The Feast of Sant’ Antonio Abate
Sant’Antonio Abate (Saint Anthony the Abbot, born 251 in Egypt) is the protector of domestic animals, so in Italy on his feast day, January 17, all kinds of pets and farm animals go to be blessed in church. Donkeys, geese, cats, monkeys, goats, parrots, all arrive at the door of the church carried or escorted by their owners and often decorated in ribbons, bells, and bows.
As the protector of animals, Sant’Antonio Abate is usually depicted accompanied by a large domestic pig. This part of his iconography is said to stem from his success in healing inflammatory skin diseases. The traditional treatment for these ailments were pork fat. However, his feast day in Italy also serves as the bittersweet slaughter day for the family pig, one that has been fattened all year just for the occasion. It’s a huge ritual throughout rural Italy, and the pig provides food for an entire family for the whole year.
January 17 is always celebrated with pork dishes. In Piemonte they prepare sausages with red wine and lentils, or a pork loin piccata. No part of the pig is wasted. The lungs, brains, and liver are made into a fritto misto. Fennel-flavored sausages are made in Tuscany, and in the South, in Puglia and Calabria, they always serve their famous coppa, a cured pork loin seasoned with either hot peppers or sweet spices. Pork ragú, served with pasta or polenta, is often another highlight of the huge pork-focused feast, as is sanguinaccio, a sweet blood pudding. Sanguinaccio sounds peculiar, but it’s quite delicious. It can be flavored, depending on the region, with cinnamon, chocolate, nutmeg, Marsala, raisins, pine nuts, pistachios, or red wine.
Here’s a pork braciole recipe inspired by the cooking of the Abruzzi region. Try it if you’d like to celebrate your own feast of Saint Anthony.
Pork Braciole with Provolone, Parsley, and Capers
1 garlic clove
A large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, stemmed (about a cup of packed leaves), plus a small handful of whole leaves reserved for garnish
A large handful of salt-packed capers, soaked for about 20 minutes in several changes of water and rinsed
3/4 cup grated provolone cheese (try to find a imported Southern Italian cheese, not a domestic brand, which can be salty and lacking in finesse)
A few pinches of ground cayenne pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
About 3 pounds of pork, cut for braciole (into thinly sliced rectangular pieces. The shoulder cut is best.
3 medium shallots, cut into small dice
2 cloves, ground to a powder in a mortar and pestle
A bay leaf
A wineglass of dry white wine
A 35-ounce can of plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
Kitchen string for tieing the braciole
Place the garlic, parsley, and capers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly until roughly chopped (you don’t want a paste). Transfer the mixture into a small bowl and add the grated provolone, a pinch of salt (not much, since the cheese and capers will be slightly salty), the cayenne pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Mix everything together.
Lay the pork slices out on a work surface. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling onto each slice and spread it out to about 1/4 inch from the end all around. Roll up the braciole lengthwise and tie each in about 3 or 4 places with string. They’ll look like they’re a lot of meat, but they’ll shrink down considerably during cooking.
Choose a casserole fitted with a lid and big enough to hold all the braciole and the sauce. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in it over medium heat. Season the braciole with salt and a pinch of cayenne and place them in the casserole. Take your time to brown them well all over (the browning will add great flavor to the sauce). Scatter on the shallots and season the meat with the ground cloves. Sauté a few minutes longer, just until the shallots have softened and given off flavor.
Add the white wine and let it boil for a couple of minutes, scraping up any cooked-on juices from the bottom of the casserole. Add the tomatoes and a pinch more salt. The braciole should be almost completely covered by the liquid (just poking out a little); if they’re not, add a bit of warm water. Cover the casserole, lower the heat, and simmer, turning the braciole occasionally, until they are very tender, about 2 hours. You’ll need to skim the surface once or twice during cooking. Uncover the casserole for the last half hour of cooking so the sauce can reduce.
When you’re ready to serve the braciole, lift them from the casserole onto a cutting surface. The sauce should be reduced to a medium thickness (it is not meant to be a dense tomato sauce). If it seems a little too liquid, boil it over high heat for a few minutes. You also may need to give the surface a quick skim. Taste for seasoning, adding another little pinch of cayenne pepper if you like and a little salt if needed. Remove the string from the braciole, and cut them into approximately 1/4-inch slices on a slight angle. Place them on a warmed serving plate and spoon a little of the sauce over the top (you can pour the remaining sauce into a small serving bowl and bring it to the table). Garnish the plate with the whole parsley leaves.
It’s customary to serve pasta dressed with the braciole sauce as a first course and then serve the meat second. You can certainly do this if you like, but I prefer to forgo the pasta and instead offer a dish of roasted potatoes or rice, bringing the extra sauce to the table so guests can use it to pour on the rice or to sop it up with bread.
‘Dining With the Saints’ is a monthly column written by Writer and Chef Erica DeMane. EricaDeMane.com
Images: Top, a poster for one of the thousands of local festivals celebrating Saint Anthony the Abbott from Italy. Bottom: Italian Holy Card