For many, Christmas Eve still means fish

Nana and the writer’s father stuffing squid.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Nana and the writer’s father stuffing squid.

The Christmas Eves of my childhood were spent in Scotia at my grandparents’ modest white clapboard home on Sacandaga Road.

It’s gone now. Condos stand where it used to be. But in my mind’s eye, I still see Nana’s Christmas tree in the picture window, shimmering with tinsel, glowing with multicolored lights. And through the ground-level basement window, I see Papa wearing his white apron, Christmas suspenders and paper hat, bustling around his subterranean kitchen.

When I was small, Christmas Eve was a mixture of torture and pleasure. I longed to speed through what seemed like an endless evening meal to get to the much more important business of gift opening. But as I got older, it was the special once-a-year meal I looked forward to more and more.

Arms full of gifts, my parents, three siblings and I were greeted at the door with hugs and calls of “Merry Christmas!” The smell of marinara, calamari and fried smelt wafted on the wood stove-warmed air. A cobalt-colored bottle of Blue Nun wine was brought out for the grown-ups, and there was soda for us kids, a treat we didn’t often get at home.

We were cautioned to go easy on the mixed nuts, pickled herring, chips and dip, and shrimp cocktail on the appetizer table.

“Save room for dinner!” one grown-up or another would chide.

As Italian-Americans, we celebrated Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The meal, which can include any variety of fish or seafood, has roots in southern Italy, with its seafood-rich coastline. The feast’s origins can also be linked to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat the evening before a feast day.

I’m not sure why seven is the magic number of fish, but it may also have a religious reference.

Our Christmas Eve feasts were usually a few fish shy of seven, but we always had plenty of them.

Down in the basement, Papa fried lightly battered smelt — fish so tiny you can eat them bones and all. They are so good straight from the pan, hot and crunchy. A little later, he’d emerge from the basement displaying a bowl of cold, vinegary baccala salad he made from salted, dried codfish. The top was garnished festively with sliced Spanish olives and red and green pepper strips. Oven mitts protecting both hands, he’d bring up a steaming tray of stuffed calamari, basking in marinara sauce. That was my personal favorite.

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The upstairs kitchen was Nana’s domain. Decked out in a Santa Claus sweatshirt, she’d hover over her electric stove, where pale calamari rings and tentacles simmered in a cast-iron frying pan. Sauteeing them helps draw out the moisture, she’d explain, before adding them to a massive pot of marinara sauce.

While spaghetti boiled, she’d shoo us kids away from the garden salad sitting on the counter. We were relentless in our attempts to sneak pitted black olives from the bowls, to stick on our fingertips.

Dinner was served in a narrow dining room with a candle-and-poinsettia-topped hutch at one end. The table, covered with a red-and-green plaid cloth, was protected by a shiny sheet of clear plastic. There was barely enough room to squeeze folding chairs between the table and the radiator against the far wall. Once you sat down, there was no easy way to get out. Way down at the far end was the kids’ table, the domain of the four youngest.

The meal started with salad and Italian bread. Then, from the head of the table, Papa served up plates of pasta. A bowl of Parmesan cheese and an urn of extra sauce began to circle. Grown-ups’ arms reached for serving spoons and piled baccala and stuffed squid onto plates that threatened to overflow. We were urged to take seconds, were told we were too skinny and needed to eat more. When we could not possibly eat another bite, out came Christmas cookies and coffee.

Christmases went by. I graduated to sitting at the grown-ups table, and when my grandparents got too old to host Christmas Eve dinner, my husband and I took over. After Papa died, Nana wrote out the stuffed calamari recipe for me and for several years, she came to my Glenville home on Dec. 23, and we would stuff squid together. It’s a messy, tedious job. The squid are slippery and uncooperative. Weaving a toothpick through the open end to seal them shut is fussy work. And if you stuff the squid too tightly, they burst in the oven. But the project was fun, with Nana sitting across from me at my porcelain-topped kitchen table, hands covered in sticky stuffing, laughing and telling stories.

Christmas Eve was different at our house. Nana was a fixture in a rocking chair by our wood stove, while my mom and I took command of the boiling pasta pot and the tray of calamari bubbling in the oven. We invited extended family, friends and neighbors, who all brought food to share. Our house overflowed with warmth and happy voices.

In 2017, when my family moved out of state, that elaborate Christmas Eve celebration became part of history. For the past few years, my husband, daughter and I have participated in a jolly prime rib Christmas Eve feast at our next-door neighbor’s house, while our son has celebrated with his wife, son and in-laws in North Carolina, where they all live.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic will keep my husband, daughter and me home alone on Christmas Eve. It will be quiet and a little lonely, but we’ll console ourselves with family Zoom calls.

I still have that recipe for stuffed calamari in my recipe box, written in Nana’s shaky cursive on a yellowing piece of paper, folded in the middle and softening at the edges. I haven’t made it in a long time. But maybe 2020 is the year to bring it back. I know it would do me good to close my eyes while squid simmers in the oven, to take in deep breaths scented with the calamari-and-sauce aroma of what used to be.

Stuffed Squid (Calamari Ripieni)

Ingredients

  • 1 pound cleaned squid (tubes only, cleaned thoroughly)
  • 1 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
  • 2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 6.5-oz. can minced clams, drained, juice reserved
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Steps

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Coat the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with marinara sauce.

Mix cheese, breadcrumbs, eggs, pepper, garlic and drained clams in a bowl. If the mixture is crumbly, add some of the clam juice and/or a little olive oil.

Form the mixture by the teaspoon into oblong shapes to fit loosely inside each tube. Don’t overstuff the tubes or they will burst in the oven.

Pinch the open end of each tube together and weave a toothpick horizontally across the opening to seal it. Place the stuffed squid in a single layer in the baking pan, top with marinara sauce, cover with foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

Serve hot.

NOTE: When I make this recipe, there is always leftover stuffing, so consider using more squid, or the stuffing would also be a good filling for stuffed mushrooms.

Reach freelance writer Kelly de la Rocha at [email protected]

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