La Vigilia

You know, when I think of Christmas, I immediately think of sleeping on Nonna's couch -- or at least pretending to sleep.

There we would be, all the cousins -- piled up here and there in Nonno and Nonna's living room -- our parents all gathered 'round the dining room table playing Tombola or Sette e Mezzo. We were all so excited that sleep was the furthest thing from our minds. First, we were all together. Second, Santa was coming. But, we knew that He wouldn't come if we didn't sleep. We would giggle, we would peek, we would get up a million times. "He's taking too much blanket!" "She kicked me!" "Mom! The baby stinks!" And so it would go until somebody's mother would get fed up, and come sit with us until we were asleep, or at least pretending to be.

And then, when we were all settled and seemingly asleep, Uncle Val would disappear quietly upstairs and suddenly reappear as Santa. We all knew it was him, but each year, we would immediately react. Those of us who had been playing possum would awaken the others and we would be treated to a hug and a treat from Santa and then be allowed to watch, mesmerized as he loaded the tree with gifts. Even after we were old enough to know who it really was, the magic of that moment never failed. He may have been zio the rest of the year, but he was Santa every Christmas Eve without fail. And I think the younger ones among us believed he had some pull with the great man himself all year long.

Memories of Christmas aren't complete, however without memories of the great feasting that always takes place. As far back as I can remember, Christmas meant going to Nonna's. We would pack up our pajamas . . . our gifts, and our contribution to the feasting and gather at my mother's parents home for the holiday.

My mother has six brothers and sisters and when they all gathered with their spouses and children, the house just overflowed with noise, fun and the smells of wonderful things coming from the kitchen. The activity actually started the day before with the trips to the market for all of the ingredients that would make the next two days so memorable. As we got older, some of us kids would be allowed to go along and "assist" in the selections. The most fun, at least for me, was the fish market.

Christmas Eve, being a meatless day, was always a show case of fish and seafood. Our Catholic faith dictated that no meat was to be eaten that day, but even now, long after the Vatican relaxed its rules about meatless days, we still follow the tradition. Some habits just don't need to be broken, after all!

I can still recall vividly the sights, sounds and smells of a day spent at the market, carefully selecting the ingredients for our feast. The tiny clams that would go into the sauce for the linguine. The sardines that became Pasta alle Sarde. The mussels, cod, shrimp, squid, clams and octopus that went into the obligatory Zuppa di Pesce. Carefully chosen prawns, cuttlefish and sole fillets that would become the Frittura Mista. And all the different kinds of fish that my mother or one of the other aunts would turn into scrumptious offerings, either poached, baked or fried.

We start about 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve with everyone gathered around the dining room table, but the cooking and shopping went on all day. The first part of the meal is always pasta. Remember that this meal is totally meatless. Even the pasta sauce has no meat in it. For the adults there was always Spaghetti con Alici. For the kids, they usually made a marinara or butter sauce since we unfailingly turned our noses up at the anchovies in the adult dish. These days we make a White Clam Sauce or any other favourite. I guess we still haven't learned to like anchovies that much!

The pasta is followed by a great big pot of Zuppa di Pesce. This is a tomato based kind of stew that is chock full of all kinds of seafood. It's similar to a Bouillabaisse except that there are no vegetables in it and it usually has more shellfish in it. Lots of fresh, crusty bread went with this part of the meal to dip into the wonderful broth and savour every drop.

Then came the poached cod, this was simply cod fillets that were poached until just tender and then seasoned with olive oil, garlic, parsley salt and pepper. It's a very simple thing, but oh so good. This was always followed by some kind of baked fish, again a fairly simple dish, usually some red snapper adorned with garlic, parsley, tomato and olive oil and then baked until just flaky. Over the years we've added new dishes, my favourite being a whole salmon laced with lemon, tarragon, butter and fresh black pepper, wrapped in several layers of parchment and baked, for ten minutes per inch of thickness till it's beautifully flaky. And then for the piece de resistance . . . my favourite part of any Christmas Eve meal . . . the Frittura Mista. As in most of the dishes presented this night, simplicity is the key. Usually a selection of various seafoods -- jumbo shrimp, squid rings and tentacles, scallops, finger sized strips of sole or other fillet -- dusted lightly with seasoned flour and shallow fried. Served hot or room temp with plenty of lemon, this rounds off the Christmas Eve meal and -- at least at our house -- stayed out and was nibbled at throughout the night's festivities.

The meal was always one of those affairs that went on for hours. A selection of fruit and nuts always followed the meal. It never ceased to amaze me that as the night went on the ladies always had something else to offer, whether it was slices of the wonderful imported Panettone or roasted chestnuts or the tiny mandarin oranges that we kids loved, there seemed to be a never ending supply of "something to snack on" while we all waited for time to leave for midnight mass.

Following are some of the recipes we use. Most of them are standbys that show up on the table year after year. Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without them. It's difficult to say what region of Italy these recipes actually hail from. My mother's family is a mixture of different regions and over the years, each new addition to the family made his or her own adjustments, changes and additions until what we have is a DiGironimo spin rather than a regional one. One thing I can guarantee though, each one is tried, tested and terrific! You can make them all and know that years of hard won knowledge is behind each and every one. Try them out . . . whether you put on a lavish Christmas Eve feast, or use them any time of the year, you're sure to be a huge success with the seafood lovers in your life!

Linguine with Tomato Clam Sauce

Linguine with Tomato Clam Sauce -- Linguine con Vongole
There are two versions of clam sauce that are popular for pasta, one with and one without tomatoes. Either is lovely but this tomato version is my favourite.
  • 2 lbs fresh clams in their shells
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed
  • 14 oz fresh or canned tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 lb linguine

Scrub and rinse the clams well under cold running water. Place them in a large saucepan with one cup of water, and heat until the clams begin to open. Lift them out of the pan as they open and place in a bowl.

