Blow Fish Tails alla Babbo – how many chocolate chip cookies can one morbidly obese elf eat?
La Vigilia – the Feast of the Seven Fishes & Grandma Sadie's Latkes
Chef Henry M. Summers
You can keep your ham, lamb, turkey, prime ribs with Yorkshire pudding, and all your other Dickensian delicacies. By December 25, I was already projecting into to future to the next Christmas Eve, and the most delectable of all the world's religious feasts – la Vigilia, Italy's incomparable Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Through much of my childhood and early adolescence, a Friday rarely passed that the Summers and Buratti families didn't dine together at Tony's Lobster House on Route 17 in Rochelle Park, New Jersey. But on special occasions, capofamiglia Freddy Buratti loved to cook. Every year, he'd mark the first snowfall by shining up his battered old paiolo – northern Italy's traditional unlined copper pot – and make polenta.
On the days leading up to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, however, Freddy became certifiably insane. All his wife Filomena could do was roll her big black eyes, and watch her immaculate white brick River Edge ranch turned into the Coney Island Aquarium.
Why, you well may ask, a feast of seven fishes, and not six, or seventy-six? Seven is a number imbued with deep mystical meaning. Some have speculated that the seven fishes stand for the Seven Deadly Sins. Others have postulated that they commemorate the Seven Days of Creation. Still another hypothesis holds that the number is an allusion to the Seven Devils that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene.
The truth of the matter is not likely to be known, at least on this mortal coil. And while I was too busy researching the Sin of Gluttony to take an actual tally, I feel safe to say that Freddy's appetizers alone would easily have surpassed such a trifling number.
Lobsters were served either boiled with melted butter (to which Freddy always added a few drops of Worcestershire), or split, stuffed, and broiled. Blue claws were simmered in Freddy's tomato sauce till all their sublime crabbiness was consigned to the sauce, then served over steaming linguine. It was at the Buratti's table that I was introduced to another Vigilia specialty – eels.
And always there was baccala, the salted and dried codfish that was international currency a thousand years before the dollar, yen, or euro. If you are not acquainted with baccala, I urge you to introduce yourself. With the first bite, you will understand why baccala is as popular in equatorial Africa as it is in Scandinavia as it is everywhere in Italy, despite la penisola's almost embarrassing abundance of fresh fish.
Baccala comes in a variety of forms, all of which need to be rehydrated and desalinated prior to use. If you are starting with split, whole baccala, it will need prolonged soaking in several changes of water. Then before it can be used, it must be skinned and boned. In recent years, skinless and boneless baccala has taken over to become the default form in the marketplace. In addition to the convenience of being skinless and boneless, it requires much less soaking time. Italian groceries often presoak baccala for Christmas Eve and Good Friday.
Because true cod has become increasingly rare and commensurately costly, more and more salted and dried pollack – also called saithe, a member of the same Gadidae family – is often sold as baccala. Misbranding issues aside, it can be excellent. The best quality comes from Alaska.
For Italians, calamari are as inextricably intertwined with Christmas as Babbo Natale himself. When I was a boy, we called calamari squid, and picked them up at the bait and tackle shop on the way to the Point Pleasant party boats in pursuit of bluefish, weakies and fluke. Today, you will find calamari on the menu of every diner, pizzeria, and rug joint in Jersey.
An ounce of calamari provides a psaltry twenty-eight calories. Like shrimp, calamari have been given a bad rap by dieticians for being high in cholesterol. But since the total fat is around one percent, the way it breaks down into cholesterol, saturated fat, etc. is nutritionally irrelevant. Of course, when they are heavily breaded and deep fried, all bets are off. But when simmered in marinara sauce, or blanched and served cold in a salad, both calamari and shrimp are among the best sources of low-fat animal protein.
Boiled shrimp and calamari are often combined in a cold salad with scungilli (gray conch), octopus, clams, mussels, and baccala. This melangé is dressed with oil, vinegar, lemon juice and mustard, and appears on menus as insalata di fruiti di mare – salad of sea fruits.
When Freddy wasn't polishing his paiolo, he ran a successful trucking business serving the wine and liquor industry. So nobody ever went thirsty at the Buratti's, least of all on Christmas Eve, when Freddy uncorked bottle after bottle of his best bubbly.
