Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes (Cena di Vigilia)

Arancini with aioli

UPDATE: There is now a video recipe for Cioppino, the simple and easy seven-fish San Francisco stew: WATCH NOW

Italian-American families have their favorite dishes for Christmas Eve fish dinner – some serve 7 fish (for the 7 sacraments or 7 virtues), some serve 10 (for the 10 stations of the cross) and others 13 fish (for Jesus and the 12 apostles). I serve 7 fishes not for the religious symbolism but to draw family and friends to the table to enjoy a great 3-course fish meal and each other during the holiday season.

When I was growing up my family ate fish because it was a Catholic rule, no meat on Christmas Eve. We loved this meal so much we still cook it many years after the meat ban was dropped by the Church. It’s a big part of my holiday tradition. You can catch some of my excitement in the video we just released. I fried up some squid.

If you want to eat some fish on Christmas Eve or any day of the year check out some of my fish posts from the past year. Cook one dish or a bunch at the same time. You’ll be eating well in any case.

Let’s see if we can get to 7 fish dishes. Your first one is Calamari Fritti above.

Continuing the antipasto (before the meal) theme, how about some steamed mussels and clams with a hunk of garlic bread for dunking in the broth? (Like the calamari fritti eat these as soon as they’re done.)

Cod fish cakes anyone? If I was serving the cakes with other dishes in the antipasto I’d make the cakes much smaller, almost bite size. (You can make them ahead and warm them in the oven before serving.)

Maybe arancini (fried rice balls) stuffed with bay shrimp and served with a spicy aioli? (You can make them ahead and warm them in the oven before serving.)

Here’s one that you can put out in the antipasto course or use as a secondo piatto (second course) dish. I always have to have some sole on Christmas Eve.

For the primo piatto (first course) linguine in a spicy crab tomato sauce.

Here’s a great secondo piatto (second course), halibut baked with roasted cherry tomatoes, potatoes and green olives. I like to roast the whole fish, a branzino or sea bass, using this recipe. Just put the herb(s) inside the fish otherwise follow the original recipe. Debone the fish before serving.

That’s 7, but hey, it’s the holidays so here are a few more: fried shrimp, sword fish with salmoriglio sauce and  shrimp with oregano and garlic, simply roasted in a hot oven; and baccala salad below.

Check out my free vegetable eBook for some ideas of sides to serve with these fish dishes. Buon Natale!

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Fried Calamari with Vinegar Pepper Confetti

Fried Calamari.

Fried squid (calamari fritti) is a quick antipasto that has to be eaten hot right out of the oil. Often my guests eat this first course in my kitchen standing around the hot stove. The calamari is crispy and tender. The vinegar pepper confetti adds a nice kick. The calamari is great on its own too with just a squeeze of lemon.

My friends and family always ask me to make calamari fritti. I make a big batch to enjoy as part of our Christmas Eve Seven Fish Dinner but you can have this delicious, fast dish anytime of the year.

No heavy batter here or breadcrumb coating to mask the taste of the calamari, just a light dusting of flour. No dipping sauces to get in the way either. Just enjoy the fresh, clean taste of the ocean.

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Free Recipe: Semolina Bread with Sesame Seeds

Sicilian Semolina Bread with Sesame Seeds

I recently spent a delightful evening with my friend Viola Buitoni, a wonderful Umbrian cook and teacher, and Carol Field, the San Francisco author of the just reissued classic, The Italian Baker.

Viola hosts the wonderful Italian gastronomy series at the Italian Cultural Institute.  The presentations are free and I highly recommend them if you want to gain new insights into Italian food and culture.

Carol explained the special place bread and bakers hold in Italian culture and the incredible differences in bread from one part of the country to another, sometimes from one village to the next. There are 1,500 varieties of bread in Italia.

I agree that no Italian meal is complete without great bread on the table. When in Italia I love to explore the local bread bakeries (panificio) and enjoy their specialties – salt-free bread in Florence, the focaccia in Genoa and Venice, the fat bastone loaves in Naples, the Sicilian semolina bread in Palermo.

Carol learned from artisan bread makers throughout Italy. She often joined the bakers at three in the morning as they started baking bread for that day. She painstakingly reduced their large volume recipes and adapted them for the American kitchen. Her recipes maintain the integrity of the Italian original. Carol so inspired me that I had to bake bread this weekend.

