In the Italian tradition in which I was raised, the vigil of any holiday is a meatless day, so I always think of seafood for Christmas Eve. Also, seafood is a treat, one that signals in my mind a special occasion. For the final Dec. 24 of the century, my menu is sure to include pasta or soup based on seafood.
Perhaps I will begin with fettuccine with shrimp, vodka and caviar. This is a quick and easy dish to prepare, so I won't need to spend a lot of time in the kitchen while everyone is having a good time drinking wine or Champagne in the other room. In fact, the sauce takes so little time to prepare, I can make it while the pasta cooks. I love the way the salty caviar tastes against the backdrop of the sweet shrimp and creamy sauce, and the colors are great too. I can serve the pasta as a main course followed by salad and cheese, or in smaller portions before an entree of grilled salmon.
Another possibility for my Christmas Eve dinner is Trenette With Crab and Little Tomatoes. Trenette--thin, flat strands of fresh pasta--are tossed with a lightly cooked sauce of fresh cherry tomatoes and crab meat, spiked with some dried chilies. It is a lively dish that goes great with sparkling wines and is also no trouble at all to put together. I might serve it as a first course before a roasted whole fish with olives.
A more substantial pasta dish is Orecchiette With Swordfish and Eggplant. I love the combination of flavors and the hearty shape and texture of the orecchiette (translated as "little ears"). I doubt that I will have the time to make fresh pasta myself, so I will rely on one of the artisanal imported brands from the Puglia region of Italy, which I can find in my local Italian market or gourmet shop. Another alternative is to use fresh or frozen cavatelli--short, narrow, ripple-edged shells--which also complement this lovely sauce.
I may serve another old favorite, Clams Posillipo. Sweet little clams are simmered in a rich tomato sauce infused with garlic and herbs. The juices from the shellfish combine to form a delicious broth that is spooned over toasted Italian bread. I can make the soup base ahead of time, and add the clams just before serving time.
My final choice might be a Sicilian Couscous, chunks of fish or shellfish cooked in a light broth flavored with cinnamon, saffron and clove. The aromas of the spices attest to the time when the Arabs ruled much of western Sicily. This is a perfect one-dish meal and it pleases me to think that this ancient recipe will survive into the new millennium. I would follow the couscous with a platter of orange, fennel and onion salad.
Food as good as this will surely help us to endure. Surrounded by friends and family and well fortified with fine food and drink, I know we will all be ready to face the future, no matter what it may bring.
A favorite of old-time "red sauce" Italian restaurants, this soup/stew can also be made with mussels. For an extra-garlicky flavor, rub the hot toasted bread with a whole peeled garlic clove just before serving.
1/3 cup olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes or 1 small dried chili, crumbled
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
3 cups chopped, peeled tomatoes (may substitute canned tomatoes with their juice)
Salt to taste
4 pounds small clams or mussels, scrubbed
8 slices toasted Italian or French bread
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes or dried chili; cook until the garlic is golden. Stir in the parsley. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are tender and the juices are reduced by about 2/3, about 10 minutes for fresh and 20 minutes for canned. Add salt to taste. Add the clams or mussels, cover the pot and cook until the shellfish open, 4 to 5 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the seafood to a bowl, leaving any that have not opened to cook a little longer. Place 1 slice of the toasted bread in each serving bowl. Spoon the clams and the sauce over the toast and serve immediately. Pass the remaining bread on the side.
Per serving: 362 calories, 20 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 661 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Fettuccine With Shrimp, Vodka and Caviar
(6 to 8 appetizer servings)
Serve small portions before a main course of grilled salmon or filet mignon.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
12 ounces medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons vodka
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons minced scallions
1 pound fettuccine or other pasta
3 ounces salmon caviar
In a large stock pot, bring about 5 quarts of water to a boil.
In a nonstick skillet large enough to hold the pasta, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until they are pink and almost cooked through, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a plate.
