How does your family celebrate Christmas? Is there a special meal involved, or a beloved tradition passed down from one generation to the next? This month, bloggers in the Italian Food Wine and Travel group share their holiday highlights, some old, some new, that make the season bright. As our name implies, we love to talk about food and wine, which is perfect for this month’s theme. After all, much of December’s magic arrives in the form of tasty treats, appetizing aromas, and beautiful bottles!
Would you like to join the conversation? We’d love to hear about your own special plans for the holiday feast. We will gather via Twitter this Saturday, December 2nd, at 11 am ET to learn about each other’s favorite recipes and what makes them so. All you have to do is type #ItalianFWT into the search box, then select the “Latest” button. You’ll see all our tweets in real time. Jump into the chat if you’ve got something to say; just remember to add #ItalianFWT to your tweets.
Here’s what the gang will be talking about on Saturday:
Katarina from Grapevine Adventures brings us “Sparkling Wine All Through the Christmas Dinner with D’Araprì Winery.”
Tracy from The Traveling Somm shares “Tis the Season for Barolo.”
Lynn Gowdy from Savor the Harvest adds “A Vin Santo Holiday”
Jill Barth from L’Occasion writes “A Romantic Italian Christmas At Home.”
Susannah from Avvinare has written about “Prosecco DOCG and Chianti Rufina, Wines for the Christmas Feast.”
Gwendolyn from Wine Predator presents “Christmas in Tuscany, California Style.”
Here at The Swirling Dervish we’re exploring the “Feast of the Seven Fishes and Wines to Match.”
Italian and Irish Traditions – An Unexpected Crossover
There are many family culinary traditions that I carry with me today – my Mom-mom’s homemade strawberry ice cream on Mother’s Day; lima beans (that my sister and I helped shell) every August; fresh-caught shad and its roe in the spring. But our Christmas dinners rotated from one house to another, with menus as varied as the hosts – sometimes ham, other times turkey.
That’s probably why I was so intrigued with the idea of the Italian Christmas Eve tradition called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The meal has its roots in the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat before major religious holidays. In Italy the meal is called La Vigilia, or vigil, and it usually involves a selection of lighter dishes – meat-free but not necessarily based on fish. It was the Italian-Americans who created the Feast of the Seven Fishes as we know it today – seven courses, each featuring a different fish or shellfish.
When I saw Susannah’s theme for this month’s #ItalianFWT, I thought, Yeah, I’m in luck! My husband Gabriel is a full-blooded Italian, both of his parents sailing to America from Pescara when they were children. Who better to describe the preparation, anticipation, and enjoyment of the Feast of the Seven Fishes than he?
Turns out, not him! When I asked about his memories of Christmas Eve dinner, he wrinkled his nose and said, “I didn’t like it.” He remembers his mother making Baccalà, which he hated, and went on to describe the only course he looked forward to – linguine with clam sauce. Boo!
He’s learned to like fish more as an adult, and I’m bringing him along slowly (i.e., fish steaks and filets are okay; whole fish – fuggeddaboutit!) Small steps . . . .
But my inquiry prompted him to share his favorite memory of Christmas time. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, his mom would start baking up a storm, every kind of cookie you could imagine. Then came the cheesecakes, which would go into the freezer until Christmas. When she ran out of room in the two freezers, she packed treats by the dozen in large Tupperware tubs and set them on the back porch. Her biggest challenge? Keeping her husband and three sweets-loving kids away from the stash!
I loved his story, partly because my mom did the same thing. Not nearly on the same scale, but essentially the same method. By mid-December, our back porch became the hiding spot for a half-dozen containers of chocolate chip cookies. As in Gabe’s house, the biggest threat to the supply was my dad and the three of us kids. There were always way fewer cookies left at Christmas than my mom had intended, but I think she liked it that way. She’d scold us when she caught us, but always with a barely contained smile on her lips.
As I smiled to myself, remembering my mom and all her creative energy, I imagined what my husband’s mother would have been like. She feels familiar to me, although I never had the chance to meet her. Gabe lost both of his parents the year before we met – within six months of each other. I can feel how much he misses them, especially at the holidays. It’s one reason we chose to get married on December 22nd, his mother’s birthday. It was also my grandparents’ anniversary, and they lived a long and happy life together.
So, while our conversation didn’t give me an insider’s view on the Feast of the Seven Fishes, I did learn something about my husband’s childhood, and got a glimpse of the woman who raised him. I think we would have liked each other.
My Completely Unofficial, Irish-Catholic Version of Feast of the Seven Fishes
I have no street-cred at all when it comes to authentic Italian food traditions. But this idea of the Feast of the Seven Fishes won’t leave me! What I have created here is MY version of the dinner, based on seafood that my husband will actually eat and enjoy. I’ve made each of the dishes except for the Bagna Cauda, which I will have to disguise in order for Gabe to taste it. As I said above, small steps. And, of course, I’ve paired each course with a delectable Italian wine. So here goes . . . .
Note: All the wines mentioned in this post were provided as samples, with the exception of the Brunori Verdicchio. Obviously I wouldn’t have included them here if I didn’t enjoy them!
Dish #1: Bagna Cauda
Bagna Cauda is a fondue-like dip made of anchovies, garlic, parsley, and butter. It’s served with vegetables – raw, grilled, or fried – that you dip into the mixture. Easy to prepare, yummy to snack on while you wait for dinner. Get recipe.