This is a version of the bread I grew up on in northern Jersey. We always had a hot loaf from Calandra’s on First Avenue in Newark on our family dinner table. I ate a lot of great Sicilian semolina bread from Bergen County Italian bread bakeries when I was In Jersey for Thanksgiving with family a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been craving semolina bread with sesame seeds ever since.

I adapted Carol’s Pane Siciliano recipe to satisfy my craving. It’s hard to find any Italian bread with sesame seeds in San Francisco never mind one made with semolina flour. Italian-French on Grant at Union sometimes makes a soft twist with sesame seeds and La Boulange sometimes has an Italian loaf with sesame seeds. Both are good but they’re made with unbleached flour. I had to make this one with semolina flour for myself!

The bread has a chewy golden crust and a tender interior turned a pale yellow by the semolina flour. The sesame seeds add a nice nutty flavor.

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Ditali Pasta with Peas & Onions

Ditali with Peas & Onions

This is one of my favorite pasta dishes. The sauce is done in the time that it takes to cook the pasta.

I made it for a recent family reunion meal and there was a bit of tussle at the table as everyone scrambled to get a second helping.

The pressure was on when I made this one. Two of my sisters were with me and I had to satisfy their taste memories of my Mom’s version of this dish. Luckily it was a hit all around.

My vegan niece was able to eat this dish. I just set the sauteed peas and onions aside and finished the sauce with pasta water from her vegan pasta.

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A Post-Thanksgiving Melting Pot Dinner

Chicken Marsala

You would think everyone would be sated after a big Thanksgiving feast. Two branches of the family were here in northern Jersey and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to gather together before everyone scattered.

While heavily Italian-American, our table reflected the ethnic blending in America and the many diets prevalent today. The menu was crafted to satisfy the cravings of some at the table and the dietary needs of others.

My goddaughter makes a mean yellow rice passed down from her husband’s maternal Syrian grandma and it was a special request. One of my nieces is vegan so I wanted to make sure there were dishes she could eat too. It was a spectacular meal.

Here’s the menu.

Anitpasti platter with all the stuff we didn’t finish on Thanksgiving.

Ditali pasta in a simple onion and pea sauce.

Chicken Marsala, broccoli rabe and yellow rice. My vegan niece Jo Anne brought great peppers stuffed with spicy mushrooms, quinoa and black beans.

Dolce was all of the pies and cakes we didn’t finish on Thanksgiving. JoAnne’s vegan pumpkin bread was the star.

We had a great day together, catching up on all the family news and enjoying just being together. In our family, our culinary tradition is the glue that holds us all together.

This Chicken Marsala is an easy recipe with a really big payoff. We made enough for 20 at the table and some for Breanna to bring back to college to share with her friends. Buon appetito!

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Free Recipe: Salsa Verde (Green Herb Sauce)

Farmer's Market Lincoln Center NYC

Before we headed north to the Arthur Avenue Italian community in the Belmont section of the Bronx, we stopped at the farmer’s market near Lincoln Center.

The small market was bustling and overflowing with fall bounty. We needed thyme, Italian parsley and basil for salsa verde, a gift for my friend’s Thanksgiving family gathering. She’ll serve it as the dip with the crudite of organic broccoli, radishes, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes.

Salsa verde is a really versatile condiment that you can serve with vegetables, fish or meat. It’s easy to make. Choose your favorite fresh herb combination and make the salsa verde by hand or in a food processor.

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Giardiniera (Pickled Vegetables)

Vegetables in a White Vinegar EVOO Marinade

I’m finally giving in to the reality that winter is coming. I think it was setting the clocks back last weekend that did it. By 5 it’s getting dark now and I’m not sure I like that.

In reaction to shorter days and winter nights I’ve been putting up marinated vegetables for my pantry. I was compelled to make vinegar peppers (peperoni sott’aceto) and eggplant caponata. And I’m about to break into the Giardiniera, a jar of marinated vegetables.

Giardiniera is an Italian kitchen staple. Make up a big batch and keep it in the refrigerator. Giardiniera is a great snack with salumi or cheese. I like it on sandwiches. It’s great on an antipasti platter or even as a side for a roboust star, grilled sausages maybe or even roasted pork.

Cutting up the vegetables takes the most energy. I gotta be honest about making Giardiniera though. You have to brine the vegetables overnight and they have to marinate for a couple of days before they’re ready to eat. Of course, if you’re impatient, you can take a taste or two in the interim.

