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The Food: Christmas Eve Fish Dinner

About The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner
Not every Italian celebrates this tradition.  In fact, my mother's side of the family was very poor, so they just had tuna fish mixed in with macaroni, that was their Christmas Eve dinner.  But, its pretty clear, that no meat is eaten on Christmas Eve in celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus.  The people from Naples are famous for their elaborate spreads of cold shellfish cocktails and hot fish dishes, as well as the roasted peppers and antipasti.  The origins vary, depending on who you ask, but quite clearly, you did not eat meat on Christmas Eve since it was the birth of Jesus, and just as you would not eat meat on Good Friday, you would not eat meat on Christmas Eve.  Naturally (and sadly) traditions have changed, but many have kept this tradition, and, in fact, as midnight brings Christmas day, that is when you would start cooking the sausage for Christmas Dinner, and often the eating would go on until the late/early morning hours.  Why 7 types of fish?  Some say it is because it took God 7 days to create the universe.  Again, it all evolves/revolves around Christian beliefs, as it should, after all this is NOT a holiday of gifts or gift giving, or even santa claus, but the feast of the birth of Jesus (as it should be).  Unfortunately it has turned into something far more political and commercial over the decades, losing sight of the fact that it is really about family, being together, and should be much less about what you give, whose table you sit at and whom is still is not talking to who.

Ask around, you will find that more than half celebrate Christmas Eve dinner with various types of fish.  While it was simpler back then, as you will see below, now times seem to be better financially and I know a lot of families cook lobster as well, and/or use lobster sauce for their pasta.

One Christmas Eve I was over my friend's house. Now, they are a large family, not that there is a lot of them, but they are big people, but the greatest on earth.  Their ancestory goes back to Naples, and this was what they served:  starters was cheese, crackers and of course antipasto which included marinated artichoke hearts, pepperoni, salami, olives, sweet roasted peppers, mini mozzarella balls (boccicio); the first course was crab legs removed from the shell and jumbo shrimp; next came the pickled peppers stuffed with bread crumbs and olives; flounder stuffed with spinach, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella cheese; baccala (cold seafood salad similar to cod mixed with green and black olives, peppers, etc); lobster ravioli in vodka sauce; linguini in red sauce and shrimp scampi butter sauce over linguini; stuffed calamari; we waited an hour before desserts which included cheesecake, peanut butter silk cake in oreo cookie crust, canoli, assorted cookies, chocolates, etc. etc. etc.  Yes, this was the most elaborate I had ever seen, but they were missing a few people and so the food seemed like even more than it would have been.  I was stuffed by the time we got to the ravioli, and only was able to eat some of the stuffed flounder.  Remember something, for any holiday or any foodfest:  chances of a heart attack greatly increase 1-3 hours after a heavy meal, perhaps triple in some cases.

This past Christmas Eve, my family decided to take a break and have someone else do the cooking, so we went out to a small, family-owned restaurant in an exclusive area.  The restaurant (which will remain nameless for now) was actually converted from an older house, not quite a mansion, but certainly one that could have been a bed and breakfast.  In any case, we needed reservations a month in advance, and while it has been called "one of Jersey's best restaurants", I think we were the victims of a "bulk batch crowd" since I can tell they pre-prepared a lot of the fish for the dinner crowd.  The food, was not bad, not by any means, in fact, the cold seafood salad was probably the best I ever had, ever.  On a bed of lettuce they had different types of olives, fresh lemon wedges and baby shrimp, sliced jumbo scallops, octopus, calamari.  Next they brought out a small dish of spaghetti with some fried baby shrimp (I think it was supposed to be calamari but they ran out so gave us shrimp?)  I think typically this would be calamari (not fried) and/or linguine in white (or red) clam sauce.

the second and final course was an oversized dish of baccala (I jokingly asked how many days it was soaking in water and she told me 5, but after tasting it, I believe her, it was not only completely free of salt, but any taste whatsoever), fillet of sole stuffed with crab, shrimp and breading; something tough and chewy covered with marinara sauce; mini-stuffed calamari; mussels oreganato; and it was served with a few potatoes in tomato sauce and string beans.

Feast of the 7 Fishes
It is tradition that the Sicilians (and Italians) have a 7 fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Some think that it is perhaps one representing each day of the week, but most traditions come from the observance of the Cena della Vigilia, the wait for the miraculous birth of Christ in which early Christians Catholics fasted on Christmas Eve until after receiving communion at Midnight Mass. In later years it became a penitential day, meaning that all foods except meat were allowed. Other theories include are that there would be served three fish dishes representing the three Wise Men or the Holy Trinity while in some there may have been as many as thirteen, one for each of the apostles plus one for Jesus. Each family and each sect of the Italian culture is different, (the fish they say is from a tradition those from Naples brought over), it also depends on what was available in various parts of Italy.  In most of the southern coastal regions in Italy and Sicily, seafood was abundant and so the perfect opportunity to work fish into the menu for this festive day.  Others have 9 Fish, and yet others 12 types for the representation of the original 12 apostles.  In any case, its all fish, don't forget that.  

Some Suggestions:

Antipasto Antipasto is basically an appetizer consisting of Mozzarella, Provolone, Olives, Roasted Peppers, Hot Peppers, Marinated Artichoke Hearts, Fresh Italian/French Bread.  Usually it would have meat such as prosciutto, salami, pepperoni, soprosata in it as well, but since its Christmas Eve, these meats should be absent from the large plate of these foods piled high.

Baccala A staple at any Christmas Eve dinner, it's a dried cod, and takes several days to prepare.
Calamari squid, boiled
Shrimp shellfish, boiled
Clams shellfish, steamed till they open
Crab shellfish, boiled
Whitefish flounder or other type, bake in oven
Mussels/Oysters shellfish, steam until they open

The whitefish and baccala are usually fried.  The calamari, clams and mussels are either simmered into tomato sauce and served over linguine or angel hair pasta, or boiled, steamed or baked as noted above.

Some other dishes I have seen on the table:
Lobster Ravioli
Tuna Fish & Cannellini Beans
Salmon & Chick Peas
Mussels Marinara
Fried Flounder Filet
Fried Calamari

Another Variation:
1 pound white fish such as cod, cut in 1 inch cubes
Shrimp, calamari (squid), prawns
3 large potatoes peeled and cut in 3/4 inch cubes
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 teaspoons fresh garlic
fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 can black olives

Any combination of peeled fresh tomatoes, homemade tomato sauce, (not marinara nor meat sauce) or cans of the same that gives you the quantity you need for the occasion salt, pepper, fresh basil, oregano, and parsley or the dried equivalents.  The Olives are to be served as a side. The importance of this dish is to allow it to cook slowly (this takes at least two hours to prepare).   Saute the onions and potatoes until the onions are translucent, in the olive oil. Add garlic after combining all your ingredients to the pot right after the tomatoes, then the herbs, the salt & pepper. Simmer on low until it is reduced, as thin or thick as you like it, this will take at least an hour.   Add the olives and your cubed fish and cook about 10 minutes more until the fish flakes.

Dessert usually consists of Panatone, a bread baked with fruit, and served with the traditional espresso, and of couse, plenty of anisette or sambuca! (My family always used Moko d' Ora coffee and anisette).  All my aunts were bakers, so dessert would also consist of "S" cookies, fig cookies, and of course, other delights such as strufoli (little dough balls slightly larger than a pea, covered with honey and rainbow sprinkles).

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