Adding a chef's touch to Thanksgiving

The Cicala-Ranalli pre-Thanksgiving feast includes Meletti amaro-brined turkey, sausage and polenta stuffing, and Montepulciano-poached pears.

Like many pro chefs, Joe Cicala cherishes returning to his childhood home for Thanksgiving. Just not for the reason one might expect.

"It's one of the few days a year I usually don't have to cook!" says Cicala, co-owner of Brigantessa, who is also the chef at Le Virtù.

That's not to say Cicala doesn't have deep feelings for the holiday he calls "my favorite." As a kid growing up in Scaggsville, Md. (where, coincidentally, he worked in the local pizza shop with future fellow Philadelphia chef Peter Serpico), it was the occasion of Cicala's first awakening to the meaning of fresh ingredients.

"We grew up five minutes from a turkey farm called Maple Lawn Farm, and my sister and I would always go early before school the day before Thanksgiving and pick out our own live turkey," he said. "I thought that was really cool. Now my nephew gets to pick it out."

Growing up in a Sicilian American household, though, turkey was only a part of the huge feast. There were always stuffed artichokes, fresh-baked ravioli or lasagna, and numerous kinds of stuffings.

"But there are usually more desserts than savories," says Cicala. "That's my mother's time to shine."

Cicala's wife, Angela Ranalli, happens to be a professional pastry chef (at Brigantessa and Le Virtù), and she always pitches in, usually making cookies and cannoli.

"But it's funny, I think my mother tries to outdo her with these picture-perfect cheesecakes. And there's not a crack in these things. I don't know how she does it," says Cicala, adding without missing a beat: "I benefit either way."

He's looking forward to that Maryland feast again. But for the first time ever this year, Cicala and Ranalli, who've been married five years, have decided to do an intimate pre-Thanksgiving version of the holiday at their own home in Philadelphia before heading south for the big Cicala family meal. Just Joe, Angela, and her 8-year-old son, Augustino.

"We're always traveling to visit our families for these holiday meals, but we also want Augustino to have his own memories of eating a holiday dinner at our house," says Cicala. "It's something we rarely do because I'm always at the restaurant."

So when Cicala began putting his mind to his own Thanksgiving menu, it naturally took on some of the stylish Italian overtones he has become known for - as well as some nods to family tradition.

For the turkey, that meant an aromatic dose of Italian amaro to the brine, an herbal liqueur twist on the American whiskeys that have lately become popular in other brine recipes. Cicala chose the Meletti brand from Le Marche for its relatively affordable price and availability, but also for its approachable citrus and spice tones, whose aromatics are bumped up with added orange peel, star anise, and cinnamon in the brine. Some apple cider rounds out the liqueur's bitterness with a little orchard sweetness. (See the cocktail recipe made from some of the same ingredients, to welcome your guests.)

A clever technique for thickening his turkey gravy - with a cup of pureed pumpkin - is both gluten-free and a time-saver, adding a faint echo of autumn sweetness without overwhelming the flavor of good, rich stock.

For the stuffing, polenta and sausage offer a moist Italian riff on the corn bread classic. The traditional cranberry sauce becomes a sparky "mostarda" with vinegar, ginger, and mustard powder.

Cicala solves the need for sweet potatoes and pasta in the same dish, turning yams into beautiful orange gnocchi, which, tossed with sage brown butter and crispy pancetta, evokes the hearty comfort of fall.

Ranalli does the same with her elegant long-necked pears poached to a deep-purple hue in Montepulciano wine. They're surprisingly easy to make and the perfect pairing for a moist walnut olive oil cake that is both stunningly good and easy to make in advance.

But not everything is new with Cicala's Thanksgiving feast. A big platter of artichokes, packed with pecorino- and oregano-seasoned bread crumbs, baked to tender moistness and ready to be ripped apart in a messy frenzy - are a must.

