Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Big Night

As we approach my favorite day of the year, Christmas Eve, I find myself in that delicate balance of tradition vs change. This year there will be a little break in regards to tradition as we won't be gathering at my brother Don's house for dinner as we have for the past decade or so. I've always enjoyed the evening at their house - they have this wonderful, huge table that must seat twenty in their dining room and they are gracious hosts. But things are what they are. Thus the element of change - as in a change of location - and that's fine.

What's not going to change is the food. While I always enjoy getting together with the family - all right, while I sometimes enjoy getting together with the family, I have to admit that Christmas Eve is all about the food.

There are many origins of what is called the "feast of the seven fishes" a tradition that has roots in southern Italy. I don't know any of them. I'm not sure if we have seven "fishes" - we can count them later. I didn't pay much attention to this meal for the first 25 years or so of my life, and I am pretty sure it has remained the same for as long as I was around, probably even longer. However, once I came to my senses and realized what I was missing, I vowed never to miss it again and I've stuck to that vow.

For years my parents home - the house I grew up in - was where Christmas Eve was spent. A tiny cape, with no dining room, we managed to have not only our family of six, but as the years went by the numbers grew with assorted aunts and uncles, girlfriends - some of which became wives, leading the way to grand children. All of which crowded into our small living room which became the de-facto dining room, complete with the sofa, christmas tree and television set. It may have been tight, but it was never unbearable and the crowd just added to the spirit of the holiday - and it probably helped keep the house warm!

But the real heat was in the kitchen. This is where my mom cooked for the masses almost single-handedly. My dad's role in the holiday fare was the home-made panettone - a sweet bread that we enjoyed on Christmas morning - but that's another story. My mom's kitchen was - and still is - a one woman show and for years this was her "Big Night."

I've heard other Italians describe their meal and it seems to be more of an homage to gluttony with many breaks with tradition. While my mom served more food than anyone person has a right to eat, nothing is too heavy, no stuffed lobsters or errant trays of baked pasta. This is all about a selection of dishes that could easily stand alone, but work together wonderfully.

For me, this isn't an evening for antipasto. Yes, I'm a fan but there is a lot of food coming my way and I don't want to get filled up on the opening act. Plus, there is dessert on the other side of this pony, so lets just get to the main act. However there is a tray of olives, black and green and some fennel - Finnochio, or as translated into "Italian-American" - feh nook.

The meal begins with spaghetti that has been prepared with garlic, olive oil, anchovies and walnuts. Before you go "ewww … Anchovies!" know this: they are cooked down to be a flavor element of the sauce and the end result is to die for. The mixture is tossed with pasta and served with some of the pasta water on the side. While most people who try this are converted, there is always a bowl of spaghetti with butter and/or garlic and oil for those with less adventurous palettes. Here's a link to a recipe that is very close to my Mom's.

When this dish is right - and it's almost always right - you can just stop there. I have to force myself not to have a third helping ( a second is a given). I still can't figure out why we only eat this simple but incredible dish once a year.

From that plate it becomes all out madness - everything else comes to the table at once:

- Baccala (dried, salted cod that has been reconstituted and is served chilled over a lemony escarole salad). Surprisingly fresh and refreshing, but my least favorite dish.
- Homemade Seafood Salad (Insalata Frutti di Mare) with lobster, calamari, shrimp and Scungilli. Always unbelievable, best I've ever had.
- Scungilli Fra Diaovlo - In a sauce that will have you going through a loaf of crusty italian bread in no time, regardless of how tough or tender the conch may be.
- Flounder Fillets - breaded and fried to perfection. Seems like a bit-player but always welcome on my plate.
- Shrimp Scampi - may be the star of the meal and what garlic may have been invented for. Made in massive quantities to avoid fights.
- Broccoli - the only side dish and only vegetable if you don't count the escarole salad and the celery in the seafood salad. Par-boiled and served cold, tossed with garlic and lemon. Even my five-year old likes broccoli when Grandma makes it.

So, lets count the fish:

Whaddya know - Seven!

My mother turned out this meal year after year in her impossibly small kitchen and, as I said, almost single handily. After my father passed away and with my mother getting on a bit, my brother Don began to host the meal. My mother then began to oversee things with Don's wife Lorraine and their Daughter Lynn stepping up and lending a hand.

My mother is a fantastic cook. I can't even order some of the food that she makes in restaurants as I know that I will be disappointed. And as with any kitchen, you can easily have too many cooks. Believe me, while she was probably glad to step aside it - she is in her eighties - yet I know that it pained her to see any changes from the way she had done things for so many years. Thankfully - and this is in no way a slight to Lorraine or Lynn - my mother's hand was still guiding the meal.

This year things will be a bit different.

Time after time I have said to myself that I have to take some cooking lessons from my mom. I always get a laugh when I ask her about a recipe and she pulls out a yellowed news clipping from 50 years ago that she has tucked in some cookbook. In some cases she has modified it somewhat, in others she hadn't changed a thing. It is ones that were passed down from her mother where things can get a little gray. "How much salt goes in here, Mom?" "Oh, I don't know. A pinch or so." I've been successful recreating some of the dishes, not so much with others. Lizz has done a great job with a few - especially one of my favorites - cavatelli with broccoli (frozen chopped broccoli sauteed in oil and garlic and tossed with the pasta and crushed red) served with pan fried chicken cutlets. As with most of my mom's meals the ingredient list is short. Most of the dishes in the Christmas Eve meal have under 5 ingredients, some less. It comes down to execution and knowing just how many "pinches" to throw in. Sounds easy, right? Any good cook knows it's not that easy.

So although I will miss the scene at my brother's house, Lizz and I are looking forward to cooking this meal at our house this year under my the watchful eye of my mother. We will be cooking for about 12 - usually there's twice as many. I also will spending a lot of time in the kitchen, as opposed to sitting at the table with the men, drinking wine. But there are benefits. It will give us a chance to learn how to do this, so hopefully we can keep this tradition going when and if we are called to do so. Plus we get all the leftovers!

That's our story. There are a million variations and I would love to hear about yours.

Here's a few that caught my eye, Mario Batali and another interesting menu.

Plus, check out this great graphic novel at the Feast Of The Seven Fishes blog.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Our family never went the full 7 fishes route on Christmas Eve but we did have the spaghettie similar to yours. Didn't like it much as a kid, can't get enough of it now.

Go figure!

Thanks for a great post. Happy holidays to you.