Giardiniera

1 small head cauliflower

1 carrot

1 celery rib

12 pearl onions

12 pitted green olives

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

1 small serrano or jalapena chile

1 clove  garlic

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup EVOO

1/4 cup sea salt for the brine

Remove the seeds and ribs from the red, yellow and serrano peppers. Cut into 2 inch strips and then 1/2 inch slices.
Cut the celery and carrot in quarters and cut in 1/2 inch slices.
Cut the pearl onion in half.
Cut the cauliflower in quarters and cut out the core and large stem. Break the florets into pieces about the same size of the other vegetables.
Place the green, red and serrano peppers, celery, carrots, onion, and cauliflower in a bowl. Stir the salt into enough water to cover the vegetables and pour the water into the bowl to cover the vegetables completely. Add more water if necessary.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.
The next day drain salty water and rinse vegetables well.
Cut the olives in half.
Mix the garlic, oregano, black pepper and olives in a bowl. Pour in vinegar and EVOO and mix well. Pour the mixture over the vegetables and mix well.
Spoon the giardiniera into a liter or quart jar, fill to the top with the oil mixture and seal the jar tightly.
Refrigerate for 2 days before eating.
Gardiniera will keep in the refrigerator of at least 2 weeks.

Pickled Peppers

Pickled Peppers with Oregano & Garlic

Here’s a really simple recipe to capture the bell pepper bounty in a jar for your winter pantry. Just slice the peppers into strips, make the vinegar brine and put everything in a jar.

Pickled peppers, or “vinegar peppers” as my family calls them, keep in the refrigerator for a long time. I usually eat them all before I even get close to the end of their shelf-life. These peppers are great as a crunchy snack, on an antipasti platter, on a panino, and as a bright, piquant ingredient in some of my recipes. I always keep some of these peppers around. You never know when you’ll need them.

The hardest part of this recipe is cleaning and cutting the peppers. Everything just goes in the jar. Let them cure for at least 24 hours and enjoy.  The pickled peppers just keep getting better as they sit in the brine.

 

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Cavati (Cavatelli) with Vodka Sauce & with Broccoli Rabe

Rhode Island friends are in town and we we’re making 2 classic Italian-American pasta dishes. Carol brought a cavati pasta machine all the way from Little Rhody. I’ve never seen this contraption and I was anxious to try it out.

You say cavati, I say gavadeal. These are RI and Jersey slang for the same pasta, better known as cavatelli.

Making the Ricotta Cavati Dough

Carol was the lead cook. Her cavati pasta dough is simply ricotta, milk, flour and an egg. This isn’t the gnocchi dough that is hardly kneaded so it stays light and tender. This dough is kneaded well to form a stiff, resilient dough, tough enough to be rolled into ropes and fed into the cavatelli pasta machine. It’s the fresh version of dried cavatelli pasta and it’s worth the effort. We made the cavati dough by hand but you can make it in a food processor to save time and effort. Mix the ingredients and knead it well to form a stiff dough.

 

Cavati Falling Out of the Pasta Machine

Roll out 1 inch dough ropes, feed it into the machine and crank. Out pop the cavati. The machine is amazing. Just keep cranking and in a couple of minutes you have a sea of cavati.

 

 

A Sea of Cavati

 

My mother dried her fresh pasta on a clean sheet atop her bed. We dried ours on the dining room table. Spread them out so they don’t touch one another and stick together. Let the cavati dry for 30 minutes.

 

Cavati with Vodka Sauce and Cavati with Broccoli Rabe

Carol made 2 sauces for the cavati — broccoli rabe with garlic, EVOO and chicken stock and the classic vodka cream sauce. Both were delicious. Here’s my first plate. The fresh cavati have a great toothsome feel, tender but resilient with each bite. The broccoli rabe sauce is garlicky and really rich with chicken stock flavor. The pink vodka sauce with flecks of tomato is silky and the cream mellows the San Marzano tomatoes. Buon appetitio!

If you have a cavatelli machine you are in good shape. If you do not simply roll out 1/2 inch ropes of dough. Cut the ropes in 1 inch pieces. Using your thumb press hard on each piece to flatten it out. It should curl up tightly as you press & pull with your thumb. You can get an idea of how to form these by watching my gnocchi video. The difference between the two is that you don’t want the puffy gnocchi form but rather a flat disk that tightly curls from the pressure of your thumb.

Or, just buy dried cavatelli from Italia.

