There is nothing Italian about Thanksgiving, which is the quintessential American holiday, although the Canadians do join in as well.
If you're a fan of Italian cooking, however, why not consider an Italian, or at least Italian-American-influenced, Thanksgiving meal?
There are many reasons you might consider such an option. Maybe your family is burned out on the roasted turkey. Maybe roasted sweet potatoes and green bean casserole have made too many appearances. Why not take the bull by the horns, grab your favorite Italian cookbook and see what you can find?
Take a look at cookbooks by Mario Batali, Marcella Hazan or Frances Mayes, who has some interesting recipe suggestions in her famous book "Under the Tuscan Sun." There are thousands of delicious possibilities.
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First, a few notes. It isn't necessary to make something exotic, something that requires hard to find ingredients or that costs an arm and a leg, but you do want to make sure to use the best, and freshest ingredients you can find.
The insistence on freshness is a hallmark of the Italian table. As for quality, that doesn't have to be a budget buster, either. A simple upgrade to a good Italian pasta, like Luigi Vitelli, which is locally available, can make all the difference in the world.
Thanksgiving dinner should be a leisurely get together with the people who are most important in your life. Dividing the meal into courses is a great way to make that special time last. Most Italians would think nothing of eight or 10 courses, but four will do nicely for this celebration.
If you enjoy wine with your meals, consider asking your local wine merchant to pair your wines for each course.
Feel free to add a sweet course at the end, or to the Italians, dolce. For brevity's sake, I have left it out.
Antipasto or first course: Cheese and charcuterie
This is a great way to start your meal, and having something on the table waiting for your guests when they arrive is a civilized beginning. Here are a few cheeses and cured meats you might consider. You do not have to have them all, just a cheese or two, a sliced sausage or a few slices of ham. Please do not buy cheese pre sliced or grated. It just can't be as fresh as a larger piece that you cut in front of your guests. Don't forget the fresh, locally baked crusty bread. Also make sure to have a bottle of extra good olive oil on the table. Mix in some fresh fruit if you like, such as blackberries or strawberries.
n Parmigiano-Reggiano, king of all cheeses
n Gorgonzola, premiere Italian blue cheese
n Pecorino, a sheep's milk cheese (there are several to choose from)
n Taleggio, second most important Italian
cheese after Parmigiano-Reggiano
n Capocollo, an Italian sausage seasoned with garlic, pepper and sometimes fennel
n Soppressata, a coarse pork sausage; sometimes has red pepper
n Speck, a cured ham-like Italian specialty
n Mortadella, grandfather of American bologna but much better
Second course: Bruschetta
This probably qualifies as a second antipasto, but who cares? Bruschetta can be as simple as a grilled thick slice of bread, rubbed with nothing more than crushed garlic, and some good olive oil, or as complicated as something resembling a Dagwood-style open-faced sandwich.
Thick slices of crusty bread
Roughly chopped tomatoes
Curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Chopped fresh basil
Good olive oil
Toss the tomatoes, basil, and olive oil in a large bowl, add several pinches of salt, and let rest for 30 minutes or so. Lightly grill the bread, an open wood fire is best, but do the best you can. Top the bread with the tomato mixture and garnish with lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Primo or third course: Clams and linguini or spaghetti alle vongole
1 pound linguini, or spaghetti cooked to package directions
2 dozen, still in the shell littleneck clams
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
4-6 cloves crushed garlic
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Fresh basil leaves
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Wash the clams in cold running water. Add a little olive oil to a large sauté pan, add the garlic and cook until the it is browned. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the wine and water to the pan, bring to a boil, add the clams, put a tight fitting lid and steam until the clams have opened. About 8 minutes. The clams that do not open should be discarded. Remove the clams, and set aside. Simmer the sauce until reduced by half, add 2-3 tablespoons of cold butter to the sauce, whisk, and heat to thicken. Add a pinch of red pepper, the chopped basil leaves, add the cooked pasta and toss, now garnish with the clams, still in the shell if you like, and serve at once.
Secondo or fourth course: Meatballs and red sauce
The Italians don't serve meatballs with pasta. It just isn't done.
But do make sure there is a loaf of crusty bread on the table.
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
1-2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
Red pepper flakes
3 cups canned, imported whole Italian tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
1/2 cup good red wine
Combine the milk and bread crumbs and mix until the bread crumbs are soaked through. Combine the beef, pork, bread crumbs, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, then season aggressively with salt, black pepper, and red pepper. Mix well! Form into small balls, about the size of a golf ball. Add olive oil to a large sauté pan, heat to medium and cook the meatballs until well browned. Add the whole tomatoes and their juice, also add the red wine, and simmer until the meatballs are done. Taste the sauce and re-season as necessary. Serve in individual bowls, with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and lots of crusty bread.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.