The Italian Christmas Eve is a tradition to be cherished and carried on
Traditions can be fun, and it feels good to learn traditions and to pass them down through the generations. The Italian Christmas Eve dinner is one of my cherished traditions that I continue, and I hope my children will continue it long after I'm gone.
There are stories galore about the origin of the fish dinner. Some call it the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Festa dia Sette Pesci. It typically involves seven fish dishes, but the tradition is wide and varied.
My grandmother brought the tradition from Castellfranci, a small village nestled in the hills near Avellino in the Italian province of Campania. She did 12 fishes, each dish representing one of the Apostles. She was a great cook, as was her mother before her, so maybe they did more than seven just for the fun of it. Who can say it's wrong to do so?
I try to maintain the 12 fish dinner tradition in my house. Given the hundreds of edible varieties of fish in the world, it should be fairly easy to come up with 12 recipes.
One problem that I encounter is the time it takes to prepare that many dishes, and the hectic holiday season also plays a big role. So here's what I planned for this year, and its success means I'll plan it again for next year:
Salmon – I grill the fillets to medium done – firm on the outside and a little raw on the inside. Garnish with a bit of fresh dill and serve with a lemon dill sauce.
Bay scallops – Sauté in butter and garlic until they turn a nice brown color. Drain and serve. Some people like the larger scallops, but I prefer the smaller ones because they are more tender.
Haddock – We cook haddock in the microwave with lemon, butter, salt and pepper. Microwave cooking works great on white-meat fishes like tilapia, haddock and flounder. Watch the cooking times because it doesn't take long to dry out your fish.
Shrimp – I prefer to buy the frozen, pre-cooked and pre-shelled black tiger shrimp served on ice, cocktail-style, with Kelchner's cocktail sauce. Normally, I would use the large shrimp (6-8) but I don't want my guests filling up on them so I use with the medium size (16-20).
Fish sticks – The smaller children usually don't have the palate for exotic fish recipes, so I throw on some good, old-fashioned fish sticks. They are usually made from Alaskan pollock or cod. Serve however you like.
Smelts – These little gems from the sea are dipped in flour and egg wash, and then fried in the wok. I find that the frozen smelts are actually better tasting than the fresh ones.
Crab cakes – I buy them already made from my fish monger at Henning's. Heat and serve with Kelchner's tartar sauce.
Calamari – My favorite dish is tender squid, cut up and sautéed in garlic and oil, followed by a slow simmer in tomato puree. This is not a simple dish to prepare, in spite of what the cooking shows tell you. Not done properly, you end up with a pile of tough, chewy rubber bands.
I also include a serving of Mrs. Gordon's Crab Dip as an appetizer, a special family recipe made with lump crabmeat that a good friend of mine gave us.
Include a crab salad if you like, or perhaps some smoked salmon with cream cheese on a Ritz cracker. I like to have some angel hair pasta Aglio e Olio (garlic and oil) on hand along with some tempura-fried vegetables and perhaps a side dish of risotto or potato gnocchi.
One year I attempted to make baccala. This is cod that has been salted to preserve it. The fillets have to be reconstituted by soaking in water for several days in the refrigerator, changing the water as it becomes briny. I don't much care for it myself, but my dad always liked it because it reminded him of past Christmas Eve dinners with his mom.
At this point you might be thinking, whoa, that's more than seven dishes and not quite 12. Serving two crab dishes? Isn't that cheating? Not at all, my friends.
The only steadfast rule is this – no meat allowed. If somebody shows up who doesn't like fish, well, I can only say that I feel sorry for anyone who does not take advantage of the Lord's bounty of the sea.
So, pull up a chair and enjoy! Buon appetito!