Joy and tradition blend in Italy on Christmas Eve Seafood: The simple fish dinner that was originally one step away from a fast has evolved into a lavish meal.

December 17, 1997|By Michele Scicolone | Michele Scicolone,EATING WELL

In humble apartments and grand houses of southern Italy, families feast in sumptuous style on Christmas Eve. These incredible meals, like most holiday traditions in Italy, are informed by the national religion, Catholicism. Christmas Eve is the last day of Advent, a month-long period of preparation for the birth of Christ. As a reminder of the significance of the date, Catholics traditionally abstained from eating meat, one step away from fasting. Over the centuries, however, the humble fish dinner served on Christmas Eve, known as Il Cenone, became a lavish feast, albeit meatless -- a sort of compromise between the solemnity and the joyousness of the occasion.

The recipes that follow are based on the traditions and flavors that my grandparents brought from Naples almost 100 years ago. Though most of the dishes are as appealing today as they were then, I have updated them and reduced the fat. Even my grandmothers would love them. So pull up to the table and experience the incomparable spirit of Christmas Eve in Italy.

Seafood Salad

Makes about 4 cups, for 8 servings


6 cups water

5 stalks celery

1 medium onion, peeled and quartered

1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar

1 bay leaf

1 pound cleaned squid

1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 pound scallops

1 pound mussels, debearded and scrubbed

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley, preferably Italian flat-leaf


3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

pinch of crushed red pepper

salt to taste

8 radicchio leaves

8 Boston lettuce leaves

8 lemon wedges

To cook seafood:

In a large pot, combine water, 1 stalk celery, onion, vinegar and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.

Add squid to broth and cook just until opaque, 30 seconds to 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a colander and rinse under cold water. Separate tentacles from bodies and cut in half if large. Slice bodies into 1/2-inch rings. Place in a large bowl.

Add shrimp and scallops to broth and cook until shrimp are pink and scallops are opaque, 1 to 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to colander; drain and add to squid.

Reserve 1 cup broth; discard remaining broth and solids. Return reserved broth to pot. Bring to a boil over high heat.

Add mussels, cover and steam for 2 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally. Begin checking mussels; as they open, transfer them to colander. Total steaming time will be 4 to 7 minutes. Discard any unopened mussels.

Strain broth through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth into bowl with reserved seafood. Set several mussels aside in the refrigerator for garnish. Shell remaining mussels and add to seafood. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Cut remaining celery into 1/2-inch slices. Place in a small bowl and toss with parsley; cover and refrigerate.

To make dressing and assemble salad:

In a large bowl, whisk lemon juice, oil, garlic and lemon zest. Season with crushed red pepper and salt. Add reserved celery mixture and seafood, with juices. Mix well. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning, adding more salt and lemon juice if needed.

Line 8 salad plates with radicchio and lettuce. Divide salad among plates, spooning dressing over seafood. Garnish with reserved mussels in shells and lemon wedges.

Per serving: 155 calories; 21 grams protein; 5 grams fat (0.8 gram saturated fat); 5 grams carbohydrate; 165 mg sodium; 191 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fiber.

Roasted Red Snapper with Raisins, Rosemary and Pine Nuts

Makes 8 servings

4 small whole red snappers or sea bass, cleaned (about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 pounds each)

1 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, plus sprigs for garnish

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup white-wine vinegar

1/3 cup water

1/3 cup pine nuts

Note: Six red snapper fillets, weighing about 3 to 3-1/2 pounds total, can be used in place of the whole fish. Stack the fillets in pairs, sandwiching the raisin-rosemary stuffing between them.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a large roasting pan or coat it with nonstick spray.

Rinse fish well and pat dry. Place in prepared pan. Stuff 1/2 cup raisins inside fish. Sprinkle insides with rosemary, oil, salt and pepper. Combine vinegar and water and pour over fish. Sprinkle pine nuts and remaining 1/2 cup raisins over the top.

Roast fish for 25 to 35 minutes, or until opaque near the bone.

Transfer fish to a large platter, spooning raisins, pine nuts and pan juices over the top. Garnish with rosemary sprigs. Fillet fish at the table, spooning garnishes and juices over the plated fish.

Per serving: 230 calories; 30 grams protein; 8 grams fat (1.3 grams saturated fat); 18 grams carbohydrate; 95 mg sodium; 53 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fiber.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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