‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the kitchen,
Seven dishes were cookin’, each with a fish in.
Crab, shrimp, clam, calamari and cod,
Just creatures of fin and shell got the nod.
When the revelers finish their lobster and smelts,
Each will have loosened a notch on their belts.
Yes, something about this culinary extravaganza does inspire one to creative heights. At stove or table, it requires true gastronomic fortitude, as each delicacy–lovingly prepared from recipes passed down from generation to generation–is savored during the joyous and satisfying hours spent around the family table.
As with many traditions that have been around longer than the printing press, its origins are shrouded in conjecture. For example, why the number seven?
It is commonly thought to refer to the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and to the fact that seven is the most mentioned number in the Bible. But some households test the limits of dining endurance, serving as many as 10 courses for the Ten Stations of the Cross, or even 13, to represent Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.
Whatever the number, it is an Olympic feast.
For Linda Prospero, creator of the Ciao Chow Linda blog and member of the board of trustees of Dorothea’s House, an Italian cultural institution in Princeton, where she lives, nary a Christmas Eve in her 63 years has passed without her participating in this culinary tradition.
“That was the most sacrosanct holiday in terms of food," she says of her upbringing in suburban Philadelphia. "Nobody would ever dare to be anywhere else on Christmas Eve.”
Prospero’s mother, Maria Bersani, came from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, around Bologna, where the tradition is not upheld. At the end of World War Two, Maria found herself in a small town in Austria, a displaced person trying to get home.
Frank Maiello, an American soldier, was there too. His unit had just liberated the town. He and Maria fell in love. After they married and settled outside Philadelphia, Maria quickly adopted the recipes and practices of Frank’s Southern Italian family.
Baccala, salt-cured cod, “is a required fish on Christmas Eve,” Prospero says.
As a little girl, she accompanied her parents to the Italian fish market in Philadelphia to get the stiffly dried fish.
“We would soak it in water for four or five days before it would get rehydrated. Then it would be battered and deep-fried.
"The fish was fried because that was the tradition of Southern Italians where my dad’s family was from. I got away from frying because I also love the other fish I make, like stuffed squid in tomato sauce, or seafood risotto. To keep a lot of frying pans going while trying to make the other dishes is tricky."
At one point her grandfather came to live with the family.
“My grandfather liked to cook particularly messy foods, like pig’s ears and noses and tails, so my mother always relegated him to the second kitchen in the basement," she says. "This particular Christmas Eve, there were eels, and they were bought live and squirming. He decided to kill them not in the basement sink, but in the kitchen sink.”
Long story short, her mother’s white eyelet curtains ended up splattered with eel blood.
“Needless to say, my mother was a little bit annoyed,” she says, chuckling.
Regardless of the labor and mess, the eating was always fun–a major social event. Dinner would start at six o’clock and often continue till 10. Then the neighbors would pile in for the leftovers, and the array of cookies would be presented
“My mother was a wonderful baker,” she says with a sentimental sigh. (Maria died in 1986.) “She would make the cookies ahead of time and put them in the attic ,where it was really cold. But my bedroom was on the third floor. So that tray became diminished because I would snitch them.”
Nowadays, "My father and his second wife, my brother and other relatives will join me and my two children in Princeton for the fish feast. My father usually brings fried baccala cakes, and I will still fry something, to keep part of the old tradition."
Whatever auspicious number you choose–7, 10, 13–the Italian fish festival of Christmas Eve is like no other, and well worth the effort.
Of course, if you’d rather leave the work to the professionals, be glad you live in New Jersey, a state blessed with many fine Italian restaurants that prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes at this time of year.
Here are a few. Bring a buon apetito! And be sure to pace yourself…
Casa Dante – Jersey City – $65, casadante.com
Coltello’s – Crosswicks – a la carte, coltellorestaurant.com
DiPaolo’s – Penn’s Grove- $35, dipaolosrestaurant.com
Filomena’s Berlin – West Berlin – $45, filomenasberlin.com
Luke Palladino – Northfield – $55, lukepalladino.com
Scaturro’s – Marlton – $45, scaturros.com
Tre Piani – Princeton – $69, trepiani.com
Undici – Rumson – a la carte – undicirestaurant.com
But for those who like to cook, here is one of Prospero’s favorite 7 Fishes Dishes (in photo, above):
Spaghetti Ai Frutti Di Mare
Adapted From Linda Prospero of ciaochowlinda.blogspot.com
Spaghetti with seafood for two people
8 medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
8 medium calamari (squid), cleaned and cut into rings
8 clams (I used New Zealand cockles)
1/2 pound scallops
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T. butter
1 medium shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
Red pepper flakes
¼ cup lemon olive oil
- Get the water for the pasta boiling before starting the rest of the recipe since it takes only about 10 minutes to make start to finish. You’ll have three pots going at once – one for boiling the pasta, one for making the sauce and one for steaming the clams.
- Place butter and 1/4 cup olive oil in one pan with shallot and garlic. Cook over low heat until wilted. Add the scallops and shrimp and cook for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Pour the white wine into the pan and add the calamari. Cook for another minute or two, and then remove the seafood with a slotted spoon to a bowl or dish. Add the red pepper flakes to the liquid. Turn the heat up to high and let the sauce reduce a bit. This should take a couple of minutes.
- While you’re reducing the liquid, you should start the pasta cooking in boiling, salted water. I used thin spaghetti that takes about five minutes to cook, but I removed it from the water after only four minutes when it was still al dente. Reserve some of the cooking water.
- While you’re cooking the pasta, steam the clams in another pan until they open – it should take about three or four minutes. Remove from clams and set aside.
- Add the drained pasta to the pot with the reduced sauce. Put the seafood back in and season with white pepper. Add the parsley and mix everything together. If needed, add a little of the pasta water. Drizzle the lemon olive oil on top and serve.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.
By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.