vegetable ragù is ready. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper.
How to make a balanced meal out of this vegetable ragù?
Add some cooked chickpeas to the pasta, or combine your favourite pasta and some lentil or chickpea flour pasta. Some shaved pecorino does the trick, too.
How can I preserve it?
This is quite a lot of sauce, so you won’t use all of it in one go unless you’re cooking for the local soccer team. So the best thing is to preserve it in small batches, as to have it ready for your future meals.
If you want to preserve the sauce, pour the sauce into sterilized jars and tightly seal each jar. Place the jars in a large pot and add water to completely cover the jars by a few inches. Bring the water to a boil, and, once the water is boiling, set a timer for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the water cool down completely before removing the jars. The jarred sauce will keep in a cool, dark place for 1 year.
Alternately, you can let the sauce cool and then ladle it into plastic ziptop freezer storage bags. Press out the air from the bag, seal, and lay flat on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to the freezer and freeze until solid, then stack in the freezer.
And now, a list of newsletters and articles I’m reading, from our newsletter. Then, have a look at the newsletter to discover 12 seasonal recipes to cook this month.
- I’m really enjoying Dorie Greenspan’s Newsletter, especially the “Making a Cookbook” series, where she introduces the talented professionals that worked with her to create her latest cookbook, Baking with Dorie. You’ll meet Mary Dodd, her long time recipe tester, Mark Weinberg, the photographer, and Samantha Seneviratne, the food stylist.
- Another favourite is Burnt Toast, by Virginia Sole-Smith, a twice-a-week newsletter about how we navigate diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting. It opens your mind to very delicate themes, debunks myths, makes you reflect, lights sparkles of hope.
- Substack is heavily investing in food writing. They just launched 9 new food publications, by a group of writers that demonstrates the range and quality of food writing on Substack. It has become a full-time job to stay updated with all the amazing newsletters out there. As if that wasn’t enough, they launched Ruth Reichl‘s month-long residency on Substack. How can I describe my excitement? It’s like when you know you’ll be receiving daily a letter written by one of your most loved food writers, a major source of inspiration, the extraordinary, multitalented, voraciously gourmandizing culinary poet otherwise known as Ruth Reichl, as Bill Buford perfectly describes her. It is going to be so much fun. This is the first issue.