Feast of the Twelve Fishes: A Southern Italian-Style Holiday Menu

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Feast of the Twelve Fishes: A Southern Italian-Style Holiday Menu

I remember the Christmases growing up at Nonna and Nonno’s house, which was never quiet.  All of us children sat at the “kids” table” and the adults around the formal dining room table in terracotta-colored velour chairs. That dining room seemed so much bigger then, everything seemed that way when we were younger. There would be singing of some sort, glasses clinking, some kind of yelling, we are Italian after all, but all was always accompanied by laughter.

It felt like those Christmas Eve nights would last forever, especially when the children were anxiously waiting for the clock to hit midnight for some gift opening. Looking back, I know it wasn’t about the presents under the tree.  It was about sitting together around that table. It was about migrating to that living room all together with remnants of dessert and the coffee aroma filling the air while a holiday movie played on the television in the background. It was about the feeling of just being together.

That closeness is one of the things our grandparents brought over from the motherland with them. The immigrants of my grandparents’ generation came to Canada with a drive to provide a great life for their families and the determination to instill the importance of tradition and family on their children and grandchildren. For them, life was about family, love, hard work, and good food; and what better holiday is there to embody all of those values than Christmas. One of the most important traditions was Christmas Eve dinner, or “La Vigilia.”

Traditionally, on La Vigilia, many Italians eat only fish. Instilled by the church, Catholics abstain from meat as a way of fasting and sacrifice on the eve of a holy day. As Christmas Eve is one of the most important eves on the Roman Catholic calendar, the only rational way for Italians to fast on meat is to instead prepare and eat a big meal of fish. Over time, fasting has transformed into something not very fast-like; it was instead a marathon of beautifully prepared delicious seafood dishes.   In some southern regions, the typical Christmas Eve meal is referred to as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” where seven different fish dishes are prepared, while in other regions they might not keep count at all. The number seven is rooted in the Bible, from the seven sacraments to the seven days of creation. Some say that when Italians came to North America is when this tradition started; when they saw all the abundance of fish available for their meatless Vigilia meal.  

At the tip of the boot, in Calabria, most families celebrate the “Feast of the Twelve Fishes,” as my family did. In fact, Nonna would make 13 dishes in total; twelve for the apostles and one for Jesus, as so many aspects of the Italian culture are rooted in religion. Also, it would be “brutta figura” to have anything less than thirteen dishes on the table, wouldn’t you agree?  

Italian cuisines vary from region to region, and are even more specific to each family. Regardless of how many dishes are on your table or the religious symbolism, this meal is to be enjoyed in good company and to be prepared with love and a glass of vino, of course.  In honour of the thirteen dishes my Grandmother used to prepare for our family, (and trust me she counted them twice!) here I share thirteen hand-picked recipes for your holiday table sure to make this time of year extra special. Traditional in roots, this modern menu has everything from antipasti and primi piatti to main dishes and desserts.

The Christmas meal, as with all Italian meals the rest of the year, is not only about the eating, but about having fun preparing it and enjoying the moment of being together.  Buon divertimento e Buon appetito!

 

  • Linguine alle vongole – Linguine with Clams

 

Spaghetti with clams is one of the classics when it comes to pasta dishes in la cucina Italiana. The light white wine sauce lets the seafood shine in this iconic Italian dish.

Serves 4 entrées or 2 main dishes

  • 250 grams linguine
  • 5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 2 lb. small clams; manila clams, or littlenecks, scrubbed/washed
  • 2 Tbsp. roughly chopped Italian parsley
  • Salt for pasta water
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Bring medium pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic cloves and cook, swirling the pan until just golden. Add red pepper flakes and continue cooking 15 more seconds. Add clams, then white wine after a few seconds; increase heat to high. Cover skillet and cook until clams open and release their juices, 3-6 minutes, depending on size of clams. As clams open, use tongs to transfer them to a bowl. At your pot of boiling water, season water lightly with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost cooked, about 2 minutes before tender.  Drain, reserving some pasta cooking water. Add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water to skillet; bring to a light boil. Add pasta to pan. Cook over medium heat, tossing constantly combining all the flavors, until pasta is al dente and has soaked up most of the sauce from the pan. Add clams and any juices from bowl back to pan. Throw in chopped parsley, and toss to combine all together. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to warm bowls and drizzle with remaining oil and top with a few clams. Here’s a helpful pasta cooking tip: it’s always better for your pasta to be a little undercooked coming out of that pot, that way you can finish cooking it in the sauce pan with all the flavors and reserved pasta water. This is where the al dente magic happens!

