I think that our food and recipes are one of the best ways to live on long after our minds and bodies cannot keep up. In fact, some of my earliest memories are about the food from holiday celebrations long past.
I love foods that are rooted in history; traditional dishes that have lined the bellies of many before us. Preserving food history is a keen interest of mine. I have cookbooks from the 1800’s that are filled with strange things I have never heard of (which is a bit of a shock, considering I spend most of my waking hours focused on food)! These recipes are nearly forgotten, only preserved in the pages of these artifacts.
My deep appreciation for history is the main reason I always cook family recipes during the holidays. As much as I believe in 21st-century food wizardry, I don’t find it necessary to update or modernize these traditional recipes. I like cooking them, and I enjoy reveling in the memories associated with them.
The one meal I look forward to more than any other is the meal my mother made on Christmas Eve: The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Now, we didn’t really do seven different fish, but multiple preparations of calamari and cod in one meal.
Our family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes menu consisted of:
- Fried calamari, simply breaded with flour and seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Fried codfish with the same breading as the calamari (my mom was the master of fried foods and her biggest secret was to reuse oil for frying. The flavors just keep getting better and better – her chicken was absolutely amazing).
- Fried codfish in a cracker meal breading. My dad would pick this up at the East Side Fish Market already prepared; it was highly seasoned (not spicy) and fried in some sort of animal fat.
- Dried codfish (bacala) cooked with tomatoes, capers and olives.
- Dried codfish (bacala) cooked with dried hot red peppers grown in my father’s garden the previous summer.
- Capellini with a very light tomato sauce with calamari that was slow simmered for several hours. For my mom, and as a general rule of thumb, calamari is either meant to be cooked for 30 seconds or an hour – anything else produces an unacceptable result. My mom also threw in cooked broccoli which added a great texture and a very fresh flavor that compliments the sort of “bottom-of-the-sea” flavor imparted by the long cooking of the calamari.
- Stuffed calamari with bread crumbs, onion, garlic, Parmesan cheese and parsley simmered in a tomato sauce.
OTHER HOLIDAY TREATS
Sicilians are fans of the sweet and sour. Growing up, we had a treat that has been absent from or table for several years now: cippolini onions cooked in a Sicilian sweet and sour sauce spiked with chili flakes from my dad’s garden. These wild onions were extremely bitter – we had to boil them first to remove some of the bitterness, then sugar was added and we cooked it to a soft boil. Vinegar, chili flake and some salt was then added for the final product. I think these Moroccan-grown wild onions are no longer allowed into the USA, which is a travesty!
We also made a version of an Italian doughnut called a sfinge. They resembled doughnut holes, and when they were still hot, we got to shake them in a bag of sugar until they were coated.
My mom made baked goods like she was cooking for an army (this might explain my love for big portions, which I see as an extension of generosity). Whether it was pizza, bread, Easter bread or the huge variety of cookies for Christmas, it was always my mom’s intention to share with others. The seemingly endless variety of cookies was a feast for the eyes. Guantis, love knots, and some others that sadly I cannot recall. I do remember a type of cookie that my mom longed for from the old country called biscotti di San Martino. These were a favorite of her childhood, but the recipe did not survive – thanks to the Internet, though, she was finally able to get a recipe that she thought was lost forever!
Although the days of singing Christmas carols around the tree at McKee Elementary School are long gone, you can still watch “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer” and “Frosty The Snow Man” on TV, and you can still fill your house with the sights and smells of your family’s own traditional holiday meals!
Don’t be afraid to say it – Merry Christmas, everyone!
FRIED CALAMARI RECIPE
Want to try your hand at one of my family’s holiday recipes? Try this traditional yet very simple recipe for fried calamari!First, clean the calamari by removing the cuddle bone and beak (I’m sure you’ve seen “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”). Cut tubes into rings and leave the tentacles whole. Soak the cleaned calamari in buttermilk for 20 minutes to an hour. Then remove the calamari and shake the excess buttermilk off. Dredge the calamari in flour seasoned with a bit of salt, pepper and garlic powder.
Shake off excess flour and fry in at fryer set to 375. Fry for about 30 to 40 seconds until the calamari is golden brown. Once removed and dried, serve with marinara sauce.