Many of the world’s religions employ some sort of numerology in their rituals, and Christianity is no exception. When it comes to the number of dishes served for Cena della Vigilia (Christmas Eve), however, there is no consensus. In many of Italy’s landlocked regions, three courses are prepared, representing the Three Wise Men, or in the Abruzzo region, where nine dishes are preferred for the Trinity times three and in parts of southern Italy, 12 are served for the number of the apostles. The norm however, seems to be seven dishes.
A traditional Christmas Eve dinner for many people of Italian heritage around the world is the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It is a tradition that goes back thousands of years and consists of at least seven seafood dishes and no meat.
The dishes and the types of fish served for Christmas Eve 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.
These days, an Italian Christmas Eve dinner is still an important family affair; it is never served before 8 or 9 pm and the many courses are enjoyed slowly, one after another, giving people plenty of time for toasts, playful chatting and fun until midnight.
CLASSIC ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE MENU
ITALIAN CHRISTMAS APPETIZERS
Raw Oysters and Raw Clams
Smelts (small fishes that can be fried)
Crabcakes or Oyster Shooters
ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE ENTREES
Mussels and Macaroni
Baccala or dried salt cod
Linguini and Clams
Lobster Ravioli, Fried Shrimp, or Octopus Salad
SERVING SUGGESTIONS FOR ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER
Round the meal out with a classic antipasto of cheeses, olives, red peppers, anchovies, marinated artichoke hearts, and canned tuna.
On the side, serve sauteed spinach or escarole along with a great wine. For dessert, enjoy a classic Italian Panettone, biscotti, or cannoli with an after dinner drink such as Sambuca or Anisette.
Christmas Eve dinner at my house is a bit more simple.
Italian Cheese, Salami, Roasted Peppers, Olives, Sardines
Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto
Makes 8 crab cakes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup red onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup red bell pepper, stem and seeds removed and diced into 1/4-inches pieces
- 1 large egg
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 6 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 3 tablespoons low fat mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
- 1 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- Salt, to taste
- Roasted Red Pepper Pesto, recipe below
In a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Gently cook the onion and red peppers until soft, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.
Pick through the crabmeat and remove any shell or cartilage you may find.
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, Old Bay, and cayenne.
With a rubber spatula, fold in the sautéed vegetables, crabmeat, and Panko or cracker crumbs. Season with salt. Refrigerate mixture for 1/2 hour for flavors to meld and breadcrumbs to absorb some of the liquid.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Divide the crab mixture into 8 portions. Roll each portion into a ball with your hands and place onto a cookie sheet lightly coated with vegetable oil or covered with aluminum foil. Press down gently on each ball to form a cake.
Put cookie sheet into the oven and bake until crab cakes are golden brown on each side, about 20 minutes. Turn the crab cakes over half way through. (Alternatively, you may also fry the crab cakes in oil or butter. About 3 minutes each side.)
Red Pepper Pesto
- 3 red bell peppers
- 3 chili peppers or other medium-heat red chili peppers, seeded
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts or sliced almonds, toasted
- A small handful basil leaves
- 2 sprigs fresh oregano leaves, 1 tablespoon or 1 teaspoon dried
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
- Salt and pepper
- 1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese
- 1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Roast peppers over a flame on stove top or under broiler to blacken the skins all over. Place peppers in bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cool. Peel skins and seed peppers.
Place roasted red peppers and chili peppers in a food processor and add the nuts, basil, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. Add cheese, turn processor on and slowly pour in the olive oil to form a thick sauce.
- 12 oz fresh fettuccine or tagliatelle pasta
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup freshly grated Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, at room temperature, plus extra cheese to pass at the table
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 1 tablespoon Wondra (instant) flour
- Salt and white ground pepper
Boil the pasta cooking water. Add salt and pasta.
If you are using fresh fettuccine, it can cook in as little as 2 minutes (plus the time it takes the water to boil), so have all ingredients and cooking utensils ready.
Stir Wondra into milk
In a pan large enough to hold all the pasta , melt the butter over low heat.
Slowly add the milk and whisk or stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it is hot and slightly reduced. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add the cooked and drained pasta. Mix well. Add cheese and stir carefully.
Defrost a package of frozen peas. Saute in a little olive oil and season with black pepper.
- His fish feast is a large-scale production (hamptonroads.com)