Remove the clams from their shells, chopping any large ones into 2 or 3 pieces and reserving any juices. Add the cooking liquid to the reserved juices and strain through cheesecloth.

Bring a large pot of water to the boil.

Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan with the garlic. Cook over moderate heat until the garlic is just golden. Remove the garlic and discard. Add the chopped tomatoes to the oil and the clam juices. Mix well and cook over low heat until the sauce begins to reduce and thicken.

Add salt and pasta to the boiling water.

Just before the pasta is ready to be drained, add the parsley and clams to the tomato mixture and raise the heat. Add some freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste. Drain the pasta, turn into a serving bowl and add the hot sauce. Serve immediately.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: about 45 minutes

Pasta with Fresh Sardine Sauce

Pasta with Fresh Sardine Sauce -- Pasta con Sarde
This is a classic Sicilian dish.
  • 1 lb fresh sardines
  • 6 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 1 small fennel bulb
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb long hollow pasta such as perciatelli, ziti or bucatini

Clean the sardines. Open each one flat out and remove the back bone and head. Wash well and dry Sprinkle with breadcrumbs.

Coarsely chop the top fronds of fennel and reserve. Pull off a few outer leaves and wash. Fill a large pan with enough water to cook the pasta. Add the fennel leaves and bring to a boil.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sauté the onion lightly until soft. Remove to a side dish. Add the sardines, a few at a time and cook over moderate heat until golden on both sides, turning them once carefully. When all the sardines have been cooked, gently return them to the pan. Add the onion, pine nuts and fennel seeds. Season with salt and pepper.

Take about 4 tbsp of boiling water from the pasta and add it to the sauce. Add salt to the boiling water and drop in the pasta. Cook until al dente, drain, and remove the fennel leaves. Dress the pasta with the sauce. Arrange several sardines on each serving. Sprinkle with the reserved chopped fennel tops before serving.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Baked Cod with Garlic Mayonnaise

Baked Cod with Garlic Mayonnaise -- Merluzzo al Forno
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cod fillets, skinned
  • 1/3 cup plain bread crumbs

For the mayonnaise:

  • 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To make the mayonnaise, put the garlic in a small bowl and mash to a paste. Beat in the egg yolk and mustard. Add the oil in a thin stream while beating vigorously with a small wire whisk. When the mixture is thick and smooth, season with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl and keep cool.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Chop the anchovy fillets with the parsley very finely. Place in a small bowl, and add pepper and 3 tbsp of the oil. Stir to a paste.

Place the cod fillets in one layer in an oiled baking dish. Spread the anchovy paste on top of the fillets. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and the remaining oil. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are golden. Serve hot with the garlic mayonnaise.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes to an hour

Monkfish Medallions with Thyme

Monkfish Medallions with Thyme -- Pescatrice con Timo
  • 1 1/4 lb monkfish fillet in one piece
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup small black olives, pitted
  • 1 large or two small tomatoes seeded and chopped
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 400F. Remove the grey membrane from the monkfish. Cut the fish into slices that are 1/2 inch thick.

Heat a non stick frying till very hot and sear the fish quickly on both sides. Set aside. Spread 1 tbsp of the olive oil on the bottom of a shallow baking dish. Arrange the fish in one layer. Distribute the olives and diced tomato on top of the fish.

Sprinkle the fish with the thyme, salt and pepper and the remaining oil. Bake for 10 - 12 minutes.

Sprinkle with parsley before serving.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Zuppa di Pesce

This is the basic zuppa that is always made in our house. It can be made in a large batch, a small batch . . . it's great reheated . . . you can leave out or add any fish you wish. The key is that it's a tomato base, and it's chock full of all your favourite things.
  • 2 - 3 pounds of fish trimmings, shells, etc (For this, I usually reserve all the heads, tails, shells etc of the other fish we're cooking.)
  • enough water to cover them in a large pot (Bring to a boil and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours.)
  • 2 28oz cans plum tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 2 lbs fresh mussels
  • 2 lbs fresh clams
  • 1 lb scallops
  • 2 lbs squid, cleaned and the tubes cut into rings
  • 3 lbs mixed fish fillets such as cod, monkfish, red snapper, etc
  • 2 lbs crab legs cut into 2 or 3 inch pieces
  • 2 lbs scampi
  • 3 tbsp each fresh chopped parsley, basil, oregano and marjoram
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Drain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid. Heat the oil in a large saucepan or stock pot. Add the tomatoes, breaking them. Allow to cook for about 10 minutes, till broken down. Slowly add the reserved liquid. Cook for 5 minutes more. Add the wine, reduce heat to a simmer and cook 10 minutes more. Add about 2 cups of the fish stock and bring to a gentle boil.

Add salt, pepper and herbs and allow to simmer 5 minutes, then start adding the fish. Start with the clams and mussels, then once they start opening add the crab, scampi, and fillets. Let these cook for about 5 minutes more then the squid and scallops follow. The final addition is the shrimp.. I usually make sure that all the other fish are ready, add the shrimp and immediately turn off the heat. There will be enough residual heat in the pot to cook the shrimp through till just tender without over cooking.

Throughout the process of cooking and adding the different fish, you will need to keep adding fish stock. The final consistency should be fairly soupy. If you find you run out of stock, try adding tomato juice, clamato juice or just plain water. Just before serving, taste and adjust seasonings.

Serve with lots of fresh crusty bread for soaking up the juices.

  • Yields: enough for the masses
  • Preparation Time: 1 1/2 - 2 hours

Okay . . . have at it! I guarantee you a successful meal.

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very happy holiday season and a prosperous new millennium.