It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And Lidia Bastianich, one of the most celebrated culinary personalities around, is poised to make it delicious.
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, the matriarch of Italian home cooking stars in a PBS special, "Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions." I was treated to an advance viewing of the first in a series with the chef, and true to form, Lidia entertains as much with her personality as with her cooking.
It’s a lively hourlong show. And Bastianich employs some star power to make the special that much brighter. Comedian Mo Rocca tags along with Bastianich for a Christmas Eve dinner shopping trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., Bastianich’s home turf. “Shopping Arthur Ave. with Lidia is like visiting the Vatican with the pope,” jokes Rocca.
Actor Stanley Tucci joins Lidia in her kitchen to prepare La Vigilia, or the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal. Together, they prepare a mouthwatering feast of octopus salad, linguine and clam sauce, whipped baccala — a salt cod spread — insalata di mare, stuffed lobster, monkfish and much more.
“The idea of taking those recipes that have been around for centuries … it’s a way of passing on family history, emotions — it’s a way of connecting with somebody,” says Tucci. “It’s a way of expressing love, and that’s the thing for me that makes food so interesting.”
Crossing the country from the Bronx to San Antonio, Bastianich joins the Cortez family, a Mexican-American family and owners of the Mi Terra restaurant. It’s a colorful, lively celebration, where Bastianich and viewers learn to make bunuelos, a fried dough treat topped with cinnamon and sugar.
From San Antonio, we follow Bastianich to San Francisco, where she celebrates a Chinese New Year with the late Shirley Fong-Torres, a renowned travel writer who died earlier this year. Bastianich joins Fong-Torres in her kitchen to learn how to make Chinese dumplings, or pot stickers.
The last stop finds us back in New York with Bastianich for a Passover Seder with food author Ruth Reichl. “My mother was the world’s worst cook. So this is maybe the only recipe of hers that I would ever dare to share,” Reichl says of a beef brisket recipe she makes with Bastianich's help.
Throughout her travels, Bastianich is warm and curious, endearing her to all who encounter her, and to those of us along for the mouth-watering ride.
The special airs Dec. 20 on PBS. For details, air time and recipes, visit http://www.lidiacelebratesamerica.com/.