Outside of the candy that the kids collect, Halloween may be the only American holiday that is not associated with a particular feast or recipe.
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In fact, I didn’t know until recently that Halloween wasn’t celebrated in America until the late 19th century when Irish immigrants brought the Oct. 31 celebration to the United States and that the tradition of trick or treating didn’t become established until after World War II. I knew that because my mom told me that growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s they never trick or treated.
So if there is no traditional Halloween food, it seems ideal for each family to invent one. When I lived in Massachusetts and my three children were little, we took them around the neighborhood in a short-lived frenzy of trick or treating, returning home for them to examine their candy and for us to hide three-quarters of it.
One-pot meals to warm up little devils
Then we would eat dinner, which often was something I put on the stove before we left with the spooks and goblins. Usually it was some one-pot meal that could cook unattended and to which we could return enjoying the heavenly wafting smells of lusciousness.
Since nothing was traditional, these meals became purely inventive. The kids were ravenous because late October is cold in New England and rushing house to house is tiring work for a kid. If it wasn’t nailed down, my kids would eat it.
A warm dinner to make you forget about candy
There were several dishes they liked. Lamb with mushrooms and onions, braised veal with cabbage lasagna, my mom’s lasagna, which we called grandma’s lasagna, and pork with lentils were all demolished by my little hungry witches and goblins. They never did figure out that we tossed out several tons of their candy.
Braising lends itself to dishes that can be Halloween classics
Many of these Halloween stews and braises are long lost, because in those days I wouldn’t necessarily write them down. But one doesn’t really need to follow a recipe because the whole idea is slap-it-together-easy.
Here’s a braised veal recipe to start, but as you see by the photos, anything works, such as lamb and eggplant, pork and lentils, beef ragout or braised short ribs in ragout.
Braised Veal or Pork With Cabbage Lasagna
A shoulder roast of veal is not a terribly expensive cut and it makes a nice family dinner. You can use a pork shoulder, too. I use a pig’s ear or pork skin instead of the bacon because they are flavorful without being fatty and can be discarded, but they’re hard to find, so bacon is fine. As for the lasagna, you don’t have to boil it when using the so called instant no-boil lasagna, just layer them dry. This is a delicious dinner that kept everyone in my family happy after one particularly cold Halloween outing.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours (unattended)
Total time: 4 hours, 45 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
One 3-pound boneless veal shoulder roast, tied with kitchen twine
3/4 cup dry red wine
4 cups tomato sauce
One 2 3/4-pound green cabbage, cored
1/2 pound lean slab bacon (preferably), sliced
Salt to taste
2 cups low- or no-sodium chicken broth
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 pound no-boil (instant) lasagna
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1. In a flameproof casserole, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat, then brown the veal roast on all sides, about 6 minutes. Pour in the wine and reduce until it is nearly evaporated, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce, partially cover, and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, turning the roast occasionally. Transfer the roast to a serving platter and remove the butcher’s twine.
2. While the veal is roasting, prepare the cabbage lasagna. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to the boil and cook the cabbage for 10 minutes. Remove the cabbage and when cool enough to handle and separate the leaves. Layer the bottom of the pot in which you boiled the cabbage with half the bacon. Layer the cabbage leaves on top with a light sprinkle of salt. Lay the remaining slab bacon slices on top, pour in the chicken broth, cover, and cook on a medium heat for 45 to 50 minutes. Drain.
3. Place the pancetta in a small frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy and rendered of some fat, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Set aside.
4. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain as soon as the lasagna is limp, about 1 minute. Reserve in a pot of cold water so the leaves of lasagna do not stick together.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
6. Spread some olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish or lasagna pan and cover with lasagna, cabbage, pancetta, salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and garlic, in that order. Continue in this order until you run out of ingredients, ending with a layer of lasagna, cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 40 minutes.
7. Slice the veal, pour a few ladles of sauce over the meat and serve with the cabbage lasagna.
Main photo: Beef ragout. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright