This year it was my turn to host the Christmas festivities for my family. For a variety of reasons, we didn’t have a huge Christmas celebration, like the days of yore. In days gone by my great aunt hosted a Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve for the whole extended family and we went every year to Western Pennsylvania to enjoy it followed by Christmas Dinner the next day, at my Grandparents house. The feast on Christmas Eve was held in my aunt’s basement and when you walked down there, from the main part of the house, it always smelled so good! Like you were entering a restaurant with so many smells. I remember those warm, happy times spent with my extended family, when everyone was still with us. We will never have those days back and so…
This year I wanted to honor those old and cherished family traditions and memories. I have found often, in my life, that food can bring back the past . One small bite of something or a long forgotten smell, can make the past come swooshing into the present. If only for a second. Since we will be moving in April, I don’t know when the next holiday will be that I can share it with both my mom and my cousin Michelle who both live in Florida. So I decided this was the year to bring back the Feast of the Fishes!
This feast is an Italian American tradition – not celebrated in the motherland, and is derived from a time of abstinence, as it says on Wikipedia: “ in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products—on Fridays and specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil”.
But I must admit, that for me, it was always about the food!
We haven’t done a Feast of the Seven Fishes in my immediate family for years, but it is certainly a tradition that we all enjoyed. So this year, since I was in charge of the menu for Christmas Eve – I decided to bring this tradition back. It was a small gathering this year, only 4 of us, so I decided to do 4 fish courses – including 5 fishes, not the copious amounts of fish dishes from the past, but a revised menu. The menu was dictated by what was available at our local fish store the day before, and what the guests enjoyed from the past. I also wanted to make each course easy to prepare, so that I could enjoy time with my family without being too stressed. Most of these dishes we prepared in between courses together, or while we were eating other courses. So much fun was had in the kitchen with family!
Roberto and I love ceviche, but have never made it at home. In fact it is one of my favorite things, first having fell in love with it in Jamaica on our honeymoon. It is kind of become a “special occasion” dish for us. We had it for our one year anniversary, and most recently for my birthday. So I knew I wanted to make a version of ceviche for this special occasion. I found and used a recipe for Shrimp and Scallop Ceviche from The Ravenous Couple which was excellent. It was the perfect course to enjoy with our champagne toast. The beauty of this dish is how flavorful it is, and also so easy to prepare. It would surely be a hit at any dinner party – elegant, beautiful and fresh.
Next up was Bergensk Fiskesuppe, Bergen Fish Soup. I had received a soup starter from my buddy and Norwegian food blogger Siri, from Transplanted Baker. I was saving it for a special occasion, and this was the perfect one. I added fresh clams to it, and it was very much like a clam chowder, creamy and delicious. Again, with minimal effort. Everyone loved it. All that needed to be added was a bit of cream, water, a splash of wine and the clams. Bring to a boil and serve. Perfect and delicious! I am going to have to get Siri to send me some more!
The third course was Zeppole con Alici. These are basically Italian donuts. However, there is a surprise stuffed inside these Calabrase zeppole or zippoli – they are not sweet like donuts, but savory, and filled with anchovies! I grew up with these, and they were the treat that everyone in my family looked forward to the most at my aunt’s Christmas Eve dinners. Since I entered the world of food blogging, I had seen various recipes for zeppole, but never our anchovy filled ones, until one day, I read my friend Michelle’s post on Bleeding Espresso . Then again last year, here . Apparently Zeppole con Alici, or anchovy filled zeppole are common among the Calabrese, and she grew up in PA with them as a child too. Michelle and I have a lot in common besides being born in PA and growing up with Calabrese relatives! But this post was a revelation to me! Finally a life long mystery solved! Especially since my Italian husband had never heard of these! He loves them now too!
Although my great aunt never did give away her secret recipe, my mom did a bit of recon this year, and found a recipe for zeppole dough. Although you can use Michelle’s – it is pretty much the same one – except her’s has a splash of wine added…yum….We had a great time making zeppole – all of us got in on the action, me, my mom, cousin Michelle and Roberto! Even the pups and cat were excited, smelling all the anchovies. These turned out differently than the zeppole of our youth, but were still delicious. So good in fact that we ate the entire plate of them!
The next course was the main dish, a Stuffed Flounder prepared by my mom. She made a stuffing of toasted pine nuts, bread crumbs, Italian parsley, and capers. Then used it to stuff rolled fresh flounder fillets. You then bake them in some white wine, until flaky. We served this with an easy spinach salad. They were delicious – an easy and great way to make fish. I will certainly do it again in the future.
The last dish was dessert – Trifle with an Italian Twist and no fish included. A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of the Barefoot Contessa and she was making a holiday meal for a blogger – for her blog (lucky girl). For dessert she made a Red Berry Trifle with a cognac pastry cream, and it looked delicious and festive. I adore trifles – well any desserts made up of cream and custard is a winner in my book! So I decided to make a version of her trifle, except with more Italian flavors. Instead of cognac cream, I made frangelico cream. I also put frangelico in my whipped cream, and skipped the sugar. I also skipped the strawberries, opting for full on raspberries and sprinkled it with more frangelico instead of framboise. And I opted for Pandoro – which is a plain version of Panettone, in lieu of pound cake . Pandoro is usually served this time of year in Italy. The trifle was delicious. So delicious that my cousin, Michelle, who vows that “eating any dessert not made with chocolate is a waste”, ate every bite and loved it!
We had a really great night, full of laughter, and good times! This is how I remember Christmas Eve’s of yore and so I guess it all worked out!