Silver bells ring and carolers sing. A chilly, clear, starry night. It’s December 24th and Christmas Eve is well under way. As you stroll down a quiet Bensonhurst block in Brooklyn, New York, both attached and semi-attached Georgetown-style homes are twinkling with brilliant red, green and white lights. Now, take a deep breath. Yep, the frosty air feels good. Clean. Another whiff. The aromas of roasting hams, cloves and cinnamon are wafting from slightly open windows, right? Wrong. You smell fried calamari, octopus salad, stuffed lobster oreganata and a myriad of glorious fish dishes. This is an Italian-American neighborhood. In these households, Christmas Eve reigns supreme. And while our non-Italian friends are celebrating with tree trimming parties, eggnog, and sugar cookies, we’re frying, sautéing, stewing, broiling and baking seafood entrees to beat the proverbial band.
We call it “The Feast of the Seven Fishes.” It may come as a surprise to some, but there’s really no mystery as to why seafood plays such a major role in the Italian celebration of Christmas Eve. Historically, Italians are Roman Catholics who often turn to seafood repasts during meatless fasts leading to a holiday. Since the eve of Christmas is considered a vigilia, or vigil, it only makes sense to abstain from meat the night before December 25th. Why do most make merry with seven seafood dishes? That’s speculative. Some say it symbolizes the seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism. Others explain, “Well, it took God seven days to create the universe, didn’t it?” It was actually six days, but who’s counting?
So what does a visit to an Italian home for Christmas Eve really entail? Well, to truly experience it you should arrive two days before and stay the duration (they’ll be glad to put you up). In my Mom’s home, December 22nd begins with ordering her fish from the local monger. This, in Bensonhurst, anyway, requires a bit of Italian mathematics. “Let’s see, we’re having ten people for dinner, unless Compare Joe and his wife – I never liked her – come, then it’s twelve. I guess we better order twenty pounds of each!”
December 23rd actually arrives with a bit of a panic. Just two days to do all this cooking. “I knew we should have cut down this year! No matter, we’ll get it done.” And so the marathon begins with the cutting, rinsing, dicing and slicing of the fresh whiting, baccala (salt cod), shrimp, clams, mussels, sole…you name it. All of it ends up in the following day’s fried, broiled, stewed or sauced creations. Some things can be prepared ahead. “I always like my seafood and baccala salads to marinate at least 24 hours,” Mom says. No matter. All this, with breaks for coffee and fig cookies, which were baked fresh that morning, add up to a hectic but rather festive day.
When the sun dawns on December 24th, we are already in the kitchen. Some of us serve as the sous chefs – the ones who mince the fifty cloves of garlic and twenty bunches of fresh parsley (flat leaf, of course) needed to season the dishes. Others are planning the day. Some fish can be cooked earlier, and then warmed before the guests arrive. The salt cod stew is a good candidate for this. Others must be prepared right before the guests arrive. We can’t have soggy fried calamari, can we? And so it goes. All day long, a coalition of the women and yes, even the men in my family, all preparing the seafood and sides for the evening’s festivities. I feel this is the best part of the day. The actual cooking, together. The laughs, the songs, the coffee breaks, the five-minute visits from those who are headed to the suburbs. The anticipation.
At six or seven that evening, the guests appear with lots of cannoli, panettone and vino in hand. All embark on a five-hour seafood odyssey. It’s the same every year. It’s tradition. It’s joy.
2 T olive oil
1 T minced garlic
1 t crushed red pepper
1 cup white wine
3 cups Red Sauce (recipe follows)
2 lbs. calamari cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch rings. Keep tentacles intact.
2 T freshly chopped parsley leaves
1. Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper, and sauté until fragrant, stirring about 30 seconds.
2. Add the white wine and red sauce, increase the heat to high, cover and bring to a boil.
3. Add the calamari and cook for 2 minutes or just until calamari firm up but are still fork tender. Don’t overcook. Serve with a crusty bread for dipping or over linguine.
2 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes in juice
6 T olive oil
2 Turkish bay leaves
1 head (about 12 medium cloves) garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium onions (about 12 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 medium carrots (about 8 ounces), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 1/2 t dried oregano
2 T tomato paste
1 t kosher or sea salt
½ t freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the canned tomatoes in a large bowl and place your immaculately clean hands in the bowl and crush the tomatoes so they breakup into small pieces.
2. In a 5-quart Dutch oven heat the olive oil over medium heat until it is fragrant, but before it smokes, about 40 seconds.
3. Add the bay leaves and stir them in the oil until they begin to brown, about 10 seconds.
4. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute until it starts to turn golden brown, then add the onions, carrots, and oregano. Cook the vegetables until they are very brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir occasionally, just enough to prevent them from scorching.
5. Add the crushed tomatoes with their juice, the tomato paste, salt and pepper and 1 1/2 cups of water, (white wine or clam juice can be added instead). Bring to a boil.
6. Lower the heat, and simmer, partially covered until the sauce level has reduced by 2 or 3 inches and the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Cook the sauce for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick.
7. Remove from heat, cool down in the pot, then when at room temperature, transfer to a sealed plastic container and refrigerate until ready to use. This sauce will keep a week in a well-sealed container in the refrigerator or may be frozen.
Yield: about 2 quarts
(This is a variation of Jasper White’s mussels in red sauce)