Christmas has come and gone. And boy was it ever fun. We had the usual marathon family love-in, extended over two weeks so as to include in-laws far and near. We’re somewhat exhausted, as evidenced by our lack of activity this weekend…and the amount of time spent in pajamas. However, I’ve got a recipe to blog, so it’s back to work for me! But I think I’ll stay in my pajamas. Baby steps.
Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without our family traditions, especially our Christmas Eve feast. We always do an hors d’oeuvres spread. Everyone gets their favorite foods: stuffed baby peppers, shrimp cocktail, brie-en-croute, bruschetta, Pepperoni and Sauce, and the most spectacular antipasto tray. Thanks to a local Italian market, this year we had the antipasto to end all antipastos. By which I mean, antipasti.
Prosciutto, bresaola, the best provolone ever, olives, caper berries, roasted sweet peppers, marinated mushrooms, banana peppers. There were anchovies. There was a little jug of fancy balsamic for drizzling. And yes, those are Lupini Beans. My brother loves the waxy little devils.
As much as this tray of imported Italian delights seems to be the star of the holiday show, it’s not. That crown goes to my mom’s Pepperoni and Sauce. It’s not Christmas without it. It starts cooking the day before Christmas Eve, and it keeps cooking, low and slow, all day long. It couldn’t be simpler to make, and yet the results are profound. You cannot fathom the magic that happens when pepperonis are slow cooked in tomato sauce. They become soft and intensely flavorful. The sauce benefits from the pepperoni goodness. It’s magic. Definitely greater than the sum of its parts. And it all gets stuffed into mini pita pockets, the ideal vehicle for the deliciousness.
Seriously. You must eat this. However un-photogenic it is.
I’ve never seen anything else like it. Some folks seem inclined to toss pepperoni into tomato sauce to make a kind of pizza-spaghetti hybrid. That’s a good idea. I might try it sometime. But this is not that. It’s so much more. My mother has never heard of anyone else making this, and she doesn’t remember where she got the idea. Being that it is supernaturally good, as in, beyond the usual scope of human gastronomy, I’m inclined to think it involved some divine inspiration. Or perhaps some crossroads, a la Robert Johnson. Or a fairy godmother, a la Cinderella. Maybe it came to her in a dream. Whatever barter she made, or magical creature she encountered, or vision she had, from whence she derived the knowledge of Pepperoni and Sauce, I’m grateful. As is anyone who has ever eaten Pepperoni and Sauce. It’s the stuff food dreams are made of.
The recipe follows. Aside from the fact that it takes a really, really long time to cook, there is little involved in its preparation. It’s the perfect food for any kind of party. My mother frequently made it for New Year’s Eve at my Grandpa’s house, where she also dutifully whipped up a gigantic batch of Zeppola, a little fried dough pastry that Neapolitans eat on New Year’s Eve. My father’s aunts taught my mother — Italian by marriage — how to make them. In fact, my Mama has turned Italian-by-marriage into an art form. Zeppole are traditionally stuffed with an anchovy, but my mom also made them fish-free and tossed in sugar. It’s good to be Neapolitan at the holidays. And every day. By marriage or otherwise. So you should all make Pepperoni and Sauce so as to become Italian, even if for a moment.
PEPPERONI and SAUCE
These are the amounts I used, but you should adjust according to what you can fit in your own slow cooker.
2 large sticks of pepperoni
3 large cans of crushed tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp. dried oregano
Mini pita pockets
There are a couple of rules for Pepperoni and Sauce success. They are as follows:
1. Use the hard sticks of bright red pepperoni. You know, the un-fancy kind. Don’t get anything fancy or soft.
2. Cook it. And cook it. And cook it some more. Seriously. It’s hard to overcook it. But if it’s undercooked, the magic doesn’t happen.
3. Start this the night before you want to eat it. It will cook overnight, and then most of the next day. It can take 16-18 hours on low heat, or more, depending on your slow cooker. You might be able to speed things up on high heat, but I’ve never tried. I do it exactly as my mom taught me.
First: chop the onion, crush (or otherwise chop) the garlic, and slice the pepperoni into thick slices. Go for at least 1/4 inch. And make sure you peel the skin from the pepperoni.
Onions and garlic go into the slow cooker.
Then load in the pepperoni. This is two large sticks. The kind you can use to sword fight with your brother in the grocery store. Not that we did that….
Add the crushed tomatoes and oregano. Stir. Cover. Set the slow cooker to LOW heat and go to bed.
When you wake up in the morning, this is what you’ll see. Part of the virtue of using the slow cooker to do this, as opposed to simmering on the stove, is the way that the fat comes out of the pepperoni and dutifully floats to the top.
You don’t want that fat, so skim it off. And be grateful that you won’t be eating all of that. Yuck.
After skimming as much fat as you possibly can (and it will be a lot), give everything a good stir. You’ll likely notice that the pepperonis that were on the bottom of the slow cooker have started turning a nice mahogany brown. This is very, very good. It’s what you’re going for.
Let the pepperoni continue to cook on low until they all turn a dark mahogany brown and become soft. The only way to know if this has occurred is to stir them and sample them from time to time. And then sample them again. It’s good to be the cook.
You can’t really overcook these, so be brave. There really is something amazing that happens to pepperoni when they are slow cooked into oblivion. So let them reach oblivion. They will no longer be bright red, but a rich brown. They will no longer have that slightly-stringy, sort of greasy bite of raw roni, but will become soft and intensely flavorful.
Mine took about 18 hours to reach perfection. Yours might take longer, or not so long. Just keep an eye on things, and when you’re happy with your roni, turn off the slow cooker, cover, and leave it until it’s time to eat. Turn the cooker to “warm” or “low” if it needs rewarming before eating.
Cut the tops off of the mini pita pockets so they’re ready for stuffing. It’s important to get mini or small pitas. Large ones fall apart when they get saturated with the yummy goodness.
Stuff the pita and eat. Repeat. And hug an Italian Mama, by marriage or birth or aspiring.