One of my favorite holiday traditions is the southern Italian "Festa de la Vigilia," or the Feast of the Vigil. On Christmas Eve, Italians gather as families to wait for the midnight birth of the Christ child. Since Christmas Eve is the last night of the penitential season of Advent, this is a fast day in the Roman Catholic Church. As such, no one can eat meat. So Italians being Italians, they eat fish. And lots of it. Seven types of fish, in fact. The fish represent the seven days of creation. Or the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Or the seven virtues. Or the seven deadly sins. Or seven of something important. Yes. This is my history. These are my roots. These are my people.
Well, not quite.
As I was doing research for this article, I found that this is actually an American tradition, not the quaint Italian one that I (and many, many other second- and third-generation Italian Americans) thought it was. I felt that a part of my childhood had been taken away from me. Surely I remembered Nonna and Zizi Angelina slaving away in the kitchen making a feast that would feed scores and last well into the night! That memory can't be false, can it? In desperation, I called my father. "Dad, I have a question. Did Nonna do the seven fishes?"
"No, she never did."
"What? But I remember her doing it! She made stuffed calamari and clams oreganata, and scungilli marinara!"
"Nope. She did make octopus salad and bacala, and Nonno made eels, but that was it."
"So, when was the first time you heard about it?"
"Hmmmm. Freddy Larca first told me about it when we were working together."
"So you were an adult?"
"Yeah. Freddy and I didn't work together until I was in my 30s."
Crestfallen, I hung up, and thought about my own family, and how, for the past 25 years, I've been making my own variation on the feast, creating my own memories of a youth that didn't exist.
But then, a Festivus miracle happened! I realized that what I'd done was to start my OWN tradition! One that my son may someday carry on (or not)! One that I could still talk about, and write about, and share with you!
You can make any kind of fish, of course, but here are some of my favorite recipes. I'll provide recipes for some of the dishes listed above as time goes by, but here is my version of la Festa de la Vigilia!
1. Ensalata di pulpo (octopus salad). OK, don't let this one throw you. Trust me, octopus is one of the great underrated seafoods out there, and this salad is a delicious way to enjoy the odd-looking cephalopod. To begin, go to your nearest Mediterranean neighborhood and find a fish market. Spanish, Greek, Italian, doesn't matter. Any of them will have octopus. And don't worry if it's frozen. Like most fish, octopus is frozen the moment it's caught and cleaned. In fact, it might even be better if it's still frozen, since you have no way of knowing how or when it was thawed. Also buy a head of celery, but get one with a lot of leaves on it. Buy two, if necessary.
If the octopus is frozen, put it into a large bowl of cold water to let it thaw. Put two corks from wine bottles into a large pot of cold water, and bring to a boil (the corks help to tenderize the octopus, and that's not just an old wive's tale). Rinse the octopus under running water to remove any sand and grit, and gently place it in the boiling water, Lower the heat to a high simmer/low boil and let cook for about an hour. Note that cooking time will depend on many factors, so you'll have to test the octopus for doneness. Pierce the thickest part of a tentacle with a sharp knife. If it pierces easily, it's done. If not, allow it to cook longer. While the octopus cooks, peel six to eight cloves of garlic and slice medium thick. You want bold garlic flavor here, so don't be shy. Remove all the leaves from the celery, and place into a bowl of cold water. Gently lift the leaves out and place on a clean kitchen towel to drain. Remove the stringy fibers from two ribs of celery (use a vegetable peeler), and cut them into ¼" slices. Put the garlic, celery leaves and sliced celery into a salad bowl.
When the octopus is done, remove it from the pot, and place it into a bowl of cold water. Let cool completely. When cool, peel (the skin will come off quite easily), and cut off the tentacles as close to the head as possible. Cut into bite-sized pieces and place in the salad bowl with the garlic and celery. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste, and add ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup of lemon juice (you can use a good wine vinegar as well, but never use balsamic vinegar). Mix well. Nonna used to store this in a mason jar in the fridge for a couple of days to let the flavors meld. I think that's the way to go, too.
2. Gambera bollito (boiled shrimp). For each person, take six large shrimp, head on if you can get them. Bring a large pot of salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to the boil. Add the shrimp, cover, and remove from the heat. Let sit for three or four minutes until the shrimp turn pink (or red). Remove from the water, and plunge into an ice bath. Serve with lemon.
3. Cozze cotte a vapore (steamed mussels). Buy two pounds of mussels, either wild or cultivated. Clean them by scrubbing them with a sponge under cold water. If any are open, tap them with another mussel. If they don't close, discard them: they're dead. Likewise, if any of them feel particularly heavy, discard them: they're full of mud and dead. If they're cultivated, they'll have no beard. If they're wild, use a paring knife (or pliers) to remove the beard (back of paring knife on one side of the beard, thumb on the other, yank free). Leave the mussels in a bowl of cold water for about an hour so they spit out any grit. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Peel and roughly chop two shallots. Chop ½ cup of Italian (flat leaf) parsley.
Put a tablespoon of olive oil (not extra virgin) into a 12" saute pan (a saute pan has high sides, a skillet has sloping sides; use a saute pan). When hot, but not smoking, add the garlic, shallots, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and saute gently until they just turn translucent. Add the mussels and 2 cups of good white wine. Cover, and let steam until just opened. Add the parsley, and squeeze a lemon over the mussels. This needs to be served hot, with the broth that accumulates around them and a loaf of crusty bread.
4. Vongole sulla conchiglia (clams on the half shell). Get six little neck clams per person. Shuck, and serve with lemon juice or homemade cocktail sauce (it's easy enough to make, for god's sake).
5. Prime ostriche (raw oysters). Get six to 12 oysters per person (Blue Points are fine, but I really love Kumamoto oysters from the West Coast). Make a mignonette by whisking together two tablespoons of finely chopped shallots, one tablespoon (or to taste) of freshly cracked black pepper, and ½ cup of good red wine or sherry vinegar. Shuck the oysters and drizzle with mignonette. For a nice kick, get a fresh pomegranate. Squeeze one tablespoon of juice into the mignonette, and put three or four seeds on top of each oyster.
6. Capesante bruciati(seared scallops). Get six diver (or dry) sea scallops per person. Heat a cast iron skillet until it's super hot. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil (or another oil with a high smoke point), and place scallops into pan. Sear for 90 seconds. Flip, and sear on other side for 90 seconds. Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of Tabasco.
7. Merluzzo in salsa di pomodoro (cod in tomato sauce). Traditionally, bacala (dried, salted cod) was used for this dish. The fish had to be soaked for two days, changing the water four times a day to remove the salt and rehydrate the fish. But I don't like bacala, so here's the method for using fresh (and don't get on my case for eating cod). Since we're doing seven fishes, one pound of cod will serve four people. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Dice one medium onion. Remove the pits from a dozen kalamata olives, and cut the olives into thirds. Chop ½ cup of Italian parsley. Drain one 28-ounce can of good quality whole Italian tomatoes (canned San Marzano tomatoes are the best for this; if you can't find canned San Marzano tomatoes, use Pomi brand chopped tomatoes). Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. When hot, add onions, garlic, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. When onions and garlic have begun to color, add tomatoes (using your hands, crush the whole tomatoes into the saute pan) and olives. Let cook for 15 minutes, then add the cod. Cook until the fish is done, and flakes easily. Remove from heat immediately and sprinkle with parsley and the juice of one lemon.
The best way to enjoy this feast is family style, with everyone gathered around the table, laughing, telling stories, and creating memories. Serve with good bread, good wine, a green salad, and start a tradition of your own.
Buon appetito amici miei!