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Lidia Bastianich is an Inspiration

Lidia Bastianich and Gianni
Lidia Bastianich at Williams-Sonoma Union Square

Lidia Bastianich inspires me. She’s been a mentor for a long time. I have 6 of her cookbooks and I read them often. Lidia’s Italy has been a PBS blockbuster cooking show for years. I’ve watched them all but my absolute favorite is the one Lidia did with Julia Child years ago. Some say that Lidia does for Italian cooking what Julia did for French.

I finally met Lidia Friday night at her Marin Center cooking event. Lidia cooking for 2 hours. I was in heaven. The dishes were from her new cookbook Lidia’s Italy in America celebrating the food of Italian immigrants as it is cooked in Italian-American communities across the U.S.

She made rigatoni woodsman-style with sausage, mushrooms and San Marzano tomatoes; spaghetti with a basil pastachio pesto; stuffed artichokes baked in the oven; chicken alla sorrentina with basil, tomato sauce and mozzrella; and zuppa inglese with panettone and pastry cream.

Watch my interpretation of scallopine alla Sorrentina, inspired in part by Lidia.

I saw Lidia again on Saturday to get my book signed. I apologized that I was a little disheveled. I was on a break from the start of the restoration of Vranas’ Song of Pulcinella mural in North Beach.

“I really appreciate what you do to celebrate the food and culture of Italia,” I told her. “And thank you for returning to the food and traditions of Italian-Americans in communities like North Beach around the country.”

As I left to get back to the dirty restoration work Lidia said “I’ll follow you on your blog.” Now wouldn’t that be special?

I hope Lidia comes back to North Beach soon. The Village can use all the help we can get to preserve one of the most vibrant Italian communities in America.

Weekend Recipe: Cavatelli with Arugula

Cavatelli with Arugula & Holy Oil in the Spoon

My mother made fresh cavatelli often, “gavadeal” in the argot of my southern Italian Jersey neighborhood. I’m making it with dried cavatelli from a small producer in Naples. Just 2 ingredients, durum wheat semolina flour and water. The pasta is extruded through a bronze die and dried in the slow, traditional way. The bronze die gives it “la lingua di gatto”, the rough feel of a cat’s tongue that helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. The pasta is the star of this dish so use the best from Italia.

When I lived in Rhode Island the same pasta was called cavatieddi or as my RI Italian-American friends say “cavati”. I made the pasta in anticipation of friends coming to San Francisco this weekend. Carol is bringing a “machine” from Rhode Island to make fresh cavati. Can’t wait to see this contraption.

Anyway, here’s the recipe for this really tasty, healthy and simple pasta from the southern Italia region of Apuglia. They love pasta with wild, bitter greens. I didn’t have time to forage so I used baby arugula. No garlic here! The full flavor of the al dente cavatelli  balances the peppery arugula and the grated pecorino ties it all together. A simple, pristine and full-flavored pasta ready to eat in the time it takes to boil water and cook the pasta! Olio sante (holy oil) makes this dish even better. Add a drop or two to your plate of pasta and a tear or two will follow. No hot oil no tears. I like the tears but you decide. Buon appetito!

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Note–If you can’t find hot peppers packed in olive oil you can make your own. Put a couple of small red hot peppers in a jar and cover with a cup of EVOO. Let steep for about a week. Add a few drops of the golden red oil to any dish to bring a tear or two to your eye as you eat.

Friday Recipe: Roasted Pork Tenderloin & Toy Box Tomato Salad

Roasted Pork Loin & Toy Box Tomato Salad

The toughest part of this meal is cutting the toy box tomatoes in half. You can be eating dinner in about an hour.

The crusty, tender slices of pork tenderloin are bathed in a pan sauce scented with garlic, sage and rosemary. The marinated toy box tomato and cucumber salad served over a bed of baby arugula is the perfect simple side.

Just marinate the tenderloin as you make the tomato salad. Brown the pork on top of the stove and roast in a hot oven. Slice and serve with the tomato salad on the side. Add a crusty loaf of bread and a bottle of sangiovese, aglianico or other zesty red and you’re all set. Buon appetito!

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Weekend Recipe: Sonoma Sole

Petrale Sole in a Caper White Wine Butter Sauce

We drove up to Sea Ranch on the Sonoma/Mendocino coast. I was exhausted from driving the switchbacks in the rain and fog and wanted something fast to cook for our dinner. The fishmonger in Gualala had some really fresh petrale sole.

I quickly sauteed the sole in olive oil and butter and poured a caper white wine pan sauce all over.

A little steamed broccoli with EVOO, sea salt and lemon was a great side.

