Saturday, December 23, 2017

La Vigilia and the Feast of Seven Fishes

My beautiful family will be celebrating the  Christmas holiday at home this year.  Both my beautiful Angel and myself have our Christmas traditions.  For example, my Angel's family incorporates Italian sausage into their tradition, something which is an important part of the Christmas tradition in the Italian community in Birmingham, Alabama. My family had a Christmas tradition of a multi-course dinner on Christmas Eve, with a plate of antipasta, Italian wedding soup, and homemade pasta and meatballs.   I love all of these traditions, which, over time, have built up a lot of good memories of fun times and great food. Given all of those memories, I have to admit that I thought about adhering to them for our Christmas holiday at home.

But, I am also someone who is willing to try new things and, perhaps, make new traditions.  This is why I decided to prepare the Feast of the Seven Dishes, an Italian-American tradition. The tradition derives from the Roman Catholic obligation of abstaining from eating meat on Christmas Eve.  Thus, Italians would eat a meal fish and other seafood.  If one was in Italy for the holiday, he or she would not hear Italians talk about the Feast of Seven Fishes.  They would speak of La Vigilia.

But, this post is not about the history of the feast.  Instead, it is about what I want to make for this Christmas Eve.  It will also serve as a culinary challenge, part of my personal challenge to make a main course as part of the Around in the World in 80 Dishes.  But I am taking this challenge to a whole new level.  Rather than make one main course, I will make 7 courses.  I have decided to make an Italian feast for La Vigilia.  This challenge involves the preparation of a course from 7 different regions of Italy featuring 7 different seafoods. The map to the right provides a guide for this challenge. I have spent a lot of time paging through my Italian cookbooks, as well as watching a lot of Iron Chef (Japan).  The cookbooks provided me with the actual recipes from across the country of Italy, while Iron Chef (Japan) filled me with inspiration to make culinary masterpieces so my cuisine will reign supreme.

One other note about this menu.  Seven dishes is a lot of food.   More than most people could eat.  Therefore, most of the courses will be prepared and served in a tapas style.  The final dish will be a main course and serve as the main dish that will satisfy the challenge.  So, without further ado, here is the (tentative) menu:

Polenta Pasticciata al Gamberi (Polenta with Shrimp)

The first course starts in the northeastern corner of Italy, in the region of Friuli Venezia Gulia.  The course will be a very simple dish of baked polenta with shrimp, surrounded by a sauce of garlic, mushrooms, parsley and white while.  While I could make the polenta, I bought some from the store to save time.  After all, I still have six dishes to make.  (Culinaria Italia 19)

Ostriche Arrosto (Broiled Oysters)

The second course takes us all the way down the eastern coast of Italy to Apulia (or Puglia).  The course will be Ostriche Arrosto or Broiled Oysters.  Freshly shucked oysters topped with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and oregano.  A little lemon juice and olive oil are drizzled over the oysters before they are placed under the broiler to cook.  (Culinaria Italia 373)

Polpette di Pesce in Umido (Fish Meatballs in Broth)

The third course takes us inland to the region of Umbria.  It just did not seem right to simply make seafood courses from regions with coastlines.  So this course is a challenge: to take a traditional Umbrian dish -- polpette in umido  -- and make a seafood version.  Freshwater fish fillets would be made into meatballs and stewed in a broth made from seafood stock.  (Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy 196-97).

Cozze allo Zaffrano (Mussels with Saffron) 

The fourth course requires us to travel to Abruzzo, which has a coastline along the Adriatic Sea.  The course will be Cozze allo Zafferano or Mussels with Saffron.  This recipe is a nod to the Abruzzese region, which is the only region where saffron is cultivated.  Ironically, the Abruzzesi do not use saffron a lot in their cooking, and they often make Pepatia di Cozzi, or a version of this dish using diavoletto, or spicy pepper flakes.  (Food & Memories of Abruzzo 21)

Calamari Piccanti  (Spicy Calamari)

The fifth course takes us to the southwestern coast of Italy, to the region of Calabria.  The dish is a very simple one of spicy calamari, sauteed on a hot skillet and served with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and salt.  (Lidia Cooks form the Heart of Italy 339)

Insalata di Polpo e Patate (Octopus and Potato Salad)

The sixth course takes us to the island of Sardegna or Sardinia.  The course is an Octopus and Potato Salad.  The octopus is combined with gold potatoes, and, it is then mixed with flat parsley leaves and thinly sliced red onions.  The salad is dressed with white wine vinegar and olive oil, and finished with freshly cracked black pepper and celery leaves. (How to Eataly 240)

Cuscusu (Couscous with Fish)

The final course will be the main course, coming from the Island of Sicily.  It is a classic seafood dish of fish fillets served over couscous.  This dish brings together the myriad of culinary influences that have made Sicilian cooking what it is today.  (Regional Italian Cuisine 288-289)

It is an ambitious menu, but I've already got a couple of the dishes in the works and a whole lot of hacks and shortcuts to make the preparation easier.  I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays.


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