It is tradition that the Sicilians (and many Italians) have a seven fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Some think that each fish represents a day of the week, but most traditions come from the observance of the Cena della Vigilia (the dinner of the vigil), the wait for the birth of Christ in which early Christians fasted on Christmas Eve. Other theories include: the number represents the three Wise Men or the Holy Trinity, or in some areas, there may be as many as thirteen fishes, one for each of the apostles plus one for Jesus. Each family and each region in Italy are different and it also depends on what kind of fish is available. In most of the southern coastal regions in Italy and Sicily, seafood is abundant and so it makes sense to include fish in the menu for this festive day. The dishes and the types of fish served for La Vigilia are ultimately dictated by geography. In Naples, for instance, the devout leave certain treats on the table overnight for the angel who heralds Christ’s birth; for this reason, many dishes are vinegar-based to preserve them. Around Lake Como in the north, large trout, which are only fished during the holiday season, are common.

In America, one can find a variety of fish to celebrate the feast according to his or her tradition. Just before Christmas, markets in New York’s Italian neighborhoods, for instance, stock up on a variety of Mediterranean and Adriatic products, such as triglia or red mullet; seppie called cuttlefish or inkfish in English (similar to squid but with a rounder body and thicker flesh); cicale a relative of shrimp; langostino a small, spiny lobster; tiny vongole or clams; baby eels for frying; fresh sardines and fresh anchovies. In my fish market located in Florida, Italian fish varieties are abundant this time of year.

While this Italian American Christmas Eve dinner menu does not include seven fishes, it is a menu in the spirit of the Sicilian Christmas Eve tradition.

Appetizers

Serve with Garlic Bread

Roasted Peppers and Anchovies

Ingredients

  • 12 oil-packed anchovy filets
  • 6 jarred roasted red bell peppers, skins, stems and seeds removed, cut into large strips
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

Alternately, lay anchovy filets and strips of roasted pepper on a serving platter in one layer. Combine parsley and garlic on a cutting board and finely chop together; sprinkle parsley-garlic mixture evenly over anchovies and peppers. Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper; let sit 10 minutes before serving to allow flavors to blend.

Sicilian Eggplant Caponata

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut in 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 6 ripe plum tomatoes, chopped (or 1 large can crushed tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup chopped green olives
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon capers, chopped

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a large enameled or stainless steel pot and mix well. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. You can cook this over low heat uncovered for about an hour, or cover it and cook over very low heat for several hours. The slow stewing method blends the flavors and the caponata is great reheated. This is an easy dish to make ahead of time.

First Course

Linguine with Clams and Chiles

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pasta, preferably linguine
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 hot chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced crosswise
  • Littleneck clams (about 30-36), scrubbed clean
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until just al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water and set aside.

Heat oil in a 12″ skillet with a cover over medium heat and add garlic and half the chiles; cook, stirring often, until garlic is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add clams and wine, increase heat to high and cook, covered, swirling pan occasionally, until clams open and release their juices, 5–10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer clams to a bowl; set aside.

Bring sauce to a boil over high heat and add reserved cooked pasta and 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid. Cook, tossing pasta occasionally, until sauce clings to the pasta, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle in some more of the pasta cooking water, if the pasta seems dry. Add 2 tablespoons parsley, season with salt and toss to combine.

Transfer pasta to a serving bowl, arrange clams over pasta and pour any clam juices from the plate over pasta. Drizzle pasta with more olive oil and garnish with remaining chiles and parsley.

Second Course

Serve with Broccoli Rabe or other green vegetable.

Swordfish with Tomatoes and Fennel

Ingredients

  • 2 ( 3/4 – to 1-pound) swordfish steaks
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 pound whole cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons slivered basil leaves

Directions

Pat the swordfish steaks dry with a paper towel on both sides. Season each side with a pinch each of salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat the olive oil, garlic and fennel seeds in a skillet with a cover over medium heat until the garlic softens and becomes fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Lay the swordfish steaks on top of the garlic and fennel seeds and cook until they turn white on the cooked side, 5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and cook another 5 minutes.

Add the white wine and tomatoes, cover the pan tightly and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the swordfish is easily penetrated with a skewer or paring knife. Timing will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks — thin steaks may take less than 5 minutes while very thick steaks may take as long as 15 minutes.

Remove the lid and transfer the swordfish to a heated platter. Increase the heat under the skillet to high and cook until the liquid in the pan reduces to a syrupy sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in the basil leaves and pour the sauce over the swordfish steaks.

Dessert

Struffoli

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup honey
  • Rainbow (multi-colored) sprinkles
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

Heat 2″ of cooking oil in a deep pan until its very hot.

Place flour and salt into a large bowl. Make a well (indentation) in the center of the flour and add the eggs one at a time, mixing slightly after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and mix well to make a soft dough. Turn dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until soft and elastic.

Divide dough into halves and lightly roll each half 1/4 inch thick to form a rectangle. Cut dough with a pastry cutter into strips 1/4″ wide. Use the palm of your hand to roll strips to pencil thickness. Cut into pieces about 1/4″ to 1/2″ long.

In the heated oil, fry only as many pieces of dough as will float one layer deep for 3 to 5 minutes or until lightly browned, turning occasionally. Scoop out with a slotted spoon or spider and let the oil drain before removing and then place fried dough pieces on several paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

In a different pan heat the honey until it is hot. Add in the drained fried dough pieces. Stir constantly and carefully until all the pieces are coated. Remove, place in a bowl and keep it in the refrigerator to cool slightly. Remove and decorate with the sprinkles.

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