Like a lot of Italian Americans, my family always had seafood on Christmas Eve. The years it was just my mom, my dad and me, it was only a few courses — an antipasto, a primo of pasta, and a secondo centered around fish or shellfish. A couple of years my aunt sent us a clambake because she knew my parents missed New England seafood, and when my grandparents were visiting us in California or we were visiting them on the East Coast, we celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes, also known as La Vigilia di Natale. While it is thought to have begun in southern Italy, the actual origin of the tradition is a mystery. Though it is called Feast of the Seven Fishes, it often involves more than seven fishes, and shellfish is also consumed.
Most Italian American families celebrate La Vigilia di Natale with the recipes that have been passed down to them, and I still make some of my childhood favorites. Number one for me was the fried smelts, which my grandfather called “fries with eyes.” Recently I found fresh smelts at the Japanese market and prepared them as he had, lightly coated with flour and pan fried in olive oil with lemons from my tree. Because my grandfather was a fisherman, I sometimes spent Christmas Eve morning with him pulling up lobster traps and clamming on the beach. That night he would make classics like stuffed lobster, baked “stuffies” (the New England term for a baked, stuffed clam), shrimp scampi, and stuffed calamari.
Here are recipes for three courses that I often still make on Christmas Eve. For the spicy Lobster Fra Diavolo (“brother devil”), I substitute our local treasure, Dungeness crab, at the height of its season (you can also make it with shrimp). Petrale sole is another local catch — it was my mother’s favorite fish, and she always made it dore style. If possible, use the salt-preserved capers found at Italian delicatessens — they need to be rinsed and soaked briefly, but the flavor is much better than the ones jarred in vinegar. For the baccala you will need salt cod, which is also available at many Italian delicatessens, including Lucca on Chestnut Street.
GRANDPA LORENZO’S CREAMY BACCALÀ
1 pound salt cod, soaked for three days
1 medium russet potato, peeled and cubed
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup good quality olive oil
½ cup light cream or whipping cream (20–30 percent fat)
Three days prior to Christmas Eve, rinse the salt cod thoroughly to remove surface salt. Submerge in a large bowl of water, changing the water three or four times per day to remove excess salt. Keep the container in a cool place (refrigeration isn’t necessary).
After three days, slice the fish into 3-inch pieces and add to a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove fish (reserving water), and place on a platter to cool.
Meanwhile, bring a second pan of water to a boil. Peel the potato, cut into cubes, and simmer until fork tender.
Remove the skin from the cod and place cod in a food processor. Pulse a few times to break it up. Add the minced garlic and pulse a few more times. Add the potato and cream, and puree the mixture, adding the olive oil in a slow, steady stream through the food processor tube. Consistency should be creamy but not too thick (if it’s too thick, add a little of the water used to cook the cod).
Spoon the mixture into a bowl and serve immediately with grilled bread or crostini.
CRAB FRA DIAVOLO
2 tablespoons olive oil
1–2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 medium onion, chopped
10 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
2 28-ounce cans of undrained whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound dry spaghetti or fettuccine
1 pound cooked Dungeness crabmeat
1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, minced
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the red pepper flakes, onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion begins to soften, stirring frequently. Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices. Turn heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Add kosher salt. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally.
After sauce has been simmering 45 minutes, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta 2 minutes less than the package recommends. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of water. Add pasta to sauce, and toss until thoroughly coated. If sauce is too thick, use pasta water to thin it. Add crabmeat, and toss until warmed through and well mixed.
Pour into a large serving bowl, sprinkle with fresh parsley, and serve immediately.
MOM’S CLASSIC PETRALE SOLE DORE
1½ pounds petrale filets
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
2 cups flour
4 eggs, beaten
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped and divided
4 lemon wedges
Pat petrale filets dry with paper towels and season both sides liberally with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Place the flour in one shallow dish and the beaten eggs in another. One at a time, dredge the filets in the flour to coat both sides and then in the egg to coat both sides, and transfer to a wire rack set over a baking sheet.
In a large nonstick or cast iron skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat until it begins to sizzle and foam just a bit. Add the filets one at a time in a single layer and don’t crowd (or they will steam). Sauté until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Using a spatula, gently lift the filets from the pan and divide evenly onto four warm plates.
Turn off heat, and add rinsed capers, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk constantly until butter is melted. Whisk in one tablespoon of parsley. Spoon sauce over fish, sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of parsley, and serve with lemon wedges.