I’ll say it – thank goodness Christmas is over! I don’t think I could have eaten another bite! Don’t get me wrong – I love the holiday. I love the build up, the sense of good will and hanging out with my family. But my goodness, it’s one food over indulgence after another. The fact that I haven’t developed diabetes this month is the biggest Christmas miracle of all.
I made a concerted effort starting at Thanksgiving to practice moderation this holiday season. Vendors sent treats to the office and I abstained. I baked dozens of cookies and managed to not eat half the dough. And then I hurt my back AND came down with the flu. Everything seemed under control.
But then my sister Pam and her boyfriend Ken arrived, and things quickly went down hill. We devoured barbeque chicken, homemade cole slaw, bourbon balls and way too much caffeine. And that was just their first night here. The next day was Christmas Eve, when the serious eating would begin. We briefly strategized and decided to turn in early so we could tackle our biggest cooking day of the year.
I’ve adopted the Italian tradition of preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I’m not Italian, but I grew up Catholic in New Jersey, and I think that gives me enough street cred to pull it off. When I moved to Georgia, I missed the food and traditions of my childhood up north. Mike missed them too, and so a new (but old) tradition began.
Eating seafood is a holiday ritual for many Roman Catholics. They often refrain from eating meat during holy periods like Lent and the day before a big holiday, like Christmas. There are many hypotheses for the significance of the number seven (it signifies completion, as in God completed his work in seven days; or represents the seven hills of Rome that surround the city). I’ve always heard it represents the seven sacraments and go with that.
The biggest hurdle to get over is determining which fishes to make. Last year I think I nailed the right combination of dishes vs. skill level. Here’s the set list:
- Cioppino with mussels, clams, squid, tilapia and shrimp
- Clams with white wine, garlic and butter over fettuccine
- Shrimp scampi
- Grilled tuna over wilted spinach with garlic and tomatoes
- Fried smelts
Fortunately for me, I had lots of help. Kathy (see: Say Hello To Your Brother’s Mother-in-Law For Me) took over the clams. Like, came to my home with a cooler full of clams and all the fixins and made them from prep to grill. My sister Pam has developed a sincere interest in cooking and did lots of the prep work and made the soup croutons and wilted spinach. And Mike, the fabulous fryer that he is thanks to the Bonanza in Dover, Delaware, took over the smelts. That left me with the cioppino, shrimp scampi and tuna. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
We also had oysters. I lost my dad this year, and wanted to kick off our Christmas meal with a salute to him. Since I don’t drink, I thought an oyster shot would work. Terry did the shucking, I made a toast (including a nod to Pam, who is recovering from an aneurysm), we knocked back our oysters, and let the festivities begin.
This is the moment that puts me in a tizzy every Christmas Eve – getting all the dishes to come out at once. I usually announce in the kitchen, “If you don’t need to be in here, get out! Things are about to get really fast!” And then we have a mad scramble to get everything together. Somehow, it always works out. Everything tasted great.
The rest of the evening was spent breaking open Christmas crackers, singing Christmas carols, playing Christmas games and over indulging in cookies, eggnog and wine. I could hardly move by the time everyone left.
The next day was just as indulgent. After opening our gifts, we headed to Terry and Kris’s house (my brother and his wife) for Christmas dinner. Lots of ham, green beans, mac & cheese and cranberry sauce. Very Southern, very delicious. And then more caroling, more Christmas movies, more everything. I have no idea how we didn’t burst at the seams on our way out.
Driving home, too full to make conversation, I gazed out the window and felt an immense sense of peace. My sister was with me and on the mend, her boyfriend Ken by her side. My husband of 17 years and my beautiful daughter were chatting about funny things that happened that day. We just left my brother and his wife and daughter, and her parents, whom I feel so lucky to live near and share my life with. My sister Jen said it best when she said a week or so ago, “I want for nothing.”
PS – I ate a grapefruit today. It was the first piece of fruit I’ve eaten since the 21st. It was the most refreshing, delicious food I ever ate!
The following recipe is adapted from the Food & Wine website. It’s a real crowd pleaser.
Cioppino (Food & Wine calls it Healthy Make-Ahead Staff Favorite)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Sicilian)
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 ½ pounds cleaned squid – bodies cut into ½ inch rings, tentacles halved
2 cups dry white wine
One 28-ounce can tomato puree
2 lemons – zest of one peeled in strips; zest of the other finely grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups water
1 cup bottled clam broth
12 ounces mussels, scrubbed
12 ounces littleneck clams, scrubbed
12 ounces shelled and deveined large shrimp
12 ounces tilapia, cut into 2×1 inch pieces
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
In a very large, enameled cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven, heat the ½ cup of olive oil. Add the fennel, celery, onion, oregano and crushed red pepper and cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are softened, about 15 minutes. Add the squid and cook over moderately low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in the wine and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Cook until evaporated, about 20 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and strips of lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper and cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 40 minutes.
Add the water and the clam broth and bring to a boil. Remove and discard the lemon zest (The day I remember to do this is the day I become the Queen of England). Season the broth with salt and pepper. Add the mussels, clams and shrimp, cover and cook until most of the shells have opened, about 5 minutes. Add the tilapia and cook until opaque, about 2 minutes longer.
In a small bowl, combine the parsley with the grated lemon zest. Sprinkle over stew. Drizzle with olive oil.
We like to serve this with homemade croutons. Thinly slice a baguette and brush the pieces with olive oil. You’ll need about ¼ cup oil. Toast in the oven at around 425 degrees for about 15 minutes or longer, depending on your oven. Remove from oven and rub each slice with a garlic clove. You will need about 3 cloves of garlic for a whole baguette. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and chopped parsley. Put a few croutons in each bowl, then ladle in the cioppino. Delicious.
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