On the night before Christmas in our house, strains of Louis Armstrong’s “Zat you, Santa Claus?” or Kurt Elling’s “Cool Yule” resound in the background while the smells of garlic, toasting bread crumbs, and lemon fill the air. The anticipation of the coming feast is only eclipsed by the anticipation of the following morning of ripping paper and opening presents.
Italians usher in Christmas Day with "Cena della Vigilia", the dinner of the vigil; the meal that breaks a daylong fast, at least in theory. Originally, La Vigilia meant seven different kinds of seafood, cooked seven different ways. According to tradition, the number seven is important because it represents the seven Catholic sacraments. The number is also said to allude to the seven virtues, the Seven Hills of Rome, and the seven days of the week. Over the centuries, however, fasting obligations were relaxed; rules of abstinence from eating meat became the standard. Today, in our family, the birth of Christ is celebrated with one long, delicious (almost meatless) feast. The custom of “La Vigilia” is revitalized with each new generation that takes it on. As it is carried on into the future, we remember our ancestors who have added their imprint on our traditions, and it is if they are dining with us each Christmas Eve.
At our house, after an afternoon at church, we usually start the evening with champagne and raw oysters. We also put out a platter with smoked salmon and white fish with olives and crostini. It may not be exactly Italian, but everyone likes it, and it works. While we cook, friends chat in the kitchen, help set the table, or share pictures of recent travels. We have tried several different dishes over the years to comprise the seven fishes and do not always adhere to the strict interpretations that each fish must be prepared separately. Frito Misto (fried mix of seafood) is the perfect solution to preparing several of the fishes of the feast at one time. Gumbo is another family favorite that accommodates more than one kind of fish. If we still need to round out our repertoire, we add Spaghetti con Acciughe to the menu.
Fried smelts and baccalà, however, are annual standards. “Baccalà” is Italian for salt cod. Baccalà is a popular fish, especially with Italians from Calabria. In Rome, baccalà alla romana is a dish of deep-fried, battered salt-cod which is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Baccalà dishes require that the cod be desalinated by soaking and rinsing several times to remove excess saltiness. We bought the salt cod at DeKalb Farmer’s Market and soaked/rinsed it the week before Christmas.
1 package desalinated salt cod
1 ½ cups buttermilk
Flour for dredging
Vegetable oil for frying
Remove baccalà from water soak and pat dry with a paper towel. Marinate desalinated cod in buttermilk up to one hour before cooking. Heat vegetable oil about one inch deep in a heavy skillet or frying pan until a drop of liquid 'sizzles' when carefully dropped in the oil (about 375 degrees F). When oil is ready, take the cod from the buttermilk and dredge in flour, then slowly place the floured cod pieces in the oil four at a time and fry until golden brown. It should take about 5 minutes, turning over about half way through. Remove fish to a paper towels and salt. Serve hot with sliced lemons.
Denise and Dom Romeo are food bloggers who enjoy spending time together doing what they love best: cooking and entertaining! Follow their food adventures on their award winning blog; We Like To Cook! at www.welike2cook.com.