The sole filets take on a golden crust and are flakey and moist. The edges are crisp and nutty. The caper butter sauce gently enhances each bite. The mellow broccoli spears round out the plate. A really quick and healthy lunch or dinner.

The sole recipe is below and here’s the broccoli recipe from my Vegetable eBook.

Sautéed Sole with a Butter/Caper Pan Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. sole, flounder or other flat fish
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon chopped Italian fresh parsley
  • lemon slices, as garnish

Instructions

  1. Put a saute pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and butter.
  2. Sprinkle salt and pepper the fish.
  3. Lightly dredge the fish in flour. Shake off any excess.
  4. When the butter is melted saute the fish until a golden crust begins to form, a minute or two on each side, depending on the thickness of the fillet.
  5. Remove the sautéed fillets to a serving platter.
  6. Turn the heat to high.
  7. Add the white wine to the pan, scrape the fond on the bottom of the pan and stir to dissolve the brown bits.
  8. Add the capers to the pan and stir until the sauce thickens, about a minute.
  9. Pour the sauce over the fillets, sprinkle with parsley, scatter the lemon slices about.
    Serve immediately.

Village News/Sunday Recipe: Great Parade & Roasted Rosemary Chicken

Foam Painting at Caffe Puccini

What a day–the fog finally burned off as we headed down the hill to North Beach’s Caffe Puccini to watch the 143rd Italian Heritage Parade–the oldest in the country. Hundreds were lining the parade route already. The tables set up in the street all over the Village were starting to fill up.

We were early. We needed espresso before the party started. Here’s what they gave us. Wasn’t that long ago at Caffe Puccini when a customer asked the barista Antonello for a decaf cappuccino with skim milk he’d scoff “Whaddaya think this is–a pharmacy?” They only had regular coffee and whole milk back then. Not any more–they make it all.

Gianni's Italian Heritage Parade Table

Parade Sunday I always have this table right inside the windows at Caffe Puccini. San Francisco and New York City friends and fans joined my table–a great group drawn together by the biggest Village event of the year.

 

My Annual Parade Lunch

Graziano didn’t disappoint–antipasti with roasted peppers, fried eggplant, prosciutto, mozzarella fresca with sundried tomato to start. Everyone ordered whatever they wanted after that.

 

For me it’s always the same meal–an annual tradition. Here’s Graziano’s lasagna alla bolognese–rich and cheesy with that long-cooked brick red meat sauce. The chicken is simply roasted with potatoes and rosemary and is today’s Sunday Recipe. The Volpaia Chianti Classico is one of my favorites. It sold out fast but we got Graziano’s last bottles stashed behind the bar. An absolutely delicious lunch.

North Beach Italian Heritage Parade

 

By the time we finished the parade appeared before us. Here’s Queen Isabella’s float accompanied by her Court.

Hope to see you at the Parade next year. Enjoy my adaptation of Graziano’s Tuscan chicken roasted with potatoes and rosemary. Buon appetito!

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Sunday Recipe: Fish Cakes (Torte di Pesce) with Pickled Carrots and Grilled Blue Trumpet Mushrooms

Cod Cakes--Pickled Carrots--Marinated Grilled Trumpet Mushrooms

I kicked myself when talking to my sister the other day. I’d roasted halibut and there was some left over the next day. Who wants to eat leftover fish? I put it in the compost bin.

“Oh no!” she exclaimed, “you could have made fish cakes.” Damn, she’s right. It’s been on my mind for days. I had to satisfy the “woolie” (craving) so I made fish cakes today.

My mother made these fish cakes with baccala (dried salt cod) but you have to soak the baccala overnight and it stinks up the apartment. Here’s a variation using fresh cod instead. It’s simple and delicious.

These cod cakes have a crunchy exterior and a creamy interior. The potato mellows the flavor of the cod and a squeeze of fresh lemon brings it all together.

I finished off the plate with meaty marinated grilled blue trumpet mushrooms and pickled carrot sticks. The mushrooms are smokey and their flavor is accentuated by the garlic-infused olive oil. The sweet and acidic pickled carrots are a good counter-balance to the rich fish cakes. A lovely weekend lunch indeed.

The pickled carrots are great to have around as an addition to an antipasti platter or as a side with a panino or even fish or meat. They’ll keep a couple of weeks at least in the refrigerator. Just remove the garlic and hot pepper before refrigerating. The flavor gets better over time.  The mushrooms can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days too and used in the same ways as the pickled carrots.

You got lucky – here are all 3 recipes.

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