Sunday, December 18, 2011

La Vigilia

Welcome to our Feast of the Seven Fishes.  We saved a place for you at the table! 

The end of the year holidays hold so many family traditions.  One of the more interesting ones for me is La Vigilia, or more commonly known as the Italian "Feast of the Seven Fishes."  There's no right or wrong way to do this feast.  Some Italian families do seven fishes, one dish for each fish, each fish made with a different technique.  Other families just do three, some go overboard with twelve.  Some families simply serve a meatless dinner with vegetarian and fish dishes served buffet style.

Last year, the kids made origami fish to hang over the table.

What follows is a combination of traditional foods and some of my favorites.


In the United States, calamari springs to mind when people think of Italian seafood dishes.  It is almost ubiquitous as a side dish at restaurants.

My mother used to serve fried calamari, shrimp cocktail and spaghetti with marinara sauce on Christmas Eve.  I tolerated the calamari, which was always heavily breaded and rubbery.

Funny story....I would always bring boyfriends home for Christmas Eve dinner.  None of them ever ate the calamari.  When I brought my last boyfriend up to meet my parents at Christmas, he ate the calamari and complimented my mother on it.  I thought he was being polite.  He drove us back home after Christmas Eve mass and my mother went into the kitchen for her usual post-midnight snack of cold, fried calamari, right out of the fridge.  There stood my boyfriend, over her shoulder, picking at the calamari with her.  I knew right then he was a keeper.  I married him a few years later.

My grandmother chose to put it in her spaghetti sauce.

You see, the secret to cooking tender calamari is to either cook it quickly (less than 2 minutes) or cook it slowly (30 minutes to an hour.)  The other rule of thumb is to mind the size of your squid.  Over six inches long, not counting the tentacles, is the best sort of stewing or braising calamari.  You have the best chance of harvesting the ink sacs from a larger calamari.  The ink is used as a popular sauce in Spanish cooking.  It is also used to color pasta.  It is a bit on the bitter side.  My grandmother wanted nothing to do with the ink sacs!

There are generally two ways to make fried calamari--the dry method or the wet method.  The key to both is to have the oil hot and ready to go and to pay attention that you don't cook the rings and tentacles longer than two minutes.

I prefer a marinated calamari.  Calamari does not have much of a taste of its own, so it requires a sauce or marinade for flavor.  Clean the calamari.  You'll note a sort of cartilage spine (it looks like clear plastic) running up the side of the body.  Remove that with your hands or tweezers.  Simply cut the small calamari into rings and tentacles and drop in boiling water FOR JUST ONE MINUTE.  Drop into an ice bath to stop the cooking and than place in a marinade of your choice.  A vinaigrette would work perfectly.  Chill for at least an hour or two before serving over a salad or pasta.

Polpo (Octopus)

I discovered the glories of octopus only a few years ago.   Octopus is very easy to cook.  Again, mind the size.  Baby octopus fit in the palm of your hand and can be simmered (not quite a full boil) in minutes.  A medium sized octopus (12-16 oz...about the size of your forearm) can be simmered in 30 minutes to an hour.  Anything larger than that requires more time.  Here's a good site with all the details.

After cooking, reserve the broth!  The octopus itself can either be marinaded in a vinaigrette or added to risotto, or grilled quickly to add a char to the skin.  There are a variety of methods you can use to finish.  You will find that octopus is meatier and tasty than calamari.

Baby octopus cooking quickly in lightly salted water.  Note the color of the broth.  Very rich!
After cooking, I marinade the octopus in olive oil, lemon juice, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, orange zest, fresh chopped fennel, salt, ground fennel seed, oregano, rosemary, and black olives.  I prefer kalamata.  Put in the fridge for an hour or two.
Finish up with clementine slices for a refreshing anti-pasto salad.

Linguini with Clams

Every Italian meal has a pasta course.  That doesn't mean you have to.  If you don't like pasta or can't eat it, either skip that course or substitute polenta with shrimp and tomato sauce (an Italian version of that southern dish, shrimp and grits.)  But we go for the traditional linguini with clams.

I use little neck clams for this one.  You can use bigger clams if you'd like.  My recipe is stolen from Mario Batali who stole it from his grandmother...and as with all good stealable recipes, it couldn't be simpler.  Linguini is long, thin and flat (spaghetti is long and round) and idea for a thin sauce.

