Today is Christmas Eve and one of my family’s favorite meals of the year. If you read my blogs, you will know that no event happens without some sort of feast, and Christmas Eve is certainly no exception.
Cena della Vigilia di Natale, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner, is known as Festa dei Sette Pesci or Feast of the Seven Fishes. It is a meal without meat honoring the midnight birth of the baby Jesus; a custom that originated in Sicily and has since spread throughout Italy and around the world. Italians and Italian-Americans alike still celebrate this old-world custom that has been handed down from generation to generation.
In order to honor the tradition, a variety of seven different fish or shellfish are served, and while the menu and preparation varies from region to region and family to family, traditionally it is a meal that begins with antipastos and bread, an abundant feast of seven types of fish, pastas, vegetables and ending with an assortment of i dolci (sweets). This celebratory feast captures the spirit of Christmas and offers Italians a chance to unite with their families around the table. It is a tradition that my family has upheld ever since I can remember and is one that I will uphold as long as I am allowed to be on this Earth.
My Grandmother, the classic “old Italian lady”, is now 92 years old, so she has passed on the traditional methods and recipes to both my mother and me, who have now taken the reins for the feast. It is always a great time for us to spend together in the kitchen. This is what we will be enjoying this year. Let’s start with the staples:
- Baccala: a salt cod and olive salad which takes several days of soaking the cod and changing the water to prepare.
- Squid: We stuff them with bread crumbs, onion and garlic and braise them in tomato gravy. This my Dad’s absolute favorite!
- Shrimp: we lightly bread them in homemade bread crumbs with dry basil and oregano and fry them golden brown.
- Crab Legs: simply steamed with lots of drawn butter. This is a replacement for the more traditional dish of Langostinos, a crustacean that is like the combination of a shrimp and a lobster.
We like to rotate the other three dishes a bit and try some new ones every year. This year we will also be having:
- Octopus: I like to cook the legs in olive oil until they are deeply caramelized, then add some garlic to the oil as it cools. I chop up the legs and dress them with the garlic oil, fresh parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. This has very quickly become a “new” staple to our meal and is my personal favorite!
- Mussels: steamed in a broth of white wine, tomatoes, and garlic. These CANNOT be eaten without the addition of some great homemade bread to soak up all the broth.
- This one is up in the air a bit, we are deciding between Sole – sautéed in brown butter, Skate Wing – also sautéed in brown butter, or Scallops – with fried capers and lemon.
What do you think should be our 7th dish this year?