 

2.Insalata di Polpo – Octopus Salad

Seafood salads are common all year long in Italy’s regions by the sea like the Amalfi Coast. This is always a favourite antipasto at our house and can be made a day in advance, the longer it marinates, the better the flavour.

Serves about 8 antipasti servings of salad

  • 2 pounds of octopus. If frozen: thawed & rinsed, if fresh: cleaned & rinsed.
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 celery rib, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced diagonally across
  • 1 carrot, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced across
  • ½ white onion, cut in half then sliced
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
  • Dried oregano

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Using tongs and a meat fork dip the octopus in water for 5 seconds then remove. Repeat dipping a few more times to help tenderize the octopus. Then submerge completely in the water and let it gently boil, uncovered, until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let the octopus cool in the water. This is very important for tenderization as well.  This could take a while so it’s a good idea to cook it ahead of time or even the day before then refrigerate. Once cooled, cut the tentacles into 1-inch pieces. Toss tentacles in a bowl with all other ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let stand 30 minutes for flavors to develop. Octopus salad, without parsley, can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Stir in parsley just before serving.

  1. Shrimp Cocktail

For a modern touch to a traditional seafood menu, serve the shrimp placed around a Martini glass rim for a fresh and fancy appeal.

Serves 5 people with 4 shrimp each

  • 20 tiger shrimp, shell taken off, de-veined (keep tail on)
  • Chunks of celery and carrot, peppercorns, onions, bay leaves, coarse salt (all to be put into boiling shrimp water for added flavour)

Cocktail Sauce

Steamed Shrimp: Boil cleaned shrimp in a large pot with celery, carrot, peppercorns. In the top part of a steaming pot, cook the shrimp, covered, for about 3 minutes or until they change colour. Transfer to a large bowl and refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until the shrimp have completely chilled. Shell the shrimp, keeping the tail on. Cocktail Sauce: In a bowl, combine all the ingredients. Refrigerate, if necessary. Pour the sauce in your choice of glasses or bowls and place the shrimp around the rim. Voila!

  1. Polpette di Merluzzo – Cod Cakes

Fish cakes are great as a starter or a main and make for a beautiful presentation with the right dipping sauce & garnish.

Makes 10 patties

Dipping Sauce

Mix potatoes, onion, parsley, butter and eggs. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Add cod, breaking it apart with a fork, mix well.  Shape mixture into 3″ patties. Coat with seasoned crumbs. In a skillet fry the patties in the oil, 4-5 minutes each side until they are golden brown. For the tartar dipping sauce: whisk all ingredients together in a bowl and add parsley at the end right before serving. Serve cakes with a lemon wedge and dipping sauce on the side. Your taste buds will thank you.

 

  1. Baccala in Bianco – White Wine Salted Cod

Baccala is a holiday favorite throughout Italy and is a staple on almost all Italian families Christmas Eve tables around the continent.

  • 4-6 pieces of baccala fish (Baccala is salt-dried cod so it is very salty unless already pre-washed for you. This fish needs to be prepared at least two days before. Needs to be rinsed and soaked with running cold water for at least two days).
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 1 cup of black olives or a mix of black and Gaeta olives
  • 1 cup white wine
  • Handful of chopped Italian parsley for serving
  • Flour for coating fish
  • Bay leaves and salt & pepper to taste

Coat fish pieces in flour. In a medium to large pan with olive oil, sear lightly on each side to brown them a bit remove them from pan. In the same pan, fry sliced onions in olive oil until very well caramelized, pour in white wine and continue to cook for 1 minute or so. Turn heat off. Add the fish back into pan with onions and oil (if you will use this pan for the oven, otherwise put onions and fish in your new oven pan.) Add black olives and bay leaves. Cover with aluminum and cook in the oven for about 25-30 minutes. Keep an eye on the fish and taste it before adding salt to this dish. Remember baccala is naturally salty so you don’t want to add too much. This is great served on sliced baked potatoes.

 

  1. Pesce Bianco in Rosso – White Fish in Red Sauce

Who doesn’t love a one pot meal as easy and delicious as this that you can make all year long.

