As a family, we had a few traditions that went along with Christmas Eve and its preparations. Our menu always consisted of several courses that would be consumed over hours at the table but always end in time for us to go to midnight mass. The meal would always proceed in the same order and every year my Grandfather, and later my Father would start every meal by saying "This year we're going to take it SLOW!" (and every year we failed).
There would be an antipasto of baked clams and a pepper and olive salad made with jarred vinegar peppers and different kinds of olives. As a kid I would always pick out the black cerignola olives and wear them on my finger tips (OK, so maybe I still do this....). We'd also have a baccala salad made from the dried salt cod that would have been soaking in our basement sink for days beforehand. The baccala would then be boiled, flaked and then mixed with more vinegar peppers, crinkly Greek black olives, celery and enough garlic to keep away the vampires for the entire year. Mom would always make a small jar to give to my Uncle that had the super hot cherry peppers which he loved. Occasionally we'd also have a shrimp oreganata with this course. Last year I made my first seafood salad with shrimp, mussels and calamari tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and even more garlic.
After the antipasto (yes, that was still only the first course), we'd move on to the pasta. It was ALWAYS linguine (never spaghetti except for that one accidental year that we shall not talk about) served with either a crab sauce or a lobster sauce. My personal preference was for the lobster sauce. We'd make it with the tails, the sweetest and meatiest part of the creature sauteed in olive oil and garlic (more garlic) with fresh parsley. Then when the tails were red and just 'almost' cooked they'd be removed from the pot and we'd pour in can after can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, white wine and more parsley. That would bubble and brew and then the lobster tails and all of their juices would go back in. We'd start with a bowl of linguine and then crack into the tails. If we had crab sauce (prepared in pretty much the same way), the most fun would come when it was time to crack into the crabs. Manners at the Christmas Eve table were never an issue when there were crabs. You'd rip the poor thing apart the best way you could and then suck out as much meat and juice as you could. By the time we were through everyone would be covered up to their elbows in tomato sauce - and this would be the time the doorbell would ring with unexpected guests dropping in to say Buona Natale. Hugs all around and a few more chairs squeezed into the table!
The next course varied over the years. Sometimes, if there was crab sauce served with the pasta we'd make giant lobster tails oreganata style - split down the middle and stuffed with breadcrumbs, (more) garlic, oregano, fresh parsley and olive oil then baked in a hot oven. Other years there was baccala prepared in the oven with with potatoes, olives, capers and (more) garlic in a light tomato broth. Delish! But as time went on and people became more health conscious and their appetites smaller this was one of the courses to be cut.
The next (and final) fish course was the fried fish. Generally it was shrimp and scallops and sometimes filet of sole. Always breaded and fried to golden perfection and served with some spicy cocktail sauce that my brother would inevitably whip up last minute. There was always a broccoli salad served here as well because we felt we needed something green on the table. Of course, no one ever ate it and most of the time the broccoli ended up breaded and fried as an appetizer for Christmas Day dinner but it was nice to look at.
When the fish was done and the table cleared my Aunt Judy would bellow "OH SWEETUMS! TIME TO DO THE DISHES!!!! (I was sweetums if you couldn't tell.) We'd load up the dishwasher and then do the rest by hand all the while with her yelling at me to get moving and me responding with "Yes Auntie Judy Darling!" in my sweetest voice while I (not-so) quietly grumbled under my breath.
Once everything was clear, we'd sit back down to the table for the fruit, nut and fennel course. There would be apples and oranges and pears and great big red globe grapes with seeds. Roasted hard shell nuts including almonds, walnuts and brazil nuts. We'd always have roasted castagne (chestnuts) that I didn't realize I liked until recently. And, as every good Italian feast should, we'd always have raw fennel - or - as we called it "fenuke". When raw, fennel is fresh and crunchy with strong licorice flavors. Its good for the digestion and helps get you ready for the next and final course - DESSERT!
Dessert is where I normally get to shine. Now this year I'm laid up with a fractured knee and haven't been able to do my usual bout of Christmas baking. But normally dessert on Christmas Eve has a cookie tray with a combination of whatever Mom and I created that year. There are always my Aunt Ida's lemon cookies, the seven layer green white and red Venetian almond cookies, and the little chocolate crackups that are crispy on the outside but soft and chewy within. Sometimes there may be pignoli macaroons or little greek butter cookies rolled in lots of powdered sugar and rum balls to really make your season bright. There would be a plate piled high with struffoli - little fried balls of dough covered in honey and decorated with chopped nuts and little sugar candies. The star of our dessert table was always the Italian-Style cheesecake. Another recipe from the famous Aunt Ida it is ricotta whipped with sugar and eggs, orange and lemon peel and a little Grand Marnier. No matter how full you were - there was always room for just a little piece of cheesecake.
When the meal was done, we'd once again clear the table (with Auntie Judy bellowing sweetly as I attempted to hide in whatever nook of the house she hadn't yet looked for me in). We'd retire to the living room and have the eternal debate over whether to go to midnight mass or get up and go to mass at dawn. Inevitably midnight usually won out.
The guest list for this night varied slightly from year to year. For the most part, it would be my family and my grandparents, our Trinidadian neighbors the Joe-Yens and my Mom's friend Terri, her mother Millie and her other friend Judy (the one who dubbed me Sweetums). Occasionally we'd have the odd guest if Judy happened to find someone who didn't have a place to go. Over the years, these ranged from an Orthodox Jewish couple (can you say traif?) to a slightly degenerate looking man who told my brother he looked like Tom Cruise to a southern gentleman (now her husband) who had never before anything remotely resembling baccala. Some years you'd find a few police cars parked out front and the couch in the living room looked like an arsenal with guns, belts, cuffs and radios as my brother's partner and other cop friends that were on duty that night would come by looking for a hot meal.
There's an old song recorded by Lou Monte, an Italian American singer popular in the 1950's and 60's that says "It's Christmas at our house, the door is open wide. It's Christmas at our house; don't knock just come inside!" And that's what it was. What a glorious night of family and friends to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Heck - if I had one choice for a birthday dinner I couldn't think of a better way to be welcomed into the world!
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good bite!