My First Christmas Eve Away – How I Survived

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.

My nephew, Marc being blindfolded for the taste-test. We take our blind tasting very seriously.

My nephew, Marc being blindfolded for the pasta sauce taste-test. My brothers often do a blind tasting to poll whose sauce is best – not that we’re competitive or anything.

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.

Sweet Mr. B, Lois and Claire - excellent Christmas Eve companions.

Sweet Mr. B, Lois and Claire – excellent Christmas Eve companions.

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.

Shrimp in garlic, butter, lemon sauce - worth whatever you have to do to hold onto the shrimp.

Shrimp in garlic, butter, lemon dip – my favorite.

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.

Pasta with Scallops in Curry Cream sauce -- my favorite on Christmas Eve.

Pasta with Scallops in Curry Cream sauce — my favorite on Christmas Eve.

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:*

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!

16 thoughts on “My First Christmas Eve Away – How I Survived

  1. Pingback: It's Not the House, It's the Family – At Fran's Table

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  5. Okay, it’s been Well over a month, but i finally got a chance to read this one.
    This recipe sounds unbelievably delicious!!
    Thank you. And, as usual, i Love reading your stories.
    Your words make me smile, (and you make me Hungry!)

  6. I am so happy for you that you will actually be back with your family for the holidays (and I am envious)! Your loyal readers will expect exciting blog updates of flying calamari rings, baccala taste test winners and so on… If we both find ourselves in the same town next year, I smell a new Christmas Eve tradition in the making! P.S. Does your family make the baccala as a cold ‘salad’ or a hot dish? Happy holidays to you and the whole Tunno family!!

    • My uncle makes it and it’s hot. He makes it with a tomato sauce and it’s delicious. As for me, three days of soaking a fish is a bit much…but one of these days I’ll try it. Yes, it would be fun to share fish with you!

  7. I always love your blog and recipes! This will be the first Christmas that I will have my 3 grown sons and all my grandchildren together! I plan on making your recipe for the Pasta and Scallops in curry cream sauce. I need something different! Thanks, Fran!

  8. Well, you won’t need to survive anything this Christmas because you will be HERE! As you guys know, I was never into the “seven fishes, but give me a plain fillet like a cod, orange Roughy or Tilapia & I am “there!” Good one. Later, gourmet kid!

  9. Great post! I can’t wait to try the recipe. I am from Ohio and live in Florida with my husband so we are usually with his family for holidays and I miss my family and traditions sadly when I offered to add a tradition is was not taken very well:( by my in laws. So I have two days the holiday with them and then the day after I do my traditions at home (when we aren’t going to visit my family). I have never heard of the tradition of fish but it’s sounds like I need to add it!

    • Awww, I completely get it! It’s hard when you can’t include something of your own. The fish thing is great. It’s probably the only time of the year I deliberately make cream sauce, so I figure it won’t kill me (or will kill me very slowly). I wish you luck on your new tradition. (Maybe if you show up with an appetizer plate of shrimp with Lemon Butter Garlic dip, they could be persuaded. You never know! Stay in touch and let me know how it goes! And thanks for writing!

  10. Nice article but that cream sauce will kill you:) Bernie Tunno   PresidentTunno Insurance 330 758-6697 From: At Fran’s Table To: Sent: Monday, December 15, 2014 3:55 PM Subject: [New post] My First Christmas Eve Away – How I Survived #yiv3962374111 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv3962374111 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv3962374111 a.yiv3962374111primaryactionlink:link, #yiv3962374111 a.yiv3962374111primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv3962374111 a.yiv3962374111primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv3962374111 a.yiv3962374111primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv3962374111 | Fran Tunno posted: “I just read an article in the LA Times about an Austrian chef who re-creates Christmas dinners like they do 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 w” | |

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