Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Italian Christmas Eve in August

In my family Christmas Eves were spent at my Uncle Andy's and Aunt Agnes' house, and included several courses of fish. I've been told that some Italians say there needs to be seven different types of fish prepared (or 11, or 12, or 13) but I honestly don't remember this ever being discussed, I mean every meal at my aunt and uncle's house consisted of multiple courses, but on days like Christmas Eve the courses were not supposed to contain meat, so instead we had fish. My dad agrees that he never knew of a set number of fish-dishes, and if there was, he knows of no reason or significance in that number.

The reason I bring this up in August is that my wife Karen has had a craving for one of these dishes for the past few weeks. Well tonight I decided to indulge. Truly, it seems the perfect dish for a hot summer day: a fish salad prepared with a olive oil and lemon dressing, and featuring black olives, slices of celery and chopped Italian parsley served chilled.

The fish featured in those long-ago Christmas eve dinners was usually Baccala. The long slender salted Baccala could usually be found in Italian delicatessens like "DaBilla Bros." the shop around the corner from our apartment on 13th street in Manhattan, NY when I was between the ages of 6 and 12. I can almost smell the way that deli smelled, with its huge cheeses hanging from the ceiling, boxes of panatone (a northern Italian Christmas cake) stacked on the shelves and nougat candy by the cash register. The Baccala was whole salt-dessicated fish, and they stood heads-up in a barrel in much the same way umbrellas stood in an umbrella stand.

Baccala is a pain to prepare, and I have a deepening respect for the trouble Aunt Agnes and Nana would go through to prepare our holiday feasts! The Baccala must be rinsed and soaked and have its water changed several times for about a day before you can cook it - a bit too high maintenance for Karen and me and our hectic lifestyle, so for Karen's supper I picked Whiting, an alternative which often made it to my Aunt and Uncles table on a Christmas eve. Here is my take on the recipe; it tasted a lot like I remembered it, with plenty of garlic because (wait for it...) it's Italian:

1 lb Whiting (or Baccala, soaked and drained*)
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped into large pieces**
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
1 can whole cured black olives
3 celery stalk, diced
1 bunch of parsley chopped
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

Place fish in a medium saucepan.
Add enough water to cover fish by 1 inch.
Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 3 minutes or until the fish flakes easily. Do not overcook.
Remove the fish and drain well.
In a bowl mix the garlic, olives, celery, and black pepper, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil.
Break the fish apart in medium pieces and add to the bowl.
Toss the fish with the garlic-olive mixture.
Refrigerate and let sit for at least one half hour before serving.
Serve salad cold.
* If using Baccala (salt cured cod), rinse it and soak it in cold water for 24 hours in the refrigerator, changing the water 2-3 times a day, then rinse, and remove the bones and skin.

** My aunt never minced garlic, she left the pieces large so the diner could remove them if so desired.

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