Italy is a country entrenched in tradition and special celebrations. We have to say though, Christmas Eve is likely the most anticipated celebration of the year in most Italian households. In Italy the festivities start at the beginning of December with various Saint days, each having their own special traditions and connection to Christmas. Families gather to play card games or tombola (bingo), eat (a lot!) and spend extra time together.
Preparations begin days in advance for the Christmas Eve feast. Special trips to fish markets will have been made and lots and lots of baking will soon be enjoyed. Christmas Eve supper is typically meatless hence the importance of procuring lots of fresh fish. Some of the favourites include salted cod (baccala), merluzzo (whiting fish), calamari, clams, mussels, salmon and shrimp. Depending on the town of origin, at least 7 or more different dishes will be on the menu (9 in our household). In fact, Christmas Eve is often referred to as “The Feast of the Seven Fishes”. Of course, don’t forget the other food such as pasta with clam sauce, rapini, fennel salad and garden salad. Is it any wonder that we look forward to this day of celebration? But, it doesn’t end there. Warmed panettone sprinkled with icing sugar, roasted chestnuts, torrone, all the yummy biscotti and cookies, fresh persimmons, dried figs, and clementines round out the evening! This is definitely a special time in Italian kitchens!
Remember this is just Christmas Eve. The food fest continues into Christmas Day with an extravagant lunch. A homemade soup, lasagna and a couple of meat dishes fill our bellies after our “light” Christmas Eve dinner (heehee).
The feast of Santo Stefano is December 26 and guess what, we eat more! Boxing Day for us means “tidying up” leftovers. Forget the shopping! Get the picture?!
With Christmas just a few days away, we thought we would share a few traditional Christmas Eve dishes that we will be enjoying this weekend.
The first dish on Christmas Eve is always pasta con vongole, pasta with clam sauce. My mother-in-law makes the best sauce ever. She orders fresh pasta clams and uses good quality canned clams as well. The pasta clams are cooked separately in a “bath” of olive oil, garlic, parsley and white wine before the tomato sauce is added.
Many serve this dish “bianco” meaning without the tomato sauce. Both are delicious.
You have to control yourself not to overeat too much of this first dish so that you can enjoy the rest of the feast but I will tell you it is hard to hold back.
Merluzzo, or whiting fish, is a very common fish that is readily available and inexpensive compared to much of the other fish you can buy. In fact, many immigrants recall this fish being referred to as ‘u mangiare dei poveri’ – poor man’s food. Merluzzo is a wonderfully delicate fish that can be cooked in a number of ways. In this recipe, the merluzzo is poached until just cooked through but still tender then dressed with a simple dressing of extra virgin olive, dried oregano, salt and pepper and topped with a squeeze of lemon juice just before serving. The added cured black olives and pieces of pickled pepper add a fresh pop of flavour to each bite.
Merluzzo is also tasty pan-fried or baked in the oven.
Christmas Eve dinner will always have “baccala” or salted cod.
Baccala is sold in slabs and requires that it be soaked in cold water for a few days, changing the water several times throughout the soaking period.
A simple tomato sauce is first prepared by sautéing chopped onions and garlic, adding crushed tomatoes and some chili flakes. Once the sauce has cooked down for about 30 minutes, the rehydrated cod pieces are added and allowed to simmer until cooked through. You can add some black olives or capers to the sauce too. Some lightly dredge the cod with flour and give it a pan fry until golden before adding to the tomato sauce.
This recipe for me resonates as a traditional Christmas dish and one that I always look forward to.
Well of course we need some vegetable dishes to round out this fish fest and rapini is sure to make an appearance at most Italian Christmas Eve dinners.
I love them simply prepared by placing in salted boiling water just until fork tender and drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil.
Some like to squeeze fresh lemon over top just before eating while others saute garlic slices in extra virgin olive oil until golden and pour over the drained rapini and top off with some chili flakes.
For sure most households are buzzing with Christmas preparations right about now. Hopefully, the presents are bought and wrapped and the baking is done so the fun can begin. The last day or two will be spent making sure we have all the necessary ingredients to prepare our traditional dishes and of course to make sure we have all the goodies we love to indulge in at this time of the year. Don’t forget the Proseco and wine!
At this time, we would like to wish all of you and your families a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year filled with good health and happiness. Enjoy time with family eating lots of good food and telling lots of great stories.
We would love to hear about your family’s Christmas traditions!