Christmas Eve

My mom. "Auntie," & Aunt Nettie

My mom. “Auntie,” & Aunt Nettie

Since forever and forever (my forever ago) Christmas Eve has been the most standout holiday of the year. It sparkled brighter than Christmas. It had more traditions and excitement. And the best food all year was Christmas Eve dinner.

Seafood. Fish. As many as you could fit in the kitchen. My mom held reins on Christmas Eve dinner for years. Everyone came to our house. No one would have it any other way. Because it was the best. I remember spaghetti with spicy tomato scungilli sauce. Or calamari sauce. Seafood salad with lobster, crab, squid, and shrimp. Huge Shrimp Scampi (that came in 5-lb boxes from the fish store at the dock in Bay Shore, LI). Sometimes we’d get fried calamari as take-out from our favorite restaurant to add to the fun.

My mom’s gonna sit back on this one this year. I’m making the attempt. It’ll be clams oreganata, steamed mussels with cannellini beans and bacon. Crabmeat cannelloni. Cod with parmigiano crumbs. Shrimp Scampi. Okay it’s not 7 of the traditional Seven Fishes, but…enough. Yet bigger than the menu: this dinner is intricately entwined with love. Somehow, this meal, captures who we all are.

My mom in center, with her parents, my aunt lily at left, and we can't remember who the baby is

My mom in center, with her parents, my aunt lily at left, and we can’t remember who the baby is

I can feel it, you know. I can feel the history in my genes. In my blood. In my heart and soul. I “get it.” I get where I came from. Brooklyn. New York. And Italy. I look at photos from the days even before I was born. At my family. At my parents. At my relatives. All contributed to who I am.

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

My Dad with his father from Sicily, his stepmother from Sicily, and his sister Vera

They are all in there. Making me familiar to myself because I know them.

This holiday reconnects me every time. As the days and hours get closer to 12/24 I can feel the air, the world, the atmosphere get fuller. Start to envelope me in all that I came from, all of these people who made me. Their love, warmth, spirit, and lasting charm are with me the strongest now.

At "Auntie's" with the family. Me & cousin Steven in foreground raising hell

At “Auntie’s” with the family. Me & cousin Steven in foreground raising hell

Why Seven Fishes?

Why not 8? Or 14? Or 3?

Turns out that the Christmas Eve tradition of a meal of seven fishes is mainly an Italian-American tradition, not an Italian one. It seems to be based on La Vigilia. The vigil on the eve of Christ’s birth. But the seafood part spins far from the religious part.

And why seven fishes? Conjecture imagines: 7 sacraments of Catholicism? 7 days for the creation of the world in the Genesis story? The 7 hills of Rome?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to have a meal of seven fishes. What a lovely culinary tradition. Ordinarily the star of the show is baccala…the salt-cured cod that takes a few days to rinse and drain of its salt and make into the tender cod that we love. In Nashville, I don’t come across baccala at all. So my Christmas Eve dinner was without it.

Still, when I was growing up, Christmas Eve dinner was the domain of my mom. Relatives all came to our house for the feast. We didn’t have baccala either, but went for the shellfish instead: Shrimp, clams, scungilli, squid, lobster, and crab.

This year the night was all mine (with sous chef help from my friend, Donna). My mom came as a guest and I think she was happy to be just that. I took over the kitchen.

I decided 5 fish would be enough and didn’t let myself feel the pressure of the “seven.” Am I missing some of the sacred glow? Perhaps. But I was willing to risk it!

The menu:

Lump Crabmeat Salad

Fried Calamari

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Shrimp Scampi

Tilapia alla Francese

…plus 2 vegetables & lots of dessert items…

But back to the fish.

Here’s the appetizer of Crabmeat Salad & Fried Calamari…

Crabmeat Cocktail & Fried Calamari

Crabmeat Cocktail & Fried Calamari

This course has Mario Batali written all over it. I tweeted him a question about what to put in the crabmeat cocktail. He answered: lime, fennel, cilantro & celery. I went for some of what he suggested and added to the crab: lime juice, celery, celery leaves, parsley, a bit of olive oil and some salt. For the calamari I went to Batali again. After cleaning and cutting the squid into “rubber bands & spiders” (my sister’s dubbing), I simply tossed them in cornstarch and shook loose the excess then fried squid pieces in 2 inches of hot olive oil. Lifted them out in 2 minutes or so, then sprinkled some salt. These 2 mini-dishes were the perfect complement to each other.

On to Spaghetti & Clams…

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Here’s another easy one: Boil 1 lb. spaghetti in abundant salty water. In another large pot saute 5-6 sliced garlic cloves in about 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil. When starting to color add a handful of chopped parsley. When simmering add about a cup and half of dry white wine. Season with salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes. Let simmer. Then add 3 dozen scrubbed little neck or manila clams. Cover. When pasta is al dente, reserve a cup of cooking water. Drain pasta. When clams have opened add drained spaghetti. Toss. Add more olive oil and some pasta water. Add a few handfuls of toasted breadcrumbs (how to make breadcrumbs: in a medium skillet, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil, add about a cup of crumbs & a garlic clove and saute until crumbs are toasty brown, season with salt & pepper. Use these at table, too, to sprinkle on servings of pasta.)

Third course: Shrimp Scampi & Tilapia Francese…

Shrimp Scampi

Shrimp Scampi

For the Shrimp. Line a sheet pan with foil. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Lay out the peeled, deveined shrimp (I used 2 lbs. large shrimp). Sprinkle shrimp with salt & pepper. Sprinkle with 3-4 cloves coarsely minced garlic. Sprinkle with breadcrumb to cover lightly. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Drizzle with olive oil. Cook in 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes until shrimp are opaque and breadcrumbs toasty. Serve with lemon wedges.

Final fish: Tilapia Francese…

Tilpia Francese

Tilapia Francese

What makes this “francese” or “French-style” is the method. We dip pieces of tilapia in seasoned flour and then in a beaten egg. Saute in hot olive oil. The egg coating gives a lacy, lovely effect. I served this on a bed of dressed baby arugula.

5 of the 7 fishes. Plenty for us!

P with the Peas

P with the Peas