For Italian families, like mine, the Christmas Eve meal was all about fish. It's a tradition for Italian cooks to serve seven different types of fish on Christmas Eve. The meal is known as La Vigillia, or Feast of the Seven Fishes. The tradition dates from the medieval Roman Catholic tradition of refraining from eating meat or drinking milk on Fridays and holy holidays. No meat or butter could be used, so everything was typically fried in oil. Not a problem! I couldn't wait for every Christmas Eve where I could eat all the fried food I wanted. Almost everything was fried, including the vegetables!
I loved the fried crunchy jumbo shrimp sprinkled with salt and pepper with a squirt of fresh lemon juice squeezed on top! I loved how the tender, sweet, hot morsels of tender, fresh shrimp surrounded by the light breading would crunch as you bit into it. Then there would be the fried calamari. I went insane for the tentacles—they were my favorite because they were so tender! My grandmother's secret was to soak the calamari in milk overnight (I know, she wasn't supposed to use milk products), which made the calamari melt in your mouth when you ate them. Then came the deep-fried scallops, cod fish in a marinara sauce, fried smelts, fried fillet of sole and grilled octopus!
The meal would start with antipasto—this included a variety of raw or marinated vegetables, assorted cheese and frutta de mare, a marinated fish salad that consisted of boiled shrimp, lobster, crab with olive oil, fresh herbs and lemon. Then came the big bowls of linguine and clams, penne pasta with garlic, olive oil and anchovies and everyone's favorite pasta with calamari sauce!
The preparation for the meal was as much fun as it was sitting down and eating it! It took my mom and grandmother three days to prepare this feast.
If you have been reading my blog, you may know by now that we had two kitchens when I was growing up. The second one was in the basement of our house and reserved for special family occasions, Christmas Eve being my favorite. Shopping for the food was thrilling for me. Even as a child the smell of fresh parsley made me crazy with delight! I would watch carefully as my mom and grandmother picked the perfect piece of fruit and determined what produce was fresh and what had been sitting in the bins too long. I also watched how they chose meat (we had an advantage since my dad was a meat cutter) and determined exactly how much to buy.
When it came time to go to the fish store I was hyperventilating (if you think I'm kidding, you're wrong!). I loved the smell of the fish store as you first walked in, it had the briny smell of the ocean. There was a huge, long case of freshly caught fish displayed so beautifully in ice. I preferred the fish already cut up because the fish with their heads still intact had those huge, panicked eyes staring up at me that seemed to be saying, "Are you really going to eat me?" That made me uncomfortable and still does.
We would buy fish by the case, not the pound, because we had so many people for our Christmas Eve celebration! After we brought everything home, it was time to clean the fish. Down to the basement we would go with my aunts, who came over to help. I would listen to them speak in Italian and reminisce about their childhood memories, laughing and sometimes crying—not because they were sad—I was told they were happy tears. Now that I'm grown and have children of my own and family traditions that live on, I also get those happy tears.
I've kept the family tradition going. However, I grill or sauté the fish instead of frying them. Different times and different cholesterol levels!
I would love to share my Christmas Eve recipe for Shrimp Sautéed in Olive Oil.
Sending "Big Bowls of Love" from around the world!
More Christmas Eve Meals