  • 4 pieces Baccala (cod) or Chilean sea bass (one piece per person)
  • 2 cans San Marzano tomato sauce
  • Basil
  • Capers
  • Black olives
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chili flakes (optional)
  • Red onions (thinly sliced)
  • Olive oil
  • Potatoes, quartered

 

In an oven pan, layer potatoes, fish, then top with tomato sauce. Sprinkle your capers, red onions, olives, chopped basil, salt and pepper and chili if using. Generously drizzle olive oil all across the top of everything. Pop into the oven at 350 degrees until fish is cooked or flakes apart easily, for approximately 35 minutes. This is the easiest winter meal and you can make it with the fish of your preference. It is a must-try!

  1. Scarola Stuffata – Spicy Steamed Escarole

This is very unique to serve almost an entire head of lettuce, but this sweet and spicy recipe can also be used when making rapini or other leafy greens.

Serves 6

  • 3 heads of escarole lettuce, in tact, rinsed very well, outer leaves removed
  • 5 dried figs, chopped
  • 1 cup dried raisins
  • 5 anchovies in oil, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dry chili flakes(optional)
  • Grated Parmigiano Reggiano, generous sprinkle per each escarole
  • Chopped pine nuts
  • Walnuts (optional)
  • Cooking string for tying the lettuce
  • White wine
  • Olive oil

After cleaning escarole well, open up escarole from tip to base and lie flat with inside facing up. You want to keep the two halves together at the base, not completely separated.  Sprinkle all ingredients (except oil and wine) generously over top of the open escaroles. Be sure to add salt, pepper, and a touch of dry chili flakes if you like the spice Tie them closed with cooking string. In a large frying pan with olive oil, lightly brown the closed seasoned escaroles on both sides. Remove from heat and transfer into a large oven pan. Drizzle olive oil all over escarole and pan. Pour in some wine and a little bit of water in the pan. Put in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes until soft, steamed, and bursting with flavour. Keep an eye on them and make there is always enough liquid in the pan and never let it get too dry. Serve an escarole half to each person, drizzle some of the juices. Enjoy this meal as a hearty primo.

 

  1. Crab & Lemon Aioli Crostini

Savour these flavourful crostini and enjoy with a cocktail as guests arrive.

Lemon Aioli

  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated
  • 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 tbsp (or more) fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil

 

  Crab

  • 8 oz lump cooked crabmeat, picked over
  • 2 tbsp chopped fennel fronds
  • 1 to 2 serrano chilies, seeded, finely chopped
  • 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Salt to taste
  • Bread: baguette or sourdough sliced large
  • lemon wedges, for serving

Lemon Aioli:

Whisk egg yolk, garlic, lemon zest and juice, mustard, and a large pinch of salt in a medium bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in oil, drop by drop at first, until aioli is thickened and smooth; season with salt and more lemon juice, if desired.

Crab:

Toss crabmeat, fennel fronds, 1 chili, and 2 tbsp oil in a medium bowl. Season with salt; add more chili, if desired. Drizzle both sides of bread with remaining 4 tbsp oil; working in batches, toast in a large skillet over medium-high heat until golden brown, about two minutes per side.  Spread each piece of toast with 1 tbsp aioli. Top with crabmeat. Place a small dab of aioli in center of each piece; serve with lemon wedges. (Extra aioli can be used for dressings or dips.) Aioli can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Crabmeat mixture can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.

 

  1. Orange & Fennel Salad

This refreshing citrus salad makes for the perfect cleanse to your palette.

  • Mixed greens of your choice
  • 1 large fennel bulb
  • 1 large orange
  • Olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon honey
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • White wine vinegar, just a dash

 

Cut fennel into thin slices. Remove the skin of the oranges with a knife and gently cut into segments or slivers. Do this over a bowl to catch the juice for the dressing. Squeeze any excess from oranges into bowl as well.  For dressing, combine Dijon, orange juices, lemon juice, olive oil, honey, salt & pepper. Toss your greens in some of the dressing. To serve, sprinkle fennel and orange on top of lightly dressed greens then drizzle remaining dressing over top of entire salad. Enjoy this citrusy fresh salad.

 

  1. Charred Asparagus with Citrus Bagno Caldo

Translating to “hot bath”, the bagno caldo originates from Piemonte and is a flavourful dipping sauce used for vegetables.

