I always thought I sensed a kindred spirit in Marcia Gagliardi, author of The Tablehopper. But when she spoke of her own family’s Christmas Eve fish fest, I knew we were not only paisani (her name gave that part away), but culinary cousins.
La vigilia is as far as I know a uniquely Southern Italian affair, a feast involving seven fish dishes. There’s no specific menu to follow; each family has its own traditional dishes it brings to the table. In my family, there was always baccalà, sometimes two different preparations, a big bowl of shrimp and heaping portions of spaghetti all’aglio e olio, a small portion of which was made with alici, or anchovies.
Not long after she moved to California, my mother had an epiphany. We were no longer gathering in such large groups (Christmas Eve at Aunt Anne’s would sometimes be upwards of 30 people), so it was impractical to come up with seven discrete fish dishes for a small crowd. Why not line them all up and take them down in one fell swoop, and do it California style? Cioppino is the logical answer.
This year it was just four of us, so cioppino made perfect sense. But the one dish I crave every year, the one that sends me back to my childhood on Christmas Eve, is the spaghetti all’aglio e olio con alici, spaghetti with olive oil and garlic with anchovies. So six fishes in the cioppino and one pasta dish later, Christmas Eve was served.
Oh, and we also made the famous no-knead bread that everyone — everyone — has been buzzing about. There’s clearly no
knead need to recount the details of the process, but my brief take on it is this: It works reasonably well. I love the crispy crust and the meaty texture of the bread. However, the crumb is quite dense, and not especially absorbent, which is more what I was after to accompany the cioppino. Still, considering how little effort is involved, it’s completely worthwhile.
This is true cucina rustica, or as my mother calls it, Italian soul food. It is the most basic aggregation of ingredients: Pasta, olive oil, garlic. However, it is perhaps the quintessential example of a pasta dish where the pasta water itself plays a key role. The starch in the water binds with the oil to create a light sauce. Without it, you would simply have oily spaghetti. Ick.
1 lb. spaghetti
1/2 c. olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 tsp red pepper flake
3 filets anchovy
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and stir to prevent sticking. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet with the olive oil until shimmering. Toss in the pepper flakes and garlic and cook, stirring frequently to prevent the garlic from burning. Add the anchovy fillets and mash them up in the oil; they will melt away into the sauce by and by. When the garlic is brown all over (but not burnt!), use long tongs to transfer the spaghetti to the oil, tossing to mix. Add one ladleful of pasta water and toss together. Season with a pinch of salt and a lot of fresh-ground pepper. Transfer to a warm bowl and serve immediately.
On the side, keep a small tureen or creamer with a ladle of pasta water with a drizzle of olive oil. This can be used while eating to remoisten the pasta. Grated parmigiano is optional but nice, though it will tighten up the pasta, requiring more moistening.
OK, so it’s sort of cheating. But a heaping bowl of steaming, fragrant seafood in a hearty tomato broth is guaranteed to please, and this is seriously good winter fare, no matter what day. We got most of our seafood from Ports Seafood at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and so most of it was swimming the day it was purchased.
This is a supremely forgiving recipe, as was evidenced by the necessity for us to wing it a bit. I was fully in the throes of cooking when — whoops! — I discovered we were out of tomato paste. DPaul had a good idea, though, suggesting I throw in a little flour with the sofrito for thickening. It worked, and the cioppino not only didn’t suffer, but really turned out very nice indeed.
It’s almost pointless to try to turn this into a formal recipe. Basically, it’s just throw a bunch of seafood into a tomato broth and serve. But here’s how ours went down.
1 lb. clams
1 lb. mussels
1/2 lb. squid, cut into rings
1/2 lb. black cod, cut into cubes
1 dungeness crab
1 lb. shrimp
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp flour
1 large onion, minced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 can chopped or strained tomatoes
1/2 c. parsley, chopped, plus more for garnish
1/4 c. basil, chopped
Other dry spices to taste: e.g., oregano, herbes de Provence, etc.
Salt and pepper
Rip the little crabbie’s legs off, crack the middles of each joint with the blunt end of a knife, and set aside. Tear its little body apart, pull out the good lump meat in the leggy joints, scoop out the nasty bits in the middle and discard, reserving the shell.
Peel and vein the shrimp, reserving the shells with the crab shell.
In a medium saucepan, simmer the crab and shrimp shells in several cups of water for 30 minutes or so. Strain, and return to the pan, and set on the back burner on low.
In a large Dutch oven, sauté the onion, garlic and pepper until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and cook an additional minute or two, until the flour dissipates in the mix. Add a ladle of the crab-shrimp stock and stir to combine, then add the tomatoes, parsley and dry herbs and stir well. Season and simmer. At this point, you can leave it on a bare simmer for up to a couple hours if desired.
Just before you’re ready to serve, bring the sauce up to a low boil. Add the seafood — crab legs, crab meat, shrimp, squid, clams, mussels and cod — and stir well. Add more stock if necessary to mostly cover the seafood. Cover and simmer for about five minutes, until the shrimp is cooked through but not tough. Remove from heat and serve immediately, sprinkling parsley for garnish. Serve with bread for sopping, and large bowls for offcasting shells.