For as long as I can remember, my family has eaten fish on Christmas Eve.
When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was held at our house. This celebration always included my father’s [Italian] side of the family – us, his sister Johnny and his sister Jay and her family. At that time there were 10 celebrants. We sat crammed in around the small table in our tiny dining room and ate pasta with olive oil, garlic, and anchovies (well, a couple of us ate them), fried smelts and fried flounder. We always exchanged gifts amongst ourselves that night but only after the adults had lingered over coffee, Christmas cookies, nuts and red wine-soaked tangerine segments and – most importantly – the dishes were washed, dried and put away. That hour or two after dinner was sheer torture for us kids who, between the wash, dry and put-away cycle, would gaze longingly at the 100+ beautifully wrapped gifts waiting for us under the tree.
Growing up, I thought the fish was a Catholic thing. As an adult, I learned it was a southern Italian tradition, and typically included seven fishes (La Festa dei Sette Pesci) enjoyed on Christmas Eve (Vigilia di Natale).
Since then, our feast has grown as has our family. This year, there were 26 for a dinner that included six fishes (forgot the anchovies) and lasted for eight hours. Does it get any more Italian than that?
The meal started with cocktails, wine and hors d’oeuvres. Lots of cooking, mingling, chatting, drinking, snacking. Then the hard-core eating began. Served soup. Clean up. Served pasta and smelts. Clean up. Family style main courses. Clean up. Desserts, coffee, additional adult libations. The clean up in between allows for more mingling and drinking while we let the previous course rest in our bellies and we wash up the dishes for the next course. It’s a delight to space the meal out over so many hours giving everyone a change to relax, visit and enjoy. I will add that the final clean up took us until 2:00am and beyond.
While there are many cooks in my family, it was Joe that did the yeoman’s work this year, although there were contributions to the feast by many.
Christmas Eve 2011 Menu
- St. Germain cocktails (St. Germain, vodka, pink sparkling wine, fresh raspberry)
- Crostini with roasted butternut squash, house made ricotta and toasted sage
- Peppery cheese puffs with mustard sauce
- Jumbo shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce
- Smoked whiting
- Cheese Plate
- Lobster Bisque with roasted pearl onions, garlic crostini, pea shoots
- Pasta aglio olio
- Fried smelts with lemon zest
- Swordfish fillets with black olive, caper, mint, roasted eggplant & tomato sauce caponata
- Grilled whole branzino stuffed with mixed herbs; preserved lemon vinaigrette
- Roasted cauliflower, parsnips, brussels sprouts, fennel with cumin & chilis
- Sautéed kale with garlic and chilis
- Smokey Parmigiano Reggiano Couscous topped with parsley and toasted almond gremolata
- Honey glazed carrots in an orange carrot sauce
- Fig tart
- Assorted gelati, Christmas cookies, home-made candies
- Wine, port, limoncello