  • 2 tablespoons skin-on almonds
  • 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets
  • 4 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 sprig oregano
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed or other greens of your choice

 

Place a rack in upper part of oven and preheat to 350°F. Scatter almonds across a rimmed baking sheet and toast, tossing once, until darkened a little and fragrant, 8–10 minutes. Let cool slightly, then coarsely chop. Cook anchovies, garlic, oregano, lemon zest, orange zest, butter, and 2 Tbsp. oil in a small saucepan over low heat, swirling occasionally, until garlic is golden, 15–20 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in orange and lemon juices and season with salt and pepper. Let bagna cauda sit while you prepare the asparagus. Heat broiler in the oven. Toss asparagus with remaining 1 Tbsp. oil, place on a rimmed baking sheet to coat; season with salt and pepper. Broil until deeply browned in spots and crisp-tender, 5–8 minutes. Toss asparagus and bagna cauda together on a platter; top with almonds. This recipe can be made with your choice of any steamed vegetable.

  1. Zeppole Calabrese

Either sweet for dessert or savoury as an appetizer, these Calabrese fritters please the big kids as well as the little ones.

  • 1 12 cups flour
  • 14 ounce yeast
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 34 cup water
  • 16 anchovy fillets if making the savoury
  • 6 cups oil
  • Granulated sugar if making the sweet ones

Mix flour, yeast, salt, and water. Let rest in refrigerator. After dough rests for about 2 hours, divide dough into 16 pieces. Place an anchovy in your palm. Fold dough over and make a ball or oval shape. The beauty is that they don’t have to be a perfect shape. In heavy pot, heat oil. Add to hot oil and cook until golden brown.  For the sweet ones, leave out the anchovies and instead toss in sugar. These are great for dessert or as a little bite while waiting for dinner. Everyone is sure to enjoy them!

  1. Struffoli – Italian Honey Balls

Made in Naples and across south-central Italy, these mini dough balls are crunchy on the outside and a little soft on the side. Drizzled with warm honey, they make for highly addictive little bites of sweetness.

  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 5 ¾ tablespoons sugar
  • Zest from one orange
  • 2 ¾ tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or orange juice
  • 3 eggs

Toppings:

  • 10 ½ oz. honey
  • Sprinkles
  • Slivered almonds

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, the baking powder and the salt, then add butter, orange zest, sugar and Grand Marnier (or orange juice), start to combine with a fork until crumbly. Add the eggs one at a time and mix to combine, when almost combined move the mix to a lightly floured flat surface add an extra 1 – 1/2 tablespoons flour and knead together to form a soft dough.  Cover with a clean tea towel and let rest 30 minutes.  Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into thin ropes 1/4 inch in diameter.  Cut to make small cubes and roll each cube into a ball slightly smaller than a marble. Try to make them all the same size.

 

In a medium pot add 2-3 inches of oil and heat to 350°F add the struffoli (in batches) turning a couple of times and when golden drain on a paper towel lined plate and let cool.  While struffoli are cooling, in a large pan on low/medium heat, heat the honey until warm and slightly watery. Take off heat and pour into a bowl. Add the cooled struffoli and mix to coat, then sprinkle with sprinkles and slivered almonds.

 

Then form the honey balls into desired shape, dome or donut pyramid (place a lightly oiled drinking glass in the middle of a plate then form struffoli around the glass and remove slowly when all struffoli are placed).  Let the finished struffoli sit until the honey solidifies (approximately 1 1/2 – 2 hours) and then serve.  Enjoy!

 

  1.  Parrozzo

Since its invention in Pescara in 1920, this domed, dark chocolate–covered sponge cake has become synonymous with Christmas in Italy’s Abruzzo region.

Cake
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup “00” flour or cake flour
1/4 cup semolina
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
5 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
Finely grated zest of one orange or lemon
Glaze
8 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur

 

Cake

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Butter an 8 to 9-inch ovenproof bowl or springform pan.  In a food processor with a metal blade, grind the almonds to a fine powder. Transfer the ground almonds to a bowl.  Add the flour, semolina, baking powder, and salt; stir to combine. Set aside.

With an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about three minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Beat in the almond extract and orange or lemon zest.  Add the flour mixture; beat until batter is thick and well combined.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool the cake in the bowl or pan on a rack for 15 minutes.  Invert onto a wire rack, remove the bowl, and cool completely.

Glaze
Melt the chocolate over a double boiler; then whisk in the butter and Amaretto, melting everything together.  Pour the glaze over the top of the cooled cake.  With a spatula, spread the glaze over the cake in an even layer.  Transfer the cake to a serving plate or cake stand.  Keep the cake at a cool room temperature or refrigerate.  If refrigerated, bring to room temperature before serving.