When Brian and I started dating, our first Christmas Eve together was spent with his family. It was a big deal, I recall, with his parents bustling about the kitchen cooking up a storm. Shrimps were peeled, pasta was boiled, and red 'gravy' was bubbling in another pot as slices of calamari awaited their final submersion into that savory sauce. A white box from the bakery, still tied up with string, held the secret of the surprise dessert ending, and it seemed as though chocolates abounded in every corner of the room. These were the final moments of preparation for the Christmas Eve Vigil dinner, also known as the Feast of Seven Fishes. Most widely practiced by families of Italian heritage, this custom stems from the Catholic practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat until midnight strikes the start of Christmas day. During the final hours of this vigil that precedes the birth of Christ, families come together to celebrate the holiday and to dine on an elaborate meal of several seafood dishes, pasta and desserts.
After Brian's father passed, I made a declaration that we would continue this annual holiday tradition in our home every year, in honor of the man who so loved Christmas and who was so devoted to his family, who always went above and beyond to make the holiday enjoyable for all. Most Italian-American families still practice this Christmas Eve repast, as is evidenced by the long lines which extend out the door of the fish markets and continue down the block. It is the perfect venue for gathering the whole family together to celebrate Christmas, dine lavishly, socialize and exchange gifts. There are a lot of theories depicting the significance of seven fishes, as opposed to three or thirty, such as the representation of seven apostles for example. Very small families have scaled back and prepare an ultra-gourmet experience of three or four fishes, but I know many larger families push the fish dishes to nine or even more.
Preparing seven different dishes of seafood, plus the other usual suspects that comprise a meal such as a salad, pasta and desserts may sound overwhelming, but if you approach the meal planning in the same manner you would for any other dinner, the result is no different. You need to start with an appetizer; how about homemade baked clams or oysters Rockefeller? There's your first fish, done. Next you'll need a first course. Lobster bisque? Cesar salad with shrimp? Another fish down. The entrees and pastas follow next, and there are infinite dishes which incorporate the use of seafood, and you have five fishes to go into them. Make an entree whose ingredient list calls for several specimens of seafood, such as a seafood gratin that I made three years ago which utilized shrimp, lobster, scallops and crab. Cheating? Keep the wine flowing and see to it that everybody is feeling very well fed and I assure you nobody will be counting after that. Good thing, because fish just does not work in desserts!
Brian and I take turns each year on which one of us gets to choose the entree and set the tone of the meal. Last year was my turn and I presented this wonderfully rich seafood stuffed manicotti. Hmmm, wonder what he'll elect to prepare this year?
SEAFOOD STUFFED MANICOTTI
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped
1 16 ounce can imported San Marzan plum tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1 cup seafood broth
3/4 pound shrimp, cooked
3/4 pound lobster meat, cooked
1 cup shredded fontina cheese
1/4 cup butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup seafood broth
1 cup shredded fontina cheese
2 tablespoons brandy
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
8 manicotti tubes
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the onion and mushrooms, stir and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the parsley, basil and 1 cup seafood broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combined the shrimp and lobster and 1 cup of fontina cheese. Set aside. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add the manicotti and cook until just al dente. Drain well and set aside.
In another pot, melt the remaining 1/4 cup butter. Add the shallots and cook until softened. Add the flour, cook and stir until bubbly. Slowly and gradually add the milk and the broth, stirring constantly, allowing the mixture to be thickened by the flour between each addition. Remove from heat and add the remaining 1 cup of fontina, the brandy, nutmeg and pepper. Stir until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the mixture.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread half of the tomato sauce over the bottom of a rectangular baking dish. Stuff each manicotti with the seafood mixture. Arrange the stuffed manicotti in a single layer row in the roasting dish on top of the tomato sauce. Pour remaining tomato sauce around, not over, each manicotti. Pour the white cheese sauce over the manicotti, right along the center. Cover with the parmesan or romano cheese and bake for 25 minutes.
Other countries also celebrate the seafood vigil dining extravaganza on Christmas Eve, so the cuisine doesn't always have to be Italian. It can be French or Spanish, for instance. One year I went so far as to plan an entire New Orleans style dinner which included several Cajun appetizers with hurricane drinks, a seafood gumbo, a dessert of a bourbon-pecan yule log served with bananas and butter pecan ice cream, blues-style Christmas tunes on the stereo and holiday colored beads and golden brass instrument ornaments adorning the table. It turned out fabulous and was a fun change of pace. Whatever direction you take, enjoy the good food, the family moments and the holiday memories being created right in your home.
To all of my readers, I wish every one of you and your families a very happy, safe and well-fed holiday. Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale, Merry Christmas!