Thou Shalt Eat Fish
It’s unusually cold in coastal California—a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit in our little valley with frost blanketing the landscape at night. The horses wintering over in our pasture have grown sturdy winter coats, their collective breath rising like steam from a boiling pot. We’re bundled up and filled with joy as we prepare to spend the first Christmas in with our family since we moved to Italy.
Now that we’re back in the California swing of things, we’re newly aware that there are so many ways to celebrate the holiday season in the U.S. In Martina Franca, our Southern Italian home-away-from-home, Christmas isn’t Christmas without pasta al forno, roasted veal shank, panettone and lots of family. Roasted chestnuts and hot mulled wine are sold in the street, fancy chocolates with even fancier packaging are gifted and marathon bouts of multi-generational tombola (Italian bingo) are hosted at dinner tables everywhere. Italian cultural hegemony is especially pronounced at Christmas—from l’Immacolata (the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary) to l’Epifania (the visit of the Three Kings to the baby Jesus) penetrating all aspects of life.
In California, Christmas isn’t Christmas without tamales for some, baked ham for others or here in California, messy piles of delectable Dungeness crab. And many don’t celebrate Christmas at all, delighting instead in the eight days of Hanukkah, Eid E Milad or Kwanzaa. The diversity is staggering, particularly after the predictable pattern of life in our little Italian town. Americans are as likely to celebrate Christmas Day at their favorite Chinese restaurant with a big bowl of hot and sour soup before a matinee as we would be tucking into a groaning table of food in Italy with second cousins twice-removed in Italy.
Oddly enough, during our years celebrating Christmas in Martina Franca, we never did find anyone who celebrated the Christmas Eve vigil with a meal composed exclusively of seafood. We had always heard of the celebrated Italian Cenone di Sette or Tredici Pesci (Seven or Thirteen Fish Feasts) in the U.S., but it seems that no one in Italy could confirm its existence. Yet most Pugliese families’ Christmas Eve meal includes a wider variety than usual of seafood. And why not? No proper Pugliese would resist a ritualized opportunity to go a little crazy at the fish market. But nobody counts courses, nor is there any particularly significant number of required fish species. We couldn’t find anyone who had ever heard of the notion that the obligatory seven fish courses represent the seven sacraments or thirteen, the apostles, in Catholic ideology. One Italian friend, puzzled, dismissed the concept as “un italo-americanata (an Italian-American thing).”
Numerology aside, a meatless Christmas Eve is ubiquitous in Southern Italy and seafood is always in good taste, judging by the mayhem at fish markets everywhere on December 24th. I’ve been elbowed by more grannies than I can count while trying to catch the eye of our fish seller, Pasquale, amidst the throng. Only after that first Christmas Eve experience did I learn that the fix was already in. Every self-respecting Martina Franca resident had already sewn up the Christmas Eve menu months in advance, negotiating with Pasquale to ensure the very best specimens were pre-selected and held in reserve.
But for Southern Italians, fish, though important, is only a part of the feast. Most families include fritti, the addictive bites of cauliflower, artichokes, broccoli and mushrooms dipped in in an airy batter then deep-fried in olive oil. Insalata di Rinforzo, a briney, multi-colored antipasto salad with broccoli, cauliflower, roasted red peppers and capers, is another staple. There’s almost always some sort of torta salata, usually filled with Swiss chard, ricotta and eggs. And the pasta? There’s never just one on offer. For dessert, if it isn’t fried, it isn’t worth eating. Cartellate are the right choice, either your own or any of the dozens of plates your neighbors give you at this time of year. These seemingly delicate rosettes made from a sturdy dough of flour, white wine and olive oil are also fried in olive oil, then smothered with vino cotto, an intense, sticky reduction of the deep purple, primitivo wine from this region.
Wherever we may be, we have long since adopted a seafood approach to the Christmas Eve vigil meal. But in our zeal to leave no apostle unrepresented, we tend to go a little overboard. From cozze gratinate (breaded, broiled mussels) to the torta della vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve fish pie), we include old favorites but leave room every year for a little innovation. The idea is to stretch the experience over a l-o-n-g evening to make the transition to midnight mass just a little more palatable. The inevitable food coma that results makes for a drowsy religious experience, though, but it’s a small price to pay for all that fishy splendor.
If you’re short on time or just prefer that the Christmas Day dinner serve as the showstopper, here’s an easy way to honor the spirit, if not the precise abundance, of a Seven or Thirteen Fish Vigil meal on December 24th. Behold the brilliance of Zuppa di Pesce, a beautiful bowl of flavor that everybody loves. Prep time is minimal and you can customize the seafood mix to accommodate specific requests. To make sure you are square with the sacraments, keep the seafood species to seven. But if you feel the need to overcompensate, expand your ingredients to thirteen to include the apostles and Jesus. That’s all you’ll need to usher in a joyous Yule.
Zuppa di Pesce—Fish Soup
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 peperoncino (dried, hot red pepper; substitute chiles de arbol if necessary), chopped, or 1 Tbsp. hot red pepper flakes
4 cups canned, imported Italian tomatoes, pureed with juice
2 cups dry white wine
8 Santa Barbara spot prawns (or similar large prawn)
16-20 Manila clams (discard any clams that have broken shells)
16-20 mussels, debearded and rinsed (discard any mussels that have broken shells)
½ lb.shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/2 lbs. firm-fleshed white fish (red snapper, sablefish, halibut, etc.)
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh oregano (or ½ tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh marjoram
4 slices country bread, toasted and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic
In a large soup pot (enameled cast iron pots like Le Creuset are great for this), heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion and celery and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper flakes and sauté for a few more minutes.
Add the pureed Italian tomatoes, wine and oregano and bring to a boil. Add the shellfish and fish, cover, and bring back to the boil. Uncover, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring a few times, until the shellfish have opened (about 5 to 6 minutes). Discard any shellfish that haven’t opened after this time.
Toast the bread on a grill or in the oven. While still hot, rub both surfaces of the bread with a cut clove of garlic.
To serve, lay a slice of bread in each soup bowl. Using a large spoon, lay equal portions of the seafood on the bread in each bowl. Ladle the tomato-y broth over the seafood and bread, sprinkle with the parsley and marjoram and serve right away.
Serves 4 abundantly.
Note: There are as many recipes for Zuppa di Pesce in Italy as there are nonne (grandmas). Feel free to tinker with this one, or ask your Italian relatives/neighbors for the secrets of their own favorite versions. For example, use fish heads and shrimp peelings to make a fish broth, which you can substitute for some of the wine and tomatoes if you like a brothier bowl of soup. Feel free to experiment with seafood, shellfish and herbs, too. Just make sure you enjoy every last slurp-y spoonful while you wait for Santa.