Dish #2: Grilled Calamari
I would serve some simple, grilled calamari alongside the bagna cauda, as an appetizer before dinner. For a pretty presentation, plate the squid atop arugula dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
Wine: No better way to kick-off a holiday meal than with bubbles! Here are two I’ve tried recently that will please the Champagne lovers in your midst without busting your beverage budget.
Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (SRP $19)
Alert! Buy this by the case if you see it at your Total Wine. Rumor has it, Rustico can be yours for as little as $14. It’s creamy, citrusy goodness that drinks way better than its price tag.
Terramossa No. 1 Brut Rosé (SRP about $20)
This 100% Sangiovese features festive cranberry, strawberry, and citrus aromas, with abundant red fruit flavors, including a rhubarb finish. No better way to get the party started than with a dry, delicious rosé sparkler.
Dish #3: Roasted Oysters in Tomato Butter
This could be the first course served at the table, and it’s a breeze to put together. With larger oysters, plan on three per person; for smaller varieties, maybe four or five.
Wine: When is Prosecco not just Prosecco? When it’s DOCG-quality and undergoes the second fermentation in bottle. Challenge your sparkling wine preconceptions with a sip of this one!
2015 Malibran Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG Cremadora Rifermentato in bottiglia (SRP $23)
While most Prosecco undergoes the second fermentation (which makes the bubbles) in a tank, this wine refermented in the bottle. The same way it’s done in Champagne. Crisp lemon flavors, along with notes of toast and chalk bring out the briny quality in the oysters, and the tart acidity goes toe-to-toe with the tomato butter. Yum!
Dish #4: Roasted Shrimp with Rosemary and Lemon
This recipe from the New York Times is a winner! Roasting brings out the sweetness of the shrimp, and the rosemary and lemon add complexity and freshness to the dish.
Wine: I’ve suggested two wines here – a still white from Emilia-Romagna, and another sparkling wine. Both would play well with the shrimp and herb flavors.
Campo Mamante Albana Secco (SRP about $18)
A white wine that spends a little time on its skins, this Albana has lovely floral and herbal notes in addition to bright citrus fruit. It’s shy on the nose but not so on the finish, which is all lemon peel, anise, and acacia flowers.
Nino Franco Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (SRP $27)
Crisp apple and pear aromas and flavors, with a bright burst of acidity. It’s the sparkling counterpart to the Albana, and should have your guests arguing over which one they like better. My answer? It’s a tie!
Dish #5: Spaghetti with Clams
This dish is a classic for a reason: the flavors run the gamut from sweet and creamy to briny and herbaceous. A perennial favorite of my husband’s!
Wine: I’ve given you another duo of white wines for this dish – one based on Famoso, a grape native to Emilia-Romagna, and a Greco di Tufo from Campania. Challenge your guests to pick the winner.
Monte Sasso Famoso Rubicone IGT (SRP about $14)
Peaches, thyme, honey, and citrus notes explode out of the glass. A delightful sip from one of Italy’s many native grapes that are little-known outside the country.
2016 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo DOCG (SRP about $14)
Flavors of candied lemon, fresh pear, and green apple. Its lacy delicacy belies the structure underneath: crisp acidity and a decidedly mineral texture make this one serious seafood wine!
Dish #6: Seared Scallops over Greens
Another easy-to-make course. Do you sense a theme here? The only requirement of my Unofficial Feast of the Seven Fishes is that each dish be simple and delicious. No laboring in the kitchen for the host! Here’s the basic recipe from the New York Times.
Wine: Sticking with my two-for-one plan, here’s another duo that will tantalize your taste buds. We’ve got a Prosecco from the celebrated Rive subzone, and a lovely Falanghina.
2016 Masottina Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Extra Dry Rive di Ogliano (SRP about $27)
Elegant aromas of white peach and citrus make this Prosecco sing. It’s just the other side of dry, making it a dynamite match with the scallops.
2016 Donnachiara Beneventano Falanghina IGT “Resilienza” (SRP about $12)
This wine is soft and round, full of yellow peach and candied lemon peel flavors. Bright acidity lifts the fruit, making for a fresh, delicious mouthful, perfect with shellfish.
Dish #7: Swordfish Salmoriglio
I first found this recipe in one of Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks. It’s deceptively simple to prepare and allows the beauty of local swordfish to shine through. Lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, oregano – that’s the gist! Try it for yourself and see if you don’t put it into your regular menu-planning rotation.
Wine: Two more for you – a gorgeous Verdicchio from Le Marche on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and a very special sparkler from Nino Franco.
2016 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore San Nicolò Brunori ($18 retail)
A classic wine from central Italy, this Verdicchio has bright citrus, bitter almond, and wild fennel flavors. A perfect partner with the local seafood, it also makes a genius pairing with roasted vegetables.
2010 Nino Franco Grave di Stecca Brut Sparkling Wine (SRP $49)
What a stunner! A sparkling wine with fine, persistent perlage, and an enchantingly herbal-fruit-saline profile. If you’ve got a Champagne lover at the table, this wine will bowl them over.
Thanks for joining me on my unorthodox journey to the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I’ll report back once I’ve convinced my husband to try the Bagna Cauda!