When December comes rolling around, without fail I reflect on the days when our family was much bigger, we all lived closer and the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes was a celebration that family and friends looked forward to each year. My grandparents on my mother's side, Renee and Frank were the hosts for this holiday tradition. Family memories and traditions of Christmas past were all wrapped up into each dish defining for us Baby Boomers and Generation X's their culinary traditions.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian Christmas celebration that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes, however, some have been known to make 7-13 dishes; we made about 10. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. In our family it was more like the wait for the linguini. We would begin feasting at 9pm and by midnight the linguini with calamari, clams, mussels, lobster and shrimp in a marinara sauce would grace the table.
The fuss over the feast would begin weeks in advance as my grandparents would order all the fish. The preparation of the Baccala, salted preserved cod, began days before. This would entail my grandmother soaking the cod in a large pot in the bathtub, changing the water and adding ice at intervels for a day or so until it was ready to make into a salad. Back in those days my grandparents had a "show bathroom" one that was not used. The only item that ever found its way to the tub was the Baccala. My grandmother was not fond of fish except for shrimp. I would hear her mumble under her breath as she prepared the marinara sauce for the linguini, "Your grandfather likes to make work for me with this stinking fish!"
The truth is my grandparents always made a fuss in preparing this holiday feast for family and friends. I even recall as a child on one Christmas Eve when my grandmother and my great Aunt Millie were dishing out linguini with lobsters for the town of Dobbs Ferry, NY. My Grandfather who was a butcher by trade owned a "mom and pop" butcher and grocery store in Dobbs Ferry. He was nicknamed "Barney" because he wore glasses and resembled a comic strip character at that time named Barney Google who had Googly Eyes. I personally would have called him the "Mayor" considering everyone in the town stopped by his shop for a chat or a pork chop. He was always into the more eccentric dishes of Chrstmas Eve and it was his job to prepare the marinated eel, scungilli salad, seafood salad and the fried smelts.
Other items prepared were the shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, baked clams and the Infamous Minestra which means soup in Italian. This soup is more like a side dish but that is what my Grandparents called it and so we keep the name for the sake of the tradition. This dish kicks off the Christmas Eve Feast and is made with escarole, black olives, raisins, pignoli nuts, olive oil and the secret ingredient, anchovies. These ingredients are layered in a large soup pot over low heat for a few hours and cooked down, without stirring. My grandmother once scolded me for stirring the Minestra, as if I committed some sort of a crime. So please - DO NOT STIR!! The layering of these ingredients creates a unique condensed flavor profile of salty and sweet. The saltiness of the anchovies complements the sweetness of the raisins perfectly, a must try. The recipe is provided below.
A notable side dish was olive salad which was my grandmother's absolute favorite. She would chop a variety of olives into bits, mix with hearts of celery and their fronds, and add a little olive oil and pepper. She also made fried artichoke hearts and cardone which is also known as burdock. My grandmother was not fond of making the cardone as it turns your hands black. Cardone is a traditional dish, made by Italians for the Christmas Eve Feast and is absolutely delicious!
We had a few Italian desserts and my grandmother was in charge of the candied almonds, struffoli made of fried pastry honey balls, cenci made of fried pastry ribbons with powdered sugar, pizzelle which is a round flat waffle cookie and the anisette cookies which were made with a drop of anisette liquor for flavor and topped with lemon sugar glaze.
My grandfather made the ricotta cheese cake which happens to be the best my family and friends have ever had. It was moist, luscious and there was this custard like citrus infused bottom that would occur. I guess it was the way my grandfather separated the eggs, whipping the whites to full peeks and folding them with the yolks ever so gently with the ricotta, sugar and the zest of lemon and orange. We are still trying to master his recipe and sincerely believe it was how he carefully handled the ingredients like a pastry chef. I suppose him being a butcher may have had something to do with his precision and care. I wish I could have another day to watch my grandfather make this delicacy. Until a miracle occurs I will be practicing.
My mother was in charge of the Cheese Dainties. Oh, the memories in making these cookies, it was a 24 hour marathon. My brother John and I every year would help my mother whip the cream cheese, butter, and flour then dollop a variety of choice preserves in the middle. When baked we would sprinkle the top with powdered sugar. There was flour, preserves and powdered sugar everywhere! It took my mother days to clean, however It was the one culinary activity that we prepared for the Christmas Feast that made us laugh and be together. My mother had a circa 1950's GE oven. The previous owners of the house won a Pillsbury Bakeoff, winning a remodeled kitchen including appliances and the oven was part of that award. The GE oven remained in our kitchen until 2009. During it's later years, the oven would work for short periods of time and unfortunately after numerous attempts to fix it was retired of it’s oven duties. The “shell” of the oven door now hangs on the wall in her living room as an art piece because she had a very hard time parting with it.
Today, our family makes a variety of these recipes. My brother continues the tradition on the west coast in Bend, Oregon with his son Sage and his significant other Jenny. They invite their extended family of friends to their dinner table for the linguini and other culinary additions to form their own traditions. Here on the east coast, we either celebrate at my mother's house in Hawthorne, NY or my aunt and uncles in Weston, CT. We make the Minestra, baked clams, fried calamari, linguini. The biggest challenge remains, the ricotta cheese cake.
The fuss over any feast should be cherished. We take some of the old and blend it with the new, just like we have done with making the Timpano for the past three Thanksgivings. Food traditions define for us a time and place with memories that hold a rich history about our heritage.
Next year a new place and tradition for the Christmas Eve Feast will be held at our new home Sheridan Green in Hampton Bays, NY. The one wish I have is that my grandparents on both sides would be alive and our families can be in one place to celebrate old traditions which will be mingled with the new. Maybe by then we will have mastered the ricotta cheese cake. Happy Holidays and Happy Feasting!
- 4 large escarole bunches
- 2 cup pitted black olives
- 1/2 can anchovies
- 3/4 cup pignoli nuts
- 1.5 cups of raisins
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Chop the Escarole in medium size pieces and clean thoroughly with cold water. I find soaking the escarole and rinsing about 3 times helps remove the sand.
- Cut the black olives into 1/4 inch disks and chop anchovies into small pieces.
- In a large stock pot over low heat begin to layer the ingredients; 4 cups of escarole and half the remaining items. Then Repeat.
- Cook for 2-3 hours until the ingredients are rendered down and a broth occurs.
The longer you cook this down the better. Check on it once in awhile that you are not burning it, but DO NOT STIR! Serves 6-8