The Three-Ingredient Rule as Applied to Christmas Dinner


My first Christmas in Loro Ciuffenna was fun, Elvis on the stereo and snow on the mountain. Menu decisions were complicated as my so-called mother-in-law Angiola’s response to "What do you make for Christmas dinner?" was "Niente speciale." What? Nothing special? I wasn’t going to stand for that. I finally managed to get them to admit that tortellini in brodo was a must for the holiday primo and that the rest of the meal was standard Sunday lunch type fare with a slice of panettone at the end. That’s just not Christmasy enough for me, so I got to work and had my friends faxing recipes all over the world before I finally decided on a nice French duck served with a complicated sauce and a tangy cherry confit. I ordered the ducks, but then Giuseppe, olive oil producer and my one time fidanzato, got ahold of the recipe only to nix it. Nixed because the sauce had too many ingredients, because it was agrodolce (sweet and sour) which just doesn’t go over in Tuscany, and because in his opinion, the French cook with vinegar because they don’t have any good olive oil.

But what to do with the ducks? I had a conference with Brunero, owner of the local restaurant, during which he unwittingly confirmed my suspicion that there is an unwritten "Three-Ingredient Rule" governing the Tuscan cucina. I’d been living in continual horror for months as they picked apart my hearty, wintry chicken pot pie, shoving aside my lovingly handmade puff pastry, a pile of chicken here, carrots there, peas over there and complaining about the rich sauce (a li’l brothy beschamel, rich?). They gave the lamb tagine to the dog. Seven years later, and they’re still making fun of Poppapai (that’s Apple Pie to you and me, and what the heck is wrong with that?). So, we’re living in olive oil country, and butter is anathema — even if it means doing without puff pastry — that much I got on my own. But I had this sneaky suspicion that their wimpy palates couldn’t handle anything made with more than three ingredients. And here was Brunero with the confirmation, on how to cook a duck, he actually bellowed, and with no prompting, "Non ci vuole tanto, le nostre spezie bastano. Piu di tre ingredienti non c’è bisogno!"

"It doesn’t take much, just a few of our spices. There’s no need for more than three ingredients!"

The point being, and why didn’t I think of this before, that the duck itself is so good there’s no need to muck it up with complicated sauces or otherwise. The point is the materia prima, the primary ingredients, and if they’re as good as they ought to be, then there’s no need to go lopping gooey, overly spiced sauces and marinades all over them. Got it, thanks Brunero.

Sticking to the three-ingredient rule, I did the ducks Brunero’s way, in porchetta, which is just to say slow cooked in the oven. Duck, fennel, garlic, that’s it, three ingredients (luckily salt doesn’t count). Brunero’s brother, jolly Valerio the butcher, gave me a nice, less fatty qualità of duck called la nana muta (A mute dwarf? Whatever, I trust him). Angiola, with a grim look and a pair of scissors, did all the prep work removing the downy fluff, cutting off the head and feet, taking out the innards. All I had to do was distribute the remaining two ingredients and put them into a hot oven, which makes the skin nice and grisby (crispy). Less is more. It really is.

Onward to the tortellini (where some sort of exception must be granted as the filling has far too many ingredients, it’s Emilian though, maybe they’re not as hung up on purity as the Tuscans) where I was foiled in my attempt to shirk the pasta making. With no pasta machine handy I was loathe to try the stretch and roll without the benefit of a lesson from someone who understands the stretch and roll, and for the ever-important first course of Christmas dinner no less. I tried to purchase the sheets of dough from the fresh pasta store, but made the mistake of answering their question about what I was going to do with them. Do they always have to ask personal questions? They sell the sfoglie/sheets for making le lasagne, and they come with a little flour on them. When they heard that I wanted them to make tortellini they brought the owner out from the back to personally refuse to sell them to me because with the flour the tortellini wouldn’t seal properly. Isn’t that my problem to deal with? Can’t I just seal them up with an egg wash, which I did anyway? They actually refused, so I hissed, "Fine, I’ll make it myself," and tried not to storm out when I left in dejection.

For the Christmas day pasta-making ordeal we were in the kitchen having a festive spumante with pomegranate juice (what will l’Americana come up with next?) so Angiola invited her friend Leda over to partake. I whipped up the dough easily enough making a well right there on the countertop into which I broke three excellent contadina/farmer eggs (where I saw for myself why they call the yolk il rosso, the red, it is actually so orange as to be almost red) to produce a silky, neon yellow ball. Then I thought: Perfect, two old Italian mammas who can stretch out this pasta dough for us, and we can stuff and shape the tortellini and there you go, done and done well. No. No, they pulled comfy chairs over to the counter and sat there, sipping on their drinks, critiquing my performance with the rolling pin. It took a few minutes but their comments went from "Look, she poked a hole in the sfoglia!" to "Look at her, just like on the TV!" The broth was rich and masterly thanks to the capon Valerio the butcher chose specially for me, and the tortellini were luscious thanks to my delicate pasta which was way, way better than that store ever could have produced. Angiola even asked for seconds.

The menu came together nicely with the rich and tasty traditional crostini neri, or black crostini which are a must at any festive Tuscan table, the tortellini in brodo, that crispy, falling-off-the-bones duck, roasted potatoes (a tribute to the Sunday lunch) and a cool and fresh salad of fennel and Sicilian tarocchi oranges with their gorgeous, silky flesh flecked with purple. We had panettone for the traditional at the table, berlingozzi (a dry biscotto sort of a thing with raisins and pine nuts) for those who don’t like sweet sweets and, for me, my Grandmother’s super sweet and buttery cocoons which were so good they were hauled all over the village so folks could taste them. They were ubiquitously received with "Buttery but buonissimi," as if all that butter isn’t the point of the whole thing. They’re good because they’re buttery. It’s Christmas after all, relax and enjoy the butter. I’ve long since converted all my other recipes over to the holy Oil, even the apple pie, but not my Grandmother’s cocoons, some things are even more sacred after all.

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