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Italian Christmas Feast, From A Master

Ever considered preparing a Christmas meal they way they do in Italy?

Who better to show the way than Lidia Bastianich, author of "Lidia's Italy" and host of the PBS show by the same name?

On The Early Show Friday, she shared the taste of a traditional Italian holiday feast.

Usually, the Christmas Eve meal is a seafood affair called "The Feast of the Seven Fishes."

The Christmas Day meal is typically meat-based.

So, Lidia showed how to make a Roasted Loin of Pork, stuffed with bourbon-soaked prunes. She served it with braised fennel, and a dessert of roasted pears and grapes.

Pork roast is a super-tender cut. Its flavor is very mild (because it has so little fat), so it carries the flavors of seasonings well. In this instance, Lidia has soaked prunes in bourbon; she then stuffs the fruit into the meat, ties it up, and garnishes with sage leaves before roasting.

RECIPES

Arrosto di Maiale alle Prugne (Roasted Loin of Pork Stuffed with Prunes)

From "Lidia's Italian Table" (Morrow, 1998)

Makes 8 Servings

1/2 pound pitted prunes
1/2 cup bourbon
One 3-pound boneless center loin of pork roast (see note)
10 fresh sage leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup diced (1/4-inch) carrots
1/2 cup diced (1/4-inch) celery
1/2 cup roughly chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 1/2 cups Chicken Stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

In a small bowl, soak the prunes in the bourbon for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 degree F. Drain the prunes and reserve four of them along with the soaking liquid. Arrange the remaining soaked prunes along with the soaking liquid. Arrange the remaining soaked prunes along the entire length of the slit in the roast. Fold the flap over the opening and tie the roast securely with kitchen twine at 2-inch intervals. Thread the sage leaves in two rows through the twine on either side of the roast. Season the roast generously with salt and pepper and rub it with the olive oil.. Place the roast in an 18 X 14-inch roasting pan.

Roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Tilt the roasting pan and spoon off the excess fat from the bottom. Scatter the carrots, celery, onions, and garlic around the roast. Roast for another 15 minutes. Add the reserved prunes and soaking liquid and roast for another 10 minutes.

Pour the stock into the pan and continue cooking, basting the roast occasionally with the pan juices, until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the roast registers 155 degrees F, 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove the roast to a platter. Pass the contents to a pan through a food mill fitted with the fine disc into a small bowl. (Alternatively, strain the liquid through a sieve, pressing on the vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible and to force some of the vegetables through the sieve.) Skim all fat from the surface of the sauce. The sauce should be thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. If not, transfer the sauce to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer until thick enough to lightly coat a spoon. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, if needed. Cut the meat into 1/4 -inch thick slices and serve with the sauce.

Note: You can ask your butcher to bone the center rib roast, or you can do it yourself: Stand the meat on the backbone with the rib bones pointing upwards. With a sharp boning knife, start from the far end and work toward you, separating the meat from the rib bones by pressing--almost scraping--the knife along the rib bones. Use a series of small, easy strokes and cut all along the bones, following the rib bones along the curve4 to the backbone4 until the meat is free of the bones. You will have a compact "eye" of the roast, with a small flap attached to the side. If there is a stuffing for the roast, it is helpful to make a cut about halfway through and along the entire length of the eye. Place the filling in this cut and fold the small flap over the opening before tying the roast to secure the filling. Whether you bone the roast yourself or let the butcher do it, always reserve the bones. Cut them into smaller pieces with a cleaver and add them to the roasting pan along with the vegetables--they will add much flavor. The rib roast will come with a layer of fat on the outside. With a sharp knife, shave most of it off, leaving a thin layer that will protect the meat from drying out while cooking.

For more recipes, go to Page 2.

FINOCCHIO AL TEGAME CON CAPERI (Braised fennel with capers)

This is one of those simple recipes, loaded with flavor sure to make it part of your cooking repertoire. The fennel sweetness and the tinge of liquorish are concentrated by the braising and balanced by the acidity and the saltiness of the capers. Almost all the moisture needed in cooking comes from the fennel itself, rather than from other liquids, concentrating the vegetable's natural flavors.

Serves 6

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds fresh fennel, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks
2-1/2 cups sliced onions
¼ cup small capers, drained
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Recommended equipment: • A heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan, 12-inches diameter or larger, with a tight-fitting cover

Pour the olive oil into the skillet, set it over medium heat. Dump in all the fennel and onion, season with salt and stir and toss well.

Cover the pan tightly and let the vegetables cook and caramelize slowly, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat as necessary so they're sizzling, softening and cooking in their own moisture, but not burning or browning too fast.

After 15 minutes, stir in the capers; if the fennel pieces appear dry, add a few tablespoons of water too. Cook another 15 minutes, tightly covered and stirring now and then, until the fennel is tender and tinged golden brown. If they're pale, or you want deeper color, cook them uncovered for a few minutes.

Taste and season with salt if you want; grind on pepper to taste just before serving, nice and hot.

ROASTED PEARS AND GRAPES (Pere e Uva al Forno)

Makes 6 servings

2 cups seedless red grapes
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup moscato
2 lemons, juiced
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 tablespoons apricot jam
irm but ripe Bosc pears

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place the grapes in an 11 x 7 inch baking dish. Combine the sugar, lemon juice, moscato, vanilla beans and apricot jam in a bowl and stir until blended. Pour over the grapes. Cut the pears in half through the core and remove the cores and seeds. Nestle the pear halves, cut side up, into the grapes. Bake until the pears are tender and the liquid around the grapes is thick and syrupy, about 50 minutes. Remove the pears and let stand for about 10 minutes. Serve them with some of the grapes and their liquid spooned around them.

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