1. Cook the pasta in salt water until almost al dente, which means that you'll be able to move it around with a spoon, but if you bite into it, there's still a little bit of crunch.  Drain and set aside.

2. Dump the pasta water from the pot and put in a bit of olive oil, some sliced cloves of garlic (I'm being deliberately vague on how much to put in,) a cup of lemon juice and a cup of white wine.  Put in the clams.  The rule of thumb here is 3-4 clams per person.  This won't be the only dish and we don't want to stuff our guests.  Simmer until they open.

3. When the open, add the pasta and let it finish cooking (30-60 seconds) and add a bit more olive oil, salt, pepper, and a cup and a half of chopped Italian parsley.  If you only have curly parsley, just chop it finer.  Stir together and serve.  You may want bread to sop up the remaining sauce...or just lick the plate. We're not fussy.

Yes, that's an antique fish service.

An aside might be tempted to add cheese to this dish.  Don't.  That would be a crime against nature in this region of Italy.  Alfredo sauce with shrimp?  Never heard of it.


My mother's family is from Le Marche in Italy.  The provence runs from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic Sea.  My family is from Venarrota, in the mountains, near the ancient town of Ascoli Piceno.  It was in San Benedetto where my cousins introduced me to Brodetto.  After spending a blustery, rainy October day searching through hillside mausoleums for family ancestors, we drove down to the Adriatic coast.  It was 10 degrees warmer.  You could still taste a bit of summer in the sea air.  We sat down to a lovely dinner that featured the regional dish.

My cousin, Alessandra Capriotti and her adorable husband, Alessandro Marini.  They are life long members of the Brodetto Fan Club!
After tasting this regional variation on a classic fish stew, I realized that this dish alone could solve my Vigilia dilemma!  How do you serve 7 fishes without killing yourself in the kitchen?  Put most or all of them into one, tasty dish!  Oh, and use the delicious broth from the octopus, too.  You'll be glad you did.

Brodetto recipes abound on the Internet.  There are multiple variations up and down the Adriatic coast.   But it's all very simple.  Saute some aromatics: onions, sliced fennel, and celery.  (Note that there is no garlic in this recipe.  This region tends to use either onions or garlic, but rarely both together.  Add two cans (drained) of crushed or whole tomatoes.  The root word of "brodetto" is "brodo," which means "broth." So add about two cups of the broth from the simmered octopus.  If you don't have that, any fish broth or vegetable broth will do.

The brodetto base can simmer while you serve other courses.  We normally like to serve the octopus salad first, then linguini with clam sauce second.  As the diners finish the second plate, I rush into the kitchen to finish off the brodetto.

You can use whatever shellfish and fish combination you'd like, but to avoid overcooking anything, here's what you do:

1. Toss langostines or lobster tail into the broth until cooked through-- about 8 minutes.  Remove and place in a bowl.

Old "black eyes."  Yummy langostine.  All the flavor of lobster without the huge expense and risk of injury.

2. Toss whatever bivalves you are using--clams, mussels, scallops--into the broth for 6-8 min or until they are opened.  As they open, remove and place in the bowl with the other shellfish.

3. Put bite sized pieces of other fish into the broth and cook for about 6-8 minutes.  Try and get them as uniform as you can so that they cook evenly.  Do not stir or you will break them down.  Add the shellfish to the broth, remove from heat and serve right away.

Main Course

Obviously, you can serve anything you'd like for a main course.  I'd like to make a pitch for a fish that few people serve.  Skate.  Skate comes from the wing of a ray fish.  These fish are sustainable and the filet is quite economical.  If you have a reliable fishmonger, I recommend it.  Short of that, any flash frozen, wild caught fish or local fish will do.

Roasted skate wing with sauteed brussels sprouts and chestnuts.
That's it.  Seven fishes in one dish or one, several course meal.  Your choice!  If you want to be absolutely traditional, you will skip dessert until after Midnight Mass.  My mother remembers after Mass, everyone opening their doors to invite people in for meat and desserts--all the things you couldn't eat while fasting during Advent.   The party would last all night long.   But properly paced, this meal can be finished in plenty of time to either get kids to bed early, make it to Christmas Eve services, or in time for a 9:30 pm movie showtime.

If you're feeling ecumenical, this year, Christmas falls in the middle of Chanukah.  Add some of the dishes to your Chanukah celebration, Italiano style!   Whatever you are celebrating, I hope it's merry and full of family, friends and good food.  That is the wish of any Italian for anyone.