Add the vodka to the skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the liquid evaporates, about 1 minute. Add the cream and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cream thickens slightly, about 1 minute. Stir in the shrimp, salt and pepper to taste, lemon zest and scallions. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and add the pasta. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, tender yet firm to the bite. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
Add the pasta to the skillet with the cream sauce and toss well. If the pasta mixture seems dry, add some of the reserved pasta water. Divide the pasta evenly among the plates. Top each portion with a spoonful of caviar. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 8): 364 calories, 17 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 225 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 279 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
Trenette With Crab and Little Tomatoes
(4 to 6 main-course servings)
In Naples, tiny dried chilies add flavor to seafood sauces. Don't use more than 1, or the heat will overwhelm the delicate crab meat. You may substitute another narrow fresh pasta or use dried linguine.
1 pound trenette* pasta
1/3 cup olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, sliced or crushed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes or 1 small dried chili pepper, crumbled
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half (or quarters if large)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
In a large stock pot, bring about 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente (tender yet firm to the bite).
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes or chili pepper and cook until the garlic is golden. Using a slotted spoon, remove the garlic and reserve for another use. Stir in the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes are softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the basil. Gently stir the crab into the sauce; remove from the heat.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with the sauce. If the pasta mixture seems dry, add some of the reserved cooking water. Serve immediately.
* Note: Trenette is thicker and narrower than fettuccine.
Per serving (based on 6): 388 calories, 16 gm protein, 45 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 114 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 183 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
(4 to 6 servings)
In Sicily, cuscusu is a dish that dates back to at least the 9th century, when the Arabs ruled the western portion of the island. It is a hearty one-dish meal with the elements of soup in the delicious broth, stew in the large chunks of fish and pasta in the tiny beads of couscous. This version is adapted from my book "A Fresh Taste of Italy" (Broadway Books, 1997).
2 cups fish stock or chicken broth
4 cups water
1 1/2 cups couscous
Salt to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (may substitute chopped canned tomatoes with the juice)
4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Pinch ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
Pinch freshly ground nutmeg
Pinch saffron, crumbled
Pinch cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds assorted firm-fleshed fish (such as swordfish, halibut, monkfish or sea bass; skinned, boned and cut into 2-inch chunks) and shellfish
In a large stockpot, bring the fish or chicken stock and 2 cups of the water to a boil.
In a large bowl, stir together the couscous, 3 cups of the stock mixture and salt to taste. Set the remaining stock mixture aside. Cover the couscous mixture; set aside until the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot large enough to hold the seafood in a single layer, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and bay leaf and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, saffron and cayenne pepper and cook for 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2 cups of water and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture to a simmer. (Can be made ahead to this point. Reheat the tomato mixture to simmering before proceeding.)
Add the seafood to the tomato mixture. Cover and cook just until the fish is cooked through, 5 to 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the seafood to a dish; keep warm.
Fluff the couscous with a fork. Add the couscous to the tomato mixture. Cover and heat until warmed through, about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. If the couscous seems dry, add some of the reserved broth.
To serve, spoon the couscous onto a deep serving platter. Top with seafood. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley and serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 6): 429 calories, 31 gm protein, 42 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 261 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
Orecchiette With Swordfish and Eggplant
(4 to 6 servings)
This pasta is unusual in that even though the sauce contains fish, it is finished with cheese, adding to the richness. Salting the eggplant removes some of the bitter juices and improves its texture.
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 scallions, minced
8 ounces swordfish or other meaty fish steak, such as tuna or shark, about 1/2 inch thick, skinned and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 cups chopped, peeled and seeded tomatoes (may substitute chopped canned tomatoes with the juice)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano, or a pinch dried
1 pound orecchiette, cavatelli or other similar-shaped pasta*
1/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Fresh oregano or parsley for garnish
Place the eggplant in a colander set over a plate; salt generously. Set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Then quickly rinse the eggplant and squeeze it in paper towels until all excess moisture is removed.
In a large deep skillet over medium heat, heat enough vegetable oil to reach a depth of 1/2 inch. It's hot enough when a small piece of eggplant added to the