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While candy canes and visions of sugar plums are more commonly associated with December 24th, Mary (Tedesco) Stehle's earliest culinary Christmas Eve memories are of octopi tentacles wriggling in a pot of tomato sauce.
"I'll never forget that, but we also had smelts, and baccala [salt cod], and cod salad, and anchovy-and-walnut sauce," recalled Stehle, a Niantic resident who grew up in an Italian-American household in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, as in many Italian-American households across the country, this seafood-rich, multiple-course menu was standard fare for celebrating the traditional Italian, Christmas Eve fish dinner known as La Vigilia (The Vigil).
"All my aunts and uncles and cousins would be there, and the kitchen was full of people," said Stehle who with her husband, Cliff, continues to celebrate La Vigilia in the traditional manner, with multiple fish courses followed by heaping trays full of classic Italian sweets, hosting as many as 30-40 friends and family members.
"It's a lot of work," said Cliff, who now does most of the cooking, which he begins the day after Thanksgiving – an occasion when most home cooks are engaged in some serious elevating of the feet and breathing sighs of relief heard round the world. (Cliff's kitchen duties kicked in soon after his retirement, in a deal struck with Mary. "I cooked for the first 25 years of our marriage; now it's his turn," she chuckled.)
La Vigilia dates back to the days before the Second Vatican Council [1962-1965], when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Christmas Eve. In many households, the elaborate supper is also known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, owing to the number of fish entrees served.
"The significance of the number seven is that it is considered a perfect number in Scripture," said Fr. Mark O'Donnell, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in New London and a regular guest at many a Stehle-household, Christmas Eve dinner.
"In [the Bible book of] Genesis, God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh, while Roman Catholic teaching is that Christ instituted seven sacraments," O'Donnell explained. The consumption of fish, meanwhile, symbolizes fasting (i.e. the abstention from meat), a custom familiar to many a Catholic who grew up in an age when fish was on the dinner table every Friday night.
"It is a similar fast to that of Ash Wednesday or Good Friday," said O'Donnell.
Like many ethnic traditions that are now a part of American culture, La Vigilia came ashore with the vast numbers of Italian immigrants during the early twentieth century. Growing up in the small town of San Giovanni di Gerace in Calabria (the "toe" of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula), Meriden resident Vincent Papandrea recalled how the whole town celebrated Christmas Eve with caroling, cutting fresh field grass for the church's nativity crèche, and the bountiful spread of fresh, local fish dishes.
"We would have cod bellies, salt cod, fresh cod fried in olive oil, anchovy zeppole [a savory version of the more familiar Italian dessert pastry], grilled clams seasoned with a little salt and lemon juice, boiled shrimp, and sardines dusted with flour and fried in olive oil. That was the seven dishes," said Papandrea.
Just as Italy has regional cuisines (e.g. northern Italian and southern Italian foods are worlds apart), so too are there regional differences in how La Vigilia is celebrated. In Mary's family, which came from Mugnano del Cardinale, a town in the Campania region of southern Italy, Christmas Eve dinner featured thirteen fish entrees, symbolizing the twelve apostles and Jesus. In addition to octopus, cod, and anchovies, the Old World menu at the Tedesco house also featured traditional menu items such as eel and scungilli (snail salad). While authentic, many of these entrees proved less than appetizing to Mary's children and friends, after she and Cliff began hosting La Vigilia dinners of her own.
"We found that a lot of people who came weren't eating much of the seafood because they didn't like it. A lot of it would still be left over the next day," said Cliff.
So the Stehles tweaked the menu. Fish still takes center stage, but now their La Vigilia feast features dishes more recognizable to those unaccustomed to squirming cephalopods. These include no less than 100 baked stuffed clams and clams on the half-shell, shrimp cocktail, shrimp scampi, and linguine with lobster sauce as well as penne with vodka sauce. In deference to those who don't like seafood (and, brazenly, without benefit of papal dispensation!), the Stehles also offer chicken picatta and Italian sausage and peppers.
Still, one standby favorite from the Christmas Eve dinners of Mary's childhood is pasta with anchovy and walnut sauce (see recipe below).
"It's one of the only carryovers," said Mary. "I used to make only a small portion because I didn't think people were going to like it, but one year it went very quickly, so I made more the next, and now we use as much as eight pounds of pasta for that dish alone."
Considering such a spread, even Santa might be tempted to forego the cookies in favor of more linguine.
Linguini with Anchovy and Walnut Sauce
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic: sliced thin
1 can anchovy filets (do not drain)
1 cup walnut halves
3/4 lb linguini
Salt/pepper (to taste)
Place walnut halves in a shallow bowl and cover with water and soak for one hour
Fill large pasta pot with water and bring to boil (add salt to taste)
Add linguini to pot and cook until al dente
While pasta is cooking add olive oil to a deep sided pan under medium heat
When oil is hot add garlic and sauté until golden brown
Add anchovies (including oil from can)
Gently stir under medium heat until anchovies break apart (this happens very quickly)
Add walnut/water mixture and bring entire mixture to a boil
Turn heat down to low
When pasta is done, drain and add to mixture
Add salt/pepper to taste, toss, and serve
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 tbs butter
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
24 clams (Littlenecks or Cherrystones)
1 cup Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
Chicken broth (if needed: see recipe)
Salt/pepper (to taste)
Wash and scrub clams.
Place clams into a large bowl and cover with cold water (add ices cubes to completely chill water) and let sit for about an hour (allows calms to rest to make shucking easier).
Shuck clams over a separate bowl taking care to retain all juices. Separate all attachments to shell and place clam halves onto a separate plate (discard other half of shell).
Strain retained clam juice (fine strainer) into separate bowl and retain.
Preheat a small pan (low to medium heat) and add butter and oil.
When butter has melted add garlic and sauté under low/medium heat until garlic is slightly brown and then remove and retain.
Add onion to pan and sauté until onions are slightly browned and then remove and retain.
Turn off heat but retain oil/butter mixture.
Place breadcrumbs into a bowl. Add onions, garlic, and oil/butter mixture from pan and thoroughly mix.
Add retained clam juice to mixture in increments so that mixture becomes fully saturated (taking care to ensure that mixture does not become watery). Note: Small amounts of chicken broth can be added if amount of retained clam juice is insufficient.
Add salt/pepper to taste and complete mixing. Note: Clam juice is naturally salty so take care at this stage.
Using a tablespoon, evenly distribute mixture to all calm halves. Hint: Hold clam half in one hand and with the other hand invert the spoon containing the portion of filling and then scrape the spoon across the round portion of the clam shell.
Dot each filled clam half with a small dollop of butter.
Place filled clams onto an aluminum lined baking sheet (assists in cleanup) and bake in a 350 degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. (The oven rack should be near the top of the oven).
Finish by turning heat setting to 'broil' and then carefully watching. The clams are taken out when tops are crisp. This happens quickly so keep your eye on them to avoid burning.
Place on platter and serve.