Bringing Everyone Together at the Holiday Table
This year, thanks to some odd celestial event, Christmas Eve coincides with the first night of Chanukah. In years past, I might have celebrated by concocting something cheekily honoring both — a matzo ball snowman, perhaps. This year, as you know, things are different. The differences between us feel greater, sharper, scarier. The idea of Christians and Jews, omnivores and vegans, blue voters and red voters coming together on Christmas Eve/Chanukah sounds like a recipe for disaster. It’s not.
Food is a connector. However different or divided we are, we all need to eat. So choose a meal that pleases everyone at the table. For me, that’s almost always Mediterranean. I’m Italian not by heritage, but in spirit. By both tradition and necessity, Italian cuisine makes much from little, but there’s nothing little about the flavors. Big, bold and elemental, it’s one of the easiest cuisines to create at home, one of the most luscious ways to eat — it always tastes like a holiday.
Yes, there’s lasagna, that one-dish wonder that feeds everyone, but creating that one dish dirties every dish in your kitchen. Remember, this is about pleasing everyone at the table, including you. There are easier ways to pasta.
The cuisine of Sicily reflects a vast range of with culinary and cultural influences including Italian, Arab, Greek and Spanish — the whole Mediterranean comes together on one plate. You don’t need special kitchen appliances, you don’t need exotic ingredients. The whole foods at its core— whole grains, legumes, local produce, fresh herbs — are foods that have sustained us, foods we’ve been hard-wired to love whatever our heritage.
Sicily may look barren and windswept in places, but it’s fertile soil for sweet, abundant cauliflower, pungent olives, sexy, robust tomatoes and briny capers, the berries from a hearty shrub which thrives here. The jarred capers in stores are picked before ripeness, when they’re tight little buds. They’re then preserved in salt or brine. A scattering of capers imparts a natural, plant-based, fish-free flavor of the sea. Bring everything together in an easy but primal pasta dish and bring everyone together.
When you invite someone to eat, you’re serving food, but you’re serving up hospitality. We may not agree on everything, but we can sit together at the table and talk about it over a shared meal. It’s a way to bridge our differences. It’s our best hope for humanity. Especially now.
Two different holidays come together this year.
We can do no less.
God bless us, every one.
For the omnivores at your table, add a plate of cheeses and thinly sliced prosciutto or other cured meats.
- 2 pints grape tomatoes
- 4 cups cauliflower (one head of cauliflower), broken into small, bite-sized pieces
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes or 2 tablespoons fresh red chili, minced
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 2/3 cup white wine or vegetable broth
- 4 tablespoons kalamatas (a nice handful), pitted and chopped
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
- 1 pound whole wheat penne or other short pasta
- 5 tablespoons fresh basil (from a few good-sized sprigs) coarsely chopped
- 4 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley (from a few good-sized sprigs), coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (from a good-sized sprig) or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped or 2 teaspoon dried oregano
- sea salt and fresh ground pepper
- optional garnish — a good handful or two of roasted, chopped almonds (also from Sicily) or toasted breadcrumbs
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Pour grape tomatoes and cauliflower pieces into a large oven-proof casserole. Add minced garlic and chili flakes.
- Drizzle in olive oil and white wine or broth. Gently toss so cauliflower and tomatoes are coated.
- Roast tomatoes and cauliflower for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until tomatoes have blistered and popped and cauliflower has darkened in spots. May be done 2 hours ahead and kept, covered, at room temperature.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add pasta and prepare according to package directions. Cook just until al dente.
- Drain pasta, reserving 2 cups of pasta cooking water.
- Return the drained pasta to the pot. Add tomatoes and cauliflower, scraping in any accumulated juices. Pour in 1/2 cup pasta cooking water and stir. The starchiness of the pasta water will bond with the tomatoes to form just enough of a sauce to hug the pasta. For a saucier pasta, add additional pasta water 1/2 cup at a time to reach the desired consistency.
- Scatter in chopped olives, capers and herbs. Toss gently to combine. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
- Top with chopped roasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs.
- Serves 8.