So here's to the happiest of holidays, and a peaceful and healthy 2017. Now if you will excuse me, I have a mountain of potatoes to grate for latkes.
Baccala, Basic Preparation
Before baccala can be cooked, it must be soaked in several changes of fresh, cold water for from one to several days, depending on how dry it is to begin with. This is done both to rehydrate it, and rid it of excess salt. The skinless and boneless form is often ready for use after only twenty-four hours of soaking.
Baccala alla Livornese
Baccala, 2 pounds after soaking
Garlic, 2 or 3 cloves, crushed
Olive oil, 1 cup
Dry white table wine, 6 ounces
Tomato, chopped, crushed or purée, 28 ounce can
Red pepper, crushed, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Capers, rinsed, 1/4 cup
Olives, Kalamata or Gaeta, pitted, 1/4 cup
Parsley, chopped, 1/2 cup
Drain the soaked baccala, and cut it into pieces approximately 3 inches square. Coat with flour, and slowly fry in olive oil until golden.
Pour off a little oil. Then make room in a corner of the pan and add the garlic, and taking care not to burn it, cook for a minute or two. Then add the wine, and cook until reduced by half.
To avoid splattering, add the tomatoes off the flame, along with the capers and olives. Season with the red and black pepper, and if needed, a little salt.
Return to the stove and simmer, covered, for a few minutes more. Do not stir, but shake pan gently from time to time. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Blow Fish Tails alla Babbo
In the 1950s, blow fish were regarded as a nuisance by sport and commercial fishermen alike, and often killed, then thrown overboard. A decade later, it was discovered that blow fish tails were among the finest delicacies the oceans have to offer. As a result, they were quickly overfished, and soon disappeared from the marketplace.
A few years ago, I lucked onto the school above, and after taking their picture, had a feast. My fish monger said that these were caught in Long Island Sound, but have not been seen since.
They are well worth the effort of searching them out. When cooked as described below, you will immediately understand why they are nicknamed sea squab.
Blow Fish Tails alla Babbo
Blow fish tails, cleaned
Tabasco or other bottled hot sauce
Olive or peanut oil for frying
Place the blow fish tails in a bowl. Add milk to barely cover, season with salt, pepper, and a little Tabasco, cover, and refrigerate for an hour or two.
Remove them from the seasoned milk, dredge them in flour, and fry them in one-half inch of oil. When golden, drain on a paper towel, sprinkle with salt, and eat at once, with lemon wedges and hot sauce on the side. Buon Natale!
Latkes – a Dual to the Death and Beyond
I suspect that the argument over who made the best latkes – my Grandma Sadie Popkins, or her sister-in-law and my Great Aunt Esther Schletter – rages unresolved in the Afterlife. Both women were consummate cooks, and served their latkes in the traditional way, with sour cream and apple sauce – after all, Esther's husband, my Great Uncle Jack, was the Apple King of Paterson's historic East Railway Avenue Market. My big brother and I, however, preferred ours with Pride of the Farm catsup.
Potatoes, Idaho or other russet variety
Baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon per pound of potatoes, unpeeled weight
Eggs, 1 large per pound of potatoes, unpeeled weight
Flour or matzoh meal
Peanut oil for frying (both ladies actually preferred Crisco shortening)
Peel the potatoes, and grate them directly into a big bowl of cold water. This will prevent them from discoloring. Beat the eggs lightly.
Working quickly, removed the grated potatoes from the water a handful at a time, and squeezing as much water out of them as possible, place them in another bowl. Empty the water out of the first bowl, scooping out any starch that may have settled on the bottom and adding it back to the grated potatoes.
For every pound of grated potato, add a small onion, finely chopped. (I find that grating can cause onions to become bitter.) Add the eggs, baking powder, salt and pepper to taste, and enough flour or matzoh meal to take up any pooling liquid, and make a fairly heavy batter.
In a heavy skillet, add oil or shortening to a depth of a half inch, and place over moderate heat. When the surface begins to shimmer, add balls of the potato mixture, and press down gently with a spatula to form pancakes about three inches in diameter, and one-half inch thick.
When well browned on one side, turn over to complete the cooking. Drain on a split brown paper bags, and keep 'em coming. (I remember Sadie or Esther ever sitting down and eating with the family.) Alternately, keep the latkes warm in a two hundred degree oven. Happy Hanukkah!