For those who celebrate, Christmas Eve is a very special night.
From inspiring church services and carol sings to cookies left for Santa, each family holds its own traditions. For many years, I held a “plum pudding celebration,” dousing my prized confection with warm brandy and setting it aflame to the delight of our two then-young sons.
For many “old school” Italians, Christmas Eve, known as La Vigilia (“The Vigil”), is the time for the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” This elaborate meal is meatless, often requiring days of preparation and traditionally eaten before midnight Mass. For each family, the menu may vary, but often includes baccala or salted codfish, shrimp, scallops, crab, lobster, mussels, clams and even eel. (How does one cook that many dishes?)
When I was growing up, Christmas Eve in our house was a scaled-down version of this “feast.” It was the feast of one fish: smelts. My father insisted on having them, and my mother hated to clean and cook them! I can’t remember what the rest of us ate on those nights, but we did enjoy another Italian tradition: hot sausage sandwiches at a friend’s house after midnight Mass.
For us, Christmas Eve this year will be a vast departure from the boisterous “open houses” we hosted for four decades. It will be a quiet evening, and I was aiming for a simple but elegant family dinner that gives a nod to the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I found a lovely pasta recipe from the famous Italian chef Mario Batali. Paired with a tri-color salad of lettuce, radicchio and Belgian endive, it seems perfect for the occasion.
This pasta is made with monkfish, perhaps an unexpected choice, but a nice change from shrimp or clams. Sometimes known as “poor man’s lobster,” monkfish is very versatile. It holds up well to roasting, poaching and grilling, and its thick, firm flesh even works well for shish kabobs.
Linguine with Monkfish, Zucchini and Thyme
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise in half and sliced into thin half-moons
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 8 ounces monkfish filet, cut into ½-inch cubes (remove the thin, clear membrane with a paring knife if still on the fish)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ cups tomato or marinara sauce
- ¼ cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 pound linguine
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat.
- Add the onion, zucchini and thyme and sauté until the mixture is soft and lightly browned (about 10 minutes).
- Season the monkfish with salt and pepper, add to the pan, and toss gently until the fish starts to whiten (about 1 minute).
- Add the tomato or marinara sauce and white wine and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Cook the linguine in the boiling salted water until al dente and then drain.
- Toss the pasta into the sauté pan with the monkfish mixture. Add the parsley and toss over medium heat until well mixed.
- Transfer to a warm serving bowl and serve.
Some cooking notes:
- When tossing pasta directly with a sauce, use a deep pan. I have a large, deep bowl-like sauté pan from All-Clad that works very well. Otherwise, use a Dutch oven.
- Cooking tongs are great for tossing pasta in a pan.
- For a little extra richness, you could toss a pat of butter into the pasta mixture before serving.
- Cheese with seafood pasta is considered a “no-no,” but I often will use it. If you love Parmesan cheese, give it a try.
Well, it looks like I’ve followed in my father’s footsteps and ended up with another “Feast of One Fish.” Along with the aforementioned salad and perhaps some garlic bread, this will make for a lovely Christmas Eve dinner. I love Italian Christmas cookies (Alvaro’s in Uptown Harrisburg makes such good ones), and they would be a perfect ending to this meal—as would some Sambuca.
I wish all of our Burg readers a wonderful holiday season, however you might celebrate it.