On Christmas Eve a fish head reared its ugly head, until I became of age to make a dish to pass at the family party. Historically, in a traditional Italian family, young women do not receive heirlooms until they marry and recipes are handed to them gradually.
Being an independent signorina, I’ve never felt comfortable with the former and because of my profession and constant entertaining; family recipes have gradually been turned over to me throughout the years.
Besides the traditional sauce recipe that did not need to be touched, the Feast of the Seven Fishes required some tweaking. Below is the Americanized, third generation version of my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner (or at least one piece of it).
3 tbsp olive oil
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 tsp salt
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon dried Indian crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup tomato paste
1 (28-z) can diced tomatoes in juice
1-½ cups dry white wine
32 oz fish stock
1 bay leaf
1 lb Little Neck clams, scrubbed
1 lb mussels, scrubbed, debearded
1 lb uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1-½ lbs assorted firm-fleshed fish fillets of halibut and salmon, cut into 2 -inch chunks
Old Bay seasoning
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the fennel, onion, shallots, and salt and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ¾ teaspoon of red pepper flakes, and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Add tomatoes with their juices, wine, fish stock and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until the flavors blend, about 30 minutes.
It may smell a little too alcoholic but the wine will burn off.
Add the clams and mussels to the cooking liquid. Cover and cook until the clams and mussels begin to open, about 5 minutes. De veining shrimp can be a bit of a process. With one foot on the garbage bin and the other maneuvering a paring knife (debatable, but works for me) over the sink as you remove the veins. Season the shrimp with the Old Bay and remove the skin from the fish. Add the seafood. Simmer gently until the fish and shrimp are just cooked through, and the clams are completely open, stirring gently, about 5 minutes longer (discard any of the shell fish that did no open). Season the soup, to taste, with salt.
At a recent meeting of the Cooka Nostra of Western New York (a well known cookbook club) member Julia Lavarnway brought her Southern Baked Corn, a dish that’s a favorite at her family’s table (and now her Buffalo, NY friends).
Southern Baked Corn
8.5 oz Jiffy corn muffin mix
17 oz can of cream corn
17 oz can of whole corn (undrained)
2 eggs beaten
8 oz sour cream (fat free)
1 cup of melted butter
Mix everything in a 9×13 (a 10×10 also works) lightly greased pan. Bake on 350 for 1 hr 15 min. or until golden brown on top.