Through the years, I’ve gotten away from my childhood tradition of eating fried fish for Christmas eve, opting instead for dishes that are prepared in the oven or sauteéd on the stove top, like pasta with mixed shellfish, or swordfish involtini. My kids threaten to mutiny if I omit those dishes, or the baccala mantecato or the stuffed squid (which my son now prepares) from the menu, but I have managed to wean everyone from the fried smelts, and all the other fried seafood, including squid. Aside from the difficulty of navigating several pans of sizzling, deep oil amid the chaos and confusion of choreographing seven to nine different dishes to be ready at the same time, frying fish just leaves a huge clean up job and a penetrating smell in the house that doesn’t go away for a couple of days.
But a couple of nights after Christmas eve, when I was home alone and rummaging through the refrigerator, I found a container with a few squid that hadn’t been used for our family dinner. I couldn’t resist the urge to fry up some squid “rings.”
And let me just say, due to unforseen circumstances – which involved another leftover – namely a third of a bottle of Prosecco – these were the best fried squid rings I’d ever made – or eaten. The batter had the perfect lightness and crunch without being greasy and the squid were tender too. I’ve made fried squid using a simple dusting of flour, and I’ve made it with a batter of flour, eggs and beer. My favorite way has been to use just flour and San Pellegrino water, but I figured since I had the Prosecco, why not use the bubbly to give the batter a little “lift.” With New Year’s eve just a day away, you’ll most likely have some Prosecco or Champagne in the house, so why not treat yourself to some fried calamari too?
Just mix some flour (I used about a cup) and pour in some Prosecco (start with 1/4 cup or so) until you get a consistency of a thin pudding. Add a little salt and a couple of dashes of cayenne pepper to give it some “zing.”
Slice the cleaned squid bodies into “rings.” They’re limp when you slice into them, but will take shape as soon as they hit the hot oil. Make sure the oil is good and hot. Test it first with a small piece before filling the whole pan with the squid. Turn them over once, drain them on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt while they’re hot.
Serve them immediately with lemon slices (or some tomato sauce) and hopefully, you’ll have enough Prosecco leftover to pour a glass for yourself.
But don’t let my kids know I whipped up this batch of fried squid, or I’ll be back on fry duty again next Christmas eve.
Buon Anno Amici!
May 2015 be filled with as much joy as you have given me,
1 cup flour (approximately)
1/4 cup Prosecco (approximately)
dash of salt
dash of cayenne pepper
Add all the ingredients together, using a whisk to blend. Add more Prosecco (or seltzer water if you don’t have enough Prosecco) until the batter is the consistency of a thin pudding.
Dip the sliced squid rings into the batter, lift with a fork to wipe off excess, then drop into hot oil. Turn once when golden on the first side and remove when golden on the second side. Drain on paper towels and season with salt immediately.
Just in case you’re planning a multi-fish extravaganza for Christmas eve and are still trying to decide what to make, here are some ideas to whet your appetite. I’ve made all of these in years past, and most of them will be on my table again this year, including this spaghetti ai frutti di mare. It was a favorite last Christmas eve, so it makes the cut again for this year. I’ll serve it following the hors d’oeuvres that will be mostly fished-based, except for a couple of dishes for the vegetarians present. It’s always a juggling act trying to balance the numerous pots on the burners and dishes in the oven, so that none of them is overcooked (or undercooked.)
So I make sure I have a few things that can be made ahead of time, including this favorite of
baccalà mantecato with grilled polenta that we’ll eat before dinner while sipping prosecco.
My dad arrives with these codfish cakes. They reheat very well in the oven, maintaining their crunchy exterior. We’ll munch on these before dinner too.
If you think you don’t like octopus, you haven’t tried my Octopus and potato salad. It’s almost like eating lobster, especially if you peel the octopus and trim away the “suction cups” after cooking. Get the largest octopus you can find in order to get nice chunky pieces.
If I weren’t making the spaghetti ai frutti di mari, I might be making this dish with squid:
There was always fried baccala on Christmas eve. And fried smelts. And fish as small as minnows that stuck together in clumps when they were fried. When you ate them amid a boisterous family at a table that stretched to include neighbors too, it was like munching on a cluster of crunchy, salty, baby fish – which they were. There were other fried fish too, including eels – slaughtered in the kitchen one year, leaving the porcelain sink and the white curtains bathed in red.
There was pasta too – with squid or with crabs – always in tomato sauce. There was sometimes conch, especially when I was a teenager and my brother in the Navy got leave and brought home the freshly caught seafood. There was a nod to American cuisine too (and the 1960s), usually at the beginning of the meal when my mom placed a fluted glass holding six plump shrimp and cocktail sauce on each plate.
After I married, my mother-in-law introduced me to her stuffed squid recipe, which then also became part of my Christmas eve tradition, even after I scrapped most of the fried fish. Now I include a seafood risotto, which soaks up the tomato sauce from the stuffed squid so beautifully. Some years I’ve made seafood salad, or octopus and potato salad – always a hit, but a budget buster. But hey, it is Christmas eve, or “La Vigilia” as it’s known in Italian.
