When Lidia Bastianich was a child growing up in Pula, Istria, her grandfather cooked homemade wine into “vin brûlé” in a pot in the fireplace. On Sunday afternoons, as the aromas wafted outside, neighbors would stop in.
“We would cook [the wine] until the alcohol went away and everything came out of the fruit, and then you have this wonderful drink,” she remembers. “It’s a great welcome when it’s cold outside and people come in.”
Bastianich and her family later moved to the United States, but decades later, those memories still warm her. Bastianich has built a culinary empire based on the fundamentals of her childhood: quality ingredients, traditional cooking and family-first mentality.
She has a hand in four stand-alone New York restaurants—as owner of Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Felidia and as co-owner of Becco, Esca and the Grand Award–winning Del Posto along with her son Joe Bastianich and chef Mario Batali. (She and her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, co-own two Lidia's, in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.) And there’s the Italian marketplace Eataly—a wonderland of produce, pastas, sauces, meats, wines, oils and vinegars for Italian cooking, alongside restaurants and a cooking school—in which Bastianich is a partner in the U.S. locations with Joe, Batali and Eataly's founder, businessman Oscar Farinetti.
Bastianich’s newest cookbook, Lidia's Celebrate Like an Italian, penned with her daughter, Tanya, hit bookshelves this October, and it’s full of family-friendly party recipes, including one for her grandfather’s vin brûle.
For Thanksgiving celebrations, she shared with us a handful of dishes that make for a mouthwatering seasonal spread: bruschetta with figs and prosciutto to start, followed by a main course of turkey breast with apricot sauce, capped off with fig and hazelnut butter cookies eaten along with (and dunked in) warm vin brûlé.
First, the appetizers—or stuzzichini, as they're referred to in the book. Bastianich appreciates bruschetta for their versatility, noting they can be used for picnics, a light lunch or hors d’oeuvres. And they’re an elegant way to make use of leftovers like beans or vegetables.
“People always brush with oil before they grill the bread. That’s a no-no,” says Bastianich firmly. “You grill the bread, and then you have a brush and your good olive oil, and you brush it on top so you have the freshness of the olive oil and the full value of the aroma. If you put the oil before, you burn it and change the quality of that oil by cooking it.”
For prosciutto and fig bruschetta, finding ripe fruit is, of course, the first step. Bastianich serves her bruschetta at room temperature, allowing the full flavor of the sweet figs and salty prosciutto to bloom. A balsamic vinegar reduction completes the tasty snack.
The conversation of food is peppered with anecdotes as she recalls helping her grandparents with gardening and harvesting. “We would harvest the figs and put them on fig leaves in the sun, I remember, and then we would tie them up in a necklace,” she says fondly. “I was very close to food and the making of food.”
For a light wine to start the celebrations, Bastianich recommends pairing the bruschetta with sparkling Prosecco or Franciacorta rosé. For a domestic alternative, we selected a few sparkling rosés from California, below.
The idealized vision of Thanksgiving calls for an entire roast turkey—until one person in the family groans they don’t like turkey because it always comes out too dry, or no one steps up to do the roasting, or no one really wants a 15-pound bird in the mix because there are just too many other favorite family dishes on the table. Bastianich’s recipe for turkey breast with apricots fulfills all the expectations of a juicy roast turkey—plus, it’s simpler to make.
“Sometimes the problem in overcooking turkey is the difference between the leg meat and the breast,” Bastianich explains. “By the time the leg meat cooks, the breast is overdone. This, I think, is a perfect way.” With a little bit of research, she adds, turkey breasts can be found at supermarkets or specialty stores.
For the glaze, other fruits can easily take the place of apricots, but Bastianich prefers them in autumn, as they match so well with other seasonal dishes, such as roasted butternut squash. In addition to the glaze, the chef loves to use a touch of balsamic vinegar on the turkey skin.
“Brush it on the breast about 20 minutes before [the turkey] is finished and it will become like mahogany. It’s really beautiful,” Bastianich says.
A proud Italian, she turns to a white wine from the family vineyard in Friuli—the Bastianich Vespa Bianco—for the pairing. The wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the regional Picolit. “It’s a great area for Sauvignon—and then you get this kind of malo sweetness and viscosity from the Picolit varietal,” she describes. We recommend another 8 options for Italian whites, below.
