Here’s a traditional holiday feast that one of us grew up with and the other desperately wishes she did. There’s always something magical about the number seven, and any reason to make an exorbitant number of courses appeals to us as well. And how irresistible is the image of oceanic abundance, with enough leeway to make it fit your own personal tastes? This Italian Christmas Eve dinner originates in the Catholic practice of “fasting,” which in the Italian tradition translates to eating an abundance of fish rather than meat on days preceding holy days (such as Fridays). Here it’s taken to an extreme in honor of Christmas’s high holiday status. It’s unclear where the number seven originated from and many Italian families often serve as many as 13 dishes: 12 for the apostles and one for Jesus. Jeannine’s Nonna’s much-anticipated annual feast included linguine with clams, shrimp and scallop fettuccine alfredo, baccala or salted cod, pan fried smelts, fried calamari and fritto misto. We’ve given you three great recipes, and if you’re going for the magical number seven, you can fill in the rest with your own seafood favorites, or serve some simple appetizers such as toasted pita triangles with good Greek taramasalata, blini with salmon roe, or smoked salmon piled on pumpernickel squares with good butter and a squeeze of lemon. Buon appetito!
Adapted from Mario Batali
Don’t be put off by the list of ingredients: the most difficult part of this recipe is assembling them, as the technique and execution couldn’t be simpler. Batali’s original recipe calls for 2 pounds of jumbo shrimp, but if you can’t find those, large or even medium shrimp will work just as well. The dry Marsala is the one ingredient that can’t be skipped or substituted. We served it with a simple rice pilaf, but any starch to soak up the fragrant sauce would be welcome.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 rib celery with leaves, diced
¾ cup diced tomatoes
1 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp currants
2 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
1 cup dry marsala wine
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1½ pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large sauté pan with a cover, heat olive oil over medium-high heat, and sauté onion and celery, stirring, until translucent but not browned. Add tomatoes, pine nuts, currants, capers, marsala and spices, and simmer for five minutes. Add shrimp, in one layer as much as possible, cover and lower heat to low or medium low, cooking for another five minutes or so. Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and let it sit for five more minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Linguine with Clams
This classic is a real crowd-pleaser and couldn’t be easier to prepare. We used littleneck clams from our local fishmonger but you can also use New Zealand cockles or Manila clams. Serve with bread for dipping.
3 dozen littleneck clams or 1 pound New Zealand cockles
1 pound linguine
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tbsp unsalted butter
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup dry white wine
Juice of half a lemon
½ cup plus 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Soak the clams in cold salted water so they release any traces of sand. Rinse clams under cold water and place the clean clams in a bowl. Discard any clams that are open or have cracked shells.
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the garlic, shallots and red pepper flakes and sauté until golden. Add the clams, white wine and parsley. Cover the pan and shake the pan over the flame every couple of minutes until the clams open, about 5 minutes. They are done as soon as the shells open. Squeeze half a lemon over the clams.
While the clams are cooking, cook the linguine in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain, then combine pasta with clams and sauce in pan. Simmer pasta and clam sauce together for a minute. Sprinkle with some fresh parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.
Calamari Stew with Chickpeas
We love cooking with squid for its versatility and affordability. Added bonus: it also happens to be one of the most sustainable seafoods. This is a hearty, spicy stew that can be made a few hours ahead of time, a godsend when you’re cooking multiple seafood dishes. It also doubles easily to serve a crowd.
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ pound squid, cleaned and cut into ½ inch rings
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, chopped
½ tsp pimenton (smoked paprika)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
¼ cup parsley, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
In a heavy saucepan or dutch oven heat ¼ cup olive oil. Add onions and garlic, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium high heat for 3 minutes. Add chickpeas and cook for a few minutes until golden. Add pimenton and chili flakes. Add white wine and cook for 5 minutes or until about ⅓ of it has cooked off. Add tomatoes and parsley and bring to a simmer. Cook covered for 5 minutes.
Add squid and cook covered until squid is tender, about 1 hour. Taste and adjust for salt. Serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil and plenty of crusty bread.