I can’t drop the baccala completely, even if it’s no longer dredged in flour and fried in deep fat. Now I’m more likely to use it in codfish cakes, or as an appetizer of baccala mantecato, a dish that is typical of the Veneto region, where it’s frequently served with grilled polenta.
salt cod or “baccala”
These are some of the foods that will be on my table for La Vigilia, and I’ll bet on a lot of your tables too, if there are Italians in your household. Strangely though, none of my mother’s relatives (in Northern Italy) follow this custom. Even in my husband’s family in Abruzzo – the south-central part of Italy – the so-called “Feast of the Seven Fishes” or “Feast of the 13 Fishes” is not commonly observed. There might be a pasta with seafood, followed by a whole roasted fish, or maybe a platter of fried fish instead. But not the “abbondanza” of dishes that we here in the states think of as the gluttonous Christmas eve repast. By the way, it’s said that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments in the Catholic religion, while the 13 fishes are symbolic of Jesus and his twelve disciples.
I was reminded that Christmas eve is right around the corner, when I viewed an advance copy of a program that will be airing Tuesday, Dec. 20 on public television stations featuring Lidia Bastianich. It’s called “Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions.” Here’s a short clip to give you a preview:
The program really struck home with me when Lidia was shopping on Arthur Avenue with Mo Rocca and eels were slithering on the floor, and in her kitchen when she was preparing her Christmas eve feast with Stanley Tucci. “There’s no vigilia without baccala and there’s no vigilia without eel,” Lidia says, as she starts cooking with Tucci in the kitchen that’s familiar to viewers of her TV shows. This time, viewers are taken into her dining room too, as the abundant meal is spread out before guests, including Tucci’s parents and Lidia’s own beloved mother Erminia.
Aside from the Italian Christmas eve dinner, Lidia takes her viewers to San Francisco, inside the home of a Chinese family preparing for the lunar new year; to San Antonio, Texas where many generations of an immigrant family celebrate Christmas with Mexican traditions; and back to New York and the lower East side, where a Passover Seder is prepared at the home of one of the fourth-generation owners of specialty food store Russ & Daughters. Joining them is Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor, who prepares her mother’s recipe for brisket.
“Everyone is longing for a taste of the past,” says Reichl. “That’s why holiday meals are so important. Everybody who has sat around the table in the past is joining us.”
I admit I’m more sentimental than most – especially in this past year – but the people and traditions that were so lovingly on display in this video made me smile, but also brought tears to my eyes – and not just in the Italian segment. Each of the ethnic groups in the program has at its base a common denominator that goes beyond the ingredients, the markets and the dishes that are prepared. Watch for yourself next Tuesday and see if you don’t agree with Stanley Tucci when he says that cooking and sharing these traditions is “… a way of passing on family history, emotions — it’s a way of connecting with somebody. It’s a way of expressing love … and that’s the thing for me that makes food so interesting.”
Here’s a little bit of love coming your way, especially to Kathy of Birdy Chat, who is the winner of the tea from Mariage Freres that I offered as a giveaway. For the rest of you, here’s my recipe for baccala mantecato.
1 pound salt cod, soaked for at least two days and cut into large pieces *see below
2 garlic cloves
1 medium potato, cut into chunks
3 cups milk
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
freshly ground black pepper
additional liquid from the poaching liquid, if needed
optional: 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Place the milk into a large pot and add the potatoes and garlic pieces. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost cooked, but need a little more time.
Add the codfish pieces and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of the cod.
Drain the potatoes, codfish and garlic, reserving the milk.
Place the potatoes, fish, garlic and black pepper into a food processor and add the olive oil and cream, and blend, keeping the machine running until you have a thick “paste.” If you need to add more liquid, use the poaching liquid.
Put in the parsley and blend again. If the mixture is too thick, add more of the poaching liquid.
Add the cheese if desired. (To some, combining cheese and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious. Use at your own risk.)
*Note: When you buy salt cod, it’s VERY salty and stiff as a board. Place it into a big bowl or pot that will fit into the refrigerator. Start by running cold water over the fish, in a bowl in the sink – for about 10 minutes straight. Then place the fish and the bowl filled with cold water in the refrigerator. At least twice a day, dump out the old water and replace it with fresh, clean water. The fish should reconstitute in less than a day, but it will still be salty. Sometimes I rinse the fish too many days (four or so) and I lose that familiar “salt cod” taste. Each year is different and each year the recipe turns out different.
This recipe will certainly keep overnight in the refrigerator, but it will stiffen up and become hard. It’s best eaten when it’s at room temperature or slightly warm and easily spreadable. If you don’t want to make the grilled polenta (which spritzes oil all over the range!), serve with crackers or bread.