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.
Printable Recipe Here
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.