Whether you serve one fish dish or the traditional seven, make Christmas Eve a seafood feast.
In my family, as in many Italian households, we start our Christmas celebrating for real on Christmas Eve. That’s when Jade and I get together with the De Laurentiis side of the family to open presents and share a festive holiday dinner just like those I remember having at my grandfather’s home as a young girl.
For this special meal, tradition rules: you won’t find any turkey or standing rib roast on the menu, no cranberries or stuffing. This celebration is pure Italian, and that means the Feast of Seven Fishes, an observance that was originally intended as a form of fasting before the holiday —just as many Catholics still eat fish rather than meat on Fridays—but is now an excuse to serve fish, shellfish, and other creatures of the sea in a variety of delicious ways. My grandfather always made pasta with clams and shrimp, and he often served bacala, the dried salted cod that is synonymous with Christmas for so many Italian families.
I still carry on this tradition but with my own updated twists. I’ve found, for instance, that not everyone in my clan is a huge fan of bacala—the texture more than the flavor is something of an acquired taste—so I might serve little bacala fritters as an hors d’oeuvre rather than as the main course. And I rarely serve more than three courses; not only is it a lot of work to make all that food, who wants to be weighed down by such a rich, heavy meal when there are presents to open and parties to go to?
This year I’m starting with a passed platter of barbecued buffalo shrimp with a creamy cheese dip to whet everyone’s appetite. Once we move to the table we’ll have a one-pot seafood stew made with a bright tomato sauce and broken pieces of pasta (an homage to my Grandpa Dino’s seafood pasta dishes), and then finish with pan- roasted salmon fillets. A salad and, of course, a dessert or two (or maybe more if it’s up to me) are all that’s needed to finish off the meal. It honors the holiday meals of my childhood in a way that fits how I like to cook and eat now but still reminds me of the happy times we spent together over the years. I hope you’ll want to make one or two a part of your plans this holiday season, too. And why wait for Christmas Eve? These are easy, crowd-pleasing dishes to break out for any dinner party all year long. Buon appetito!