Christmas is a time of year that is full of tradition. In my family growing up, Christmas wasn’t just one day, but an entire season full of spending time with family and eating different foods. The festivities culminated with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Fish was (and remains) the food that plays a central role for the Christmas holiday. For many Italian families like mine, on Viglia di Natale (Christmas Eve), it’s about La Festa dei Sette Pesci (The Feast of the Seven Fish), where we serve seven types of fish (along with lots of other side dishes), typically served in one at a time in seven different courses. La Festa dei Sette Pesci is common in Italy, particularly in southern Italy where my family came from. The tradition draws its roots from our Christian faith around abstinence, or refraining from eating dairy or meat products on Friday or holidays, including Christmas time. Instead, fish was eaten, typically fried in oil, baked or served with pasta.
The reason seven fish are served tie back to Christian tradition as well, specifically to the frequency at which number seven is referred to in the Bible, with seven representing perfect completion. Baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas represents this perfect completion, and seven fish are served for this reason. Seven, however, has evolved to many different numbers– 9, 11, 13, etc., so many families serve more. It makes for a longer meal and more time with family and friends!
The fish can be any type of fish, including baccala, scungilli salad, calamari salad, baked cod, stuffed baked lobster, and many other types. In my family, La Festa dei Sette Pesci usually consists of fried smelts, shrimp cooked scampi style with pasta and/or fried shrimp, baked scallops with breadcrumbs, fried grey of sole, haddock prepared pizza aeola style (see Episode 5: Pizza Aeola), and the two recipes we share in this episode: clams casino and calamari ripieni (stuffed calamari) in tomato sauce served with spaghetti.
I usually serve clams casino as an appetizer, but it can also be served a main course. It’s an incredibly simple recipe, which only takes about 15 minutes to make. The ingredients you need to make 6-7 clams on a half shell include: 1.5 pounds of fresh minced clams, 1 cup of seasoned breadcrumbs (see Episode 1- Classic Tomato Sauce and Meatballs for how to make the breadcrumbs), 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, and oregano.
Spread out your half shells on a baking sheet. Evenly distribute the 1.5 pounds of minced clams across the shells, including some of the clam “juice” in the shell. Add the olive oil to the breadcrumbs and mix thoroughly. Once mixed, spread breadcrumbs on top of the clams, covering the entire surface of clams. Next, spoon some tomato sauce on top of the breadcrumbs, then spread it out with a fork evenly over the surface. Sprinkle oregano on each and then place in the oven on a broil at 375 for about 10 minutes. Once golden brown on top, you’re done! Serve hot.
Calamari ripieni in tomato sauce
Calamari (or squid) is a common type of seafood used in Italian cuisine, particularly in Sicily where the culture and cuisine is so tied to the Mediterranean Sea. There are many different ways to prepare it: fried, marinated in a salad, al forno, among others. My favorite is in tomato sauce and served with pasta. The calamari provide a rich, unique flavor to the sauce. I also stuff some of the calamari, bake it in the oven (al forno) and then add it to the sauce as well. You can serve it al forno style without adding it to the sauce, which is the way I typically make it, but my family likes it in the sauce as well, which is what I’m going to show you today.
The ingredients you will need for calamari ripieni in the tomato sauce are: 1 pound of fresh calamari (the whole calamari), 1/4 cup of olive oil, 1 cup of seasoned breadcrumbs, 28 ounce can of tomato sauce, 1 clove of garlic, a 1/4 of a white onion, 1 celery stalk (the inside, tender stalks in the celery bunch), salt and pepper.
Start off by cleaning your calamari thoroughly. Most fish markets sell the calamari already cleaned, but you want to make sure you check it over, washing it and removing any additional parts that may have been missed. Once cleaned, get the long, tubular bodies of the squid and cut with a scissors into about 1/2 inch sections. Cut up the tentacles as well. Place these sections aside for now. You will be adding these sections to the tomato sauce.
Use about 4-5 (or more if you prefer) of the tubular body sections to stuff. Mix the olive oil with the breadcrumbs and mix thoroughly. Stuff the breadcrumbs into the calamari, making sure you get it well-packed. You need to seal the top of the calamari so the stuffing doesn’t fall out, so pin it shut using a toothpick. Place the stuffed calamari into a casserole dish, and set aside.
Prepare the tomato sauce by heating a sauce pan on medium heat with some olive oil covering the bottom of the pan. Once heated, add the clove of garlic (whole is fine, but you can also mince it), along with the white onion diced up. Saute the onions until translucent. Once done, add in the tomato sauce, a bit of water, and sprinkle in salt and pepper. Let the sauce simmer for about 10 minutes.
Next, add the sliced up calamari rings and tentacles to the tomato sauce. Slice up the tender celery stalk into small, diced pieces and add to the tomato sauce as well. The calamari needs only 3-5 minutes to cook, and you don’t want to overcook it since it can become rubbery. So watch it carefully! Once cooked, set aside.
Next, take some of the tomato sauce and spread it over the stuffed calamari in the casserole dish. Place it in the oven at 375 degrees for about 10-15 minutes. You can tell it’s done when you can stick a fork through it easily. Once done, remove from the oven and place in the tomato sauce.
Cook your spaghetti (or if you prefer linguine or fettuccini, you can use that instead) al dente. Add the calamari sauce to the pasta and spread it evenly throughout. Serve topped with grated pecorino romano or parmiggiano cheese. The calamari tomato sauce is best served right away for the best flavor.
Clams casino and calamari ripieni in tomato sauce served with spaghetti are just two of the types of fish you can make for Christmas Eve. I hope that you will give them a try and make it part of your Christmas tradition.
From my family to yours, I wish you a heartfelt Buona Natale or Merry Christmas!