"It's a family thing," Cicala says of mother Debbie's artichokes. "They mean a lot to me."

claban@phillynews.com

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@CraigLaBan

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Joe Cicala's Apple Cider and Amaro-Brined Turkey

Serves 10-12 people

2 quarts of apple cider (for brine), plus 1 cup set aside for roasting

2 cups Meletti amaro, plus 1/4 cup set aside for roasting

1 cup kosher salt

½ cup packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

4 whole star anise

4 bay leaves

6 garlic cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

1 orange peel

1 12- to 15-pound turkey

1 stick unsalted butter, melted (or 1/2 cup olive oil)

 

1. Bring 2 quarts of cider, 2 cups of amaro, and the remaining ingredients to a boil in a very large (16-quart) pot, stirring to dissolve all the salt and sugar. Once dissolved, remove from heat, and let cool to room temperature. Add 1½ gallons of cold water. Add turkey to brine, and press down to submerge. Cover, and refrigerate overnight (at least 12 hours).

2. Remove turkey from brine and pat dry. Discard brine. Season the turkey lightly inside and out with kosher salt and black pepper. Place turkey, breast side up, on a rack set in a large heavy roasting pan. Tie the legs together with kitchen twine, and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour before roasting.

3. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Add the remaining cider, amaro, and 2 cups of water to the bottom of the roasting pan. Brush turkey with butter, and roast, basting occasionally, for 21/2 to 3 hours, or until the internal temperature of the thigh reads 165 degrees. Transfer turkey to a platter, and let rest for a minimum of 20 minutes before carving.

- From chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù and Brigantessa

 

Per serving (based on 12): 211 calories; 25 grams protein; no carbohydrates; no sugar; 4 grams fat; 66 milligrams cholesterol; 96 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.


Joe Cicala's Sweet Potato Gnocchi With Pancetta and Sage Brown Butter

Makes 10-12 servings

For the gnocchi:

3 pounds sweet potatoes, unpeeled

2 cups "00" flour (pastry or all-purpose flour also works)

1 extra-large egg

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 pinch salt

2 tablespoons olive oil (if making gnocchi in advance)

3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

For the sauce:

¼ cup diced pancetta or guanciale

4-6 sage leaves

¼ cup unsalted butter

 

1. Place the whole sweet potatoes in a large pot, fill with water, and bring to a boil. Cook until fork-tender, about 45 minutes. Peel the potatoes while still warm, pass through a food mill onto a clean flat surface. Make a well with the potatoes and flour. Add the egg, oil, and salt in the center, and start to mix together with a fork, slowly incorporating the flour and potato from the outside. Once incorporated, knead the dough until

homogenous (about 5 minutes).

2. Cut the dough into strips, and roll into one-inch diameter cigar shapes. Cut each cigar into 1-inch pieces. Roll each gnoccho over a fork to give it the ridged shape.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once at a rolling boil, add the gnocchi, and cook until tender (about 2 additional minutes after they float to the top). Remove the gnocchi from the water and, if serving immediately (Cicala's strong preference), add to the pan with the sauce, and cook on low until the sauce thickens and becomes creamy. If making ahead of time, toss in 2 tablespoons olive oil, and let cool on a sheet tray. Can refrigerate up to one day in advance, or freeze up to one month. Saute to reheat.

4. Finish with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and serve.

5. For the sauce: In a large saute pan, add the pancetta, and cook over low heat until the fat starts to render from the meat. Continue cooking in its own fat until the pancetta starts to brown. Add the butter and sage. Let the butter melt, and cook until the solids toast a little, creating brown butter. Remove from heat, and add a half-cup of pasta water to stop the cooking process and to keep the butter from further browning.

- From chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù and Brigantessa

 

Per serving (based on 12): 308 calories; 6 grams protein; 48 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 11 grams fat; 28 milligrams cholesterol; 132 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.


Joe Cicala's Sausage and Polenta Stuffing

Serves 10-12 people

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 pounds of sweet Italian sausage, casing removed, and meat crumbled

Any remaining pan drippings from the roasted turkey

1 cup finely chopped celery

1 cup finely chopped carrots

2 cup finely chopped onion

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, diced small

6 sage leaves, chopped

2 bay leaves

6 cups water

6 cups turkey or chicken stock

3 cup of Bramata brand polenta (not instant)

½ stick of unsalted butter, diced

1½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

 

1. In a large pot over medium heat, add the olive oil and sausage. Cook over medium-high heat until the sausage is brown on all sides and well crumbled. Add the celery, carrots, onion, and apples.

2. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and the onions are translucent. Add the sage and bay leaves, and stir.

3. Add the water, stock, and pan drippings to the pot, and bring to a simmer. Stir in the polenta gradually, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is thick, about 45 minutes.

4. Stir in the butter and cheese. Check for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if necessary.

5. Transfer the polenta to a baking dish, and bake in a 375-degree oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the top begins to brown slightly. Remove from oven and serve.

- From chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtù and Brigantessa

 

Per serving (based on 12): 552 calories; 24 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 33 grams fat; 82 milligrams cholesterol; 1,100 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.


Debbie Cicala's Stuffed Artichokes

Serves 8 people family-style

4 large artichokes

3 cups bread crumbs, unseasoned

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 cup grated pecorino

½ cup tomato sauce

¼ cup chopped parsley

1 teaspoon oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

 

1. Clean and trim the artichokes with scissors by snipping the tips of the outer leaves. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and blanch each artichoke for 7 minutes or until they start to become tender.

2. Shock the artichokes by removing them from the boiling water and submerging them in a container of iced water. Leave to cool. Remove and pat dry. In a large bowl, mix all remaining ingredients until homogenized. Stuff the artichokes by placing the breading between each leaf, starting from the bottom up.

3. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Place the artichokes on a roasting rack in a roasting pan elevated with 1 inch of water. Cover with aluminum foil and cook the stuffed artichokes until tender, about 45 minutes. Serve family style.

- From chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtu and Brigantessa

 

Per serving: 301 calories; 18 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 8 grams fat; 20 milligrams cholesterol; 762 milligrams sodium; 7 grams dietary fiber.


Angela Ranalli's Walnut Cake with Sweet Ricotta and Montepulciano-Poached Pears

Makes 10-12 servings

For the cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups finely ground walnuts

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup walnut oil

1/2 cup olive oil

For the poached pears:

5 pears (Bartlett or Bosch)

1 bottle of Montepulciano wine

1 cup water

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

5 cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

Sweet ricotta:

1½ pounds cow's milk ricotta cheese

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon orange zest

 

1. For the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 10-inch round cake pan by coating the bottom and sides well with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

2. In medium-size bowl, whisk flour, ground walnuts, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.

3. In smaller bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until creamy. Add walnut oil and olive oil. Whisk until incorporated. Add mixture to dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon or spatula until combined.

4. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and place on the center rack of the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick. When toothpick comes out clean, cake is done.

5. Remove from oven and let cool completely before removing cake from pan.

6. Dust cake with powdered sugar and serve with a dollop of sweetened ricotta and poached pears. (Cake can be made in advance and kept in refrigerator up to 3 days, or can be frozen once completely cool.)

1. For the pears: Peel and core the pears, leaving them whole. Set aside.

2. In a medium-size pot, add wine, water, dark brown sugar, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved.

3. Gently place pears in pot, making sure they are fully covered by the liquid. (You can also cut cored pears in half, but they will cook faster).

4. Bring to a simmer and continue to cook until pears are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. (Very ripe pears will cook much faster. Halved pears will cook in about 10 minutes). Remove from liquid with a slotted spoon and set on a tray to cool. Refrigerate until ready to use. (Poaching liquid may be used again, but keep it refrigerated until ready to use.)

5. Cut cooled pears into ¼-inch thick slices and serve over the ricotta, on top of the walnut cake.

For the sweet ricotta: In a bowl, mix ricotta cheese and sugar with a spatula until well combined and smooth. Add orange zest and mix just until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

- From chef Joe Cicala of Le Virtu and Brigantessa

 

Per serving (based on 12): 508 calories; 14 grams protein; 56 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams sugar; 27 grams fat; 45 milligrams cholesterol; 284 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.

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