For a light sweet after a long, savory meal, the vin brûlé is perfect with "specifically yeast-based dry cookies. Not the creamy stuff." The fig and hazelnut butter cookies can be made a day ahead and stored in airtight containers between layers of parchment paper to avoid a sticky mess. For the mulled wine, opt for inexpensive, robust Italian reds like Sangiovese or Primitivo.
With a lifetime of cooking behind her, Bastianich could command any Thanksgiving get-together. But this year, a change may take place within the family.
“This year my daughter said, ‘You know mom, I will do Thanksgiving,’” says Bastianich. “So, she's doing it, but I’m sure I’m going to get a list of things to do. I already got, ‘You know, mom, you need to do the apple strudel,’ and ‘You know, mom, that pot of sauerkraut.’” Lidia isn’t worried. After all, she’s the one with all the recipes.
The following recipes are excerpted from Lidia’s Celebrate Like an Italian by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali. Copyright © 2017 by Alfred A. Knopf.
1. Combine the vinegar, honey and bay leaf in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until thick and syrupy and reduced to 1/3 cup, about 5 to 6 minutes. Let cool. Discard bay leaf.
2. Drizzle the warm bread with olive oil and season with salt. Lay the fig slices over the bread. Drape the prosciutto over the figs. Drizzle with balsamic reduction. Serves 6.
1. Preheat oven to 375° F. In a medium bowl, combine the apricots and Bourbon. Let soak 10 minutes. Remove the apricots, reserving the Bourbon. Finely chop half of the apricots and leave the other half whole. Rub the softened butter over and under the skin of the turkey breast and season all over with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt.
2. In a roasting pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the carrots, celery and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown and soften, about 6 minutes. Add the chopped apricots and season with the remaining teaspoon salt. Pour in the reserved Bourbon and add the rosemary. Add the stock, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced slightly, about 5 minutes.
3. Fit a rack in the roasting pan, over the vegetables, and set the turkey on it, skin side up. Throw the whole apricots into the sauce around the turkey. Cover with foil and roast 45 minutes.
4. Uncover and roast, basting the turkey breast occasionally, until the thickest part of the breast reads 165° F on a meat thermometer. Let turkey rest on a cutting board while you finish the sauce.
5. For the sauce, pluck out the whole apricots and set them aside. Pour the rest of the sauce into a medium saucepan and mash with a potato masher (or put through a food mill into the saucepan). Let the sauce sit for a minute and skim any fat from the top. Bring the sauce to a simmer and stir in the whole apricots. Slice the turkey and arrange it on a platter. Spoon half of the sauce over the sliced turkey. Serve the extra sauce on the side. Serves 8.
1. Remove the peel from the oranges with a vegetable peeler. Set the peel in a square of cheesecloth with the cinnamon, allspice and cloves, and tie to enclose. Put the sachet in a large Dutch oven and add the wine and 3/4 cup sugar. Bring to a bare simmer over low heat. Taste and add the remaining sugar, to your taste. Simmer 5 minutes, then reduce heat to the lowest setting and simmer for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. To serve, drop an orange slice and a splash of brandy (if using) into a coffee mug or teacup, and ladle in the Vin Brûlé. Serves 6 or more.
1. Sift the flour and salt together. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until very pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes, then beat in the egg and vanilla extract. At low speed, mix in the flour mixture until a dough forms. Wrap dough in plastic and chill until firm, about 1 hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350° F with racks in the top and bottom thirds. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Pinch off heaping-teaspoon-sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls. Place balls on the prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart, and flatten them slightly with the palm of your hand. Bake them until they are puffed but not browned, about 8 minutes.
3. Remove baking sheets from oven and carefully make a small crater in the middle of each cookie, using a teaspoon-sized measuring spoon. Fill each crater with 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon preserves and sprinkle some chopped hazelnuts into the preserves. Finish baking the cookies until they are golden-brown on the bottom and edges, about 8 minutes more. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer them to racks and cool completely. Store in airtight containers at room temperature. Makes around 48 cookies.
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