I just read an article in the LA Times about an Austrian chef who re-creates Christmas dinners like those in his homeland because he has such great memories. I loved that, instead of sinking into a depression over what he’s missing, he’s re-creating it with braised duck and roasted chestnuts.
I remember forcing myself to do that the first year I spent Christmas Eve away from my large, lunatic Italian family.
I didn’t think I’d make it, but it was my second year of being married and I knew it wasn’t fair for us to always go to my family and not his, so we started alternating; one year we flew back, the next, we stayed.
I decided, if I couldn’t be at my family’s Fish Fest on what we call “All Squid’s Eve,” I’d bring the fish fest here to L.A.
For those of you who may not be familiar with it, eating fish on Christmas Eve is a tradition in many Italian families. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, or La Vigilia (The Vigil) is a southern Italian custom. It came down from the dark days when the Catholic church decided abstinence was a good idea. (Cruel souls ran things back then.) In this case, abstaining from meat was the goal. The menu usually calls for squid, smelts, baccala, a white fish, octopus, crab, shrimp. Scallops and lobster are alternates.
That first Christmas Eve, it was going to be Roger (my ex) his sweet son, Brandon, my mother-in-law and Grandma-in-law. I was going to be dealing with two very nice, calm women, my husband and his son, instead of a group of loving, competitive, fish-cooking maniacs who will take you down over a meaty crab claw drenched in lemon-garlic butter sauce. I knew I would miss the insanity.
I decided that sulking wouldn’t do, so I bought us all tickets to see the Nutcracker. We went early on Christmas Eve to a performance about 20 minutes away. It was absolutely beautiful. The ladies loved it and Brandon, Roger and I got to snicker at men in tights. First part of the day – success.
Thank God, Roger’s mom didn’t like to cook, although, over time, she really perfected her rice casserole with breakfast sausage, frozen spinach, shredded chicken and cheese. Gramma was a great cook, but the poor woman was in her 90’s, so I asked if I could take over the feast and they said yes.
I Italianized it (but any nationality can do this – with easy going in-laws). I bought crab, shrimp and scallops and told Roger’s family about our life-long tradition of fish on Christmas Eve. I didn’t quite do the whole Feast of the Seven Fishes. (Smelts, squid and baccala are not generally on the most-loved food list of WASP women, so I played it safe.)
So for our mini Seven Fishes Feast, we started with steamed king crab legs, dipped in Lemon Butter Garlic sauce. Then we moved on to Pasta with Scallops in Curry Cream Sauce, my favorite of our family’s Christmas Eve Sauces.
The sauce is my brother Bob’s invention. I make it every Christmas Eve because I’m a ho for a good cream sauce. (You may have noticed, I’m a ho for most food.) My brother Bernie makes a fantastic crab tomato sauce, but in my heart, cream comes first. Sorry Bern.
Not only did the ladies, Brandon and Roger love the change of pace, but we ended up having a great time. Of course, I missed my family in Pennsylvania, but we created a new fun tradition here.
And I recently realized something about myself and most Italians; sharing food is how we show our love. I learned it from Frank Bruni, the Op-Ed writer for the New York Times. He beautifully articulated what’s been in my heart all these years, with a wonderful story about his Italian family at Thanksgiving.
At the end of the night, it was about sharing a tradition I loved, with people I loved, the way I do it best; with food. I don’t think you can ever really go wrong doing that.
Here is the recipe for the dipping sauce and the pasta. Next post, I’ll give you Bernie’s Crab Sauce – a recipe he got from his friend’s mom; Mrs. Pedone. Enjoy! And if you have last minute gifts to buy, check out my fun online store: GettaSommaDis. Here’s the link: http://www.zazzle.com/gettasommadis*
Lemon, Garlic, Butter Dipping Sauce for Crab and Shrimp
(Don’t be alarmed if the garlic turns a blue-green color, it doesn’t affect the taste at all, it’s just a weird reaction to the lemon, and strangely festive.)
1 stick of butter
5 large crushed garlic cloves
Juice from 1/2 to one large lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a small sauce pan. Add garlic and saute, but don’t let it brown, then add thheae lemon juice. Put in a little lemon juice at a time – to taste, stirring frequently. Then add salt and pepper to taste and start dipping!
Pasta with Scallops in Curry Cream Sauce
Fill pot with water to cook 1 lb of pasta (fettucine or farfalle)
5 to 6 cloves of garlic crushed
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 generous TBSP. finely chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. dried rosemary (or less)
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
3/4 to 1 lb. of bay scallops (the small ones)
1 tsp. curry powder
3 oz. Sherry
1 pint heavy whipping cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Saute the garlic in the butter-oil mixture over low heat and add the herbs. Add the scallops to the butter-herb mixture and saute until opaque. Remove the scallops from the heat immediately and set aside. Add the sherry to the butter mixture, let it cook down about 5 minutes. (This is a good time to put the pasta in the boiling water.) Next, add the whipping cream. Cook an additional 5 minutes, returning the scallops to the pan for a minute to heat them through. Drain the pasta thoroughly, pour it into the pan with the sauce, thoroughly coating the pasta. Remove it from the pan and serve the pasta with grated cheese. Crushed red pepper is great on it too!