Not the Feast of the Seven Fishes

Pignoli Cookies I’m making my list and checking it twice:  octopus, calamari, vongole, shrimp, anchovies, garlic, parsley, lemons, and lots of escarole.   That’s the shopping list for this year’s Il Cenone or, Christmas Eve Dinner.

There will be 8 of us at my house and I am planning to make a Neapolitan style Pizza di Scarola for a starter. This was one of my mom’s specialties — a double crust pie filled with sauteed escarole, garlic, black olives and anchovies.  When Mom made it, she fried the pie in a big, heavy cast iron skillet.  When one side was crusty and brown, she flipped the pie onto a plate, put more oil in the pan, and then slid the pie, browned side up, back in. I don’t know how she was able to lift it and turn it, but it always turned out perfect.  As a concession to modern health concerns (and out of trepidation about that flipping), I bake the pie instead, as they do in Naples today.

Spaghetti with Clams will be next.  It’s a fairly typical recipe, with plenty of garlic, parsley and crushed red pepper.  I like it with a little bit of tomato, and this time of the year, I use the sweet fresh grape tomatoes that are widely available.  Little cockles are my substitute for the tiny vongole, hard shell clams, used in Italy.  They don’t have much sand and can be simmered right in the sauce.  If they were not available, I would use little neck clams, which I would steam open and remove from the shells, then rinse in their own juice to eliminate any sand.

Our main course will be a big seafood salad with the octopus, calamari, and shrimp in a lemon juice, olive oil and garlic dressing with lots of parsley and chopped celery for crunch and clean flavor.

In this country, most Italian Americans think of the Christmas Eve meal as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but my grandparents never called it that and nobody counted the number of fishes. But we always had fish — any number will do and any kind.  Baccala or stockfish, two types of salt preserved cod are typical, as is eel, scungilli, lobster, and whole fin fish.  It was more about what was available than any set number, so feel free to have as many as your time and budget will allow.

My sister sent me some sweet juicy tangerines from Florida.  We will have them with some grapes, and roasted chestnuts, followed by dessert.  I made Pignoli Cookies, a family favorite, and my niece Amy will bring some sfogliatelle that she bought in Brooklyn.  The cookie recipe is from my book 1,000 Italian Recipes.  Here it is — my Christmas gift to you!

Pine Nut Macaroons

Pignoli Cookies

Makes 40

I have made many variations of these cookies over the years.  This version is my favorite because it is made with both almond paste and ground almonds for both flavor and texture.

1 (8-ounce) can almond paste

1/3 cup finely ground blanched almonds

2  large egg white

1 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus more for decorating

2 cups pignoli nuts or slivered almonds

1.Place a rack in the center of the oven.   Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a large baking sheet.

2. In a large bowl, crumble the almond paste. With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat in the almonds, egg whites and 1 cup confectioner’s sugar until smooth.

3. Scoop up a tablespoon of the batter. Roll the batter in the pine nuts, covering it completely and forming a ball. Place the ball on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, placing the balls about 1 inch apart.

4. Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack. Let the cookies cool 2 minutes on the baking sheet.

5. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool completely. Dust with confectioner’s sugar. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 1 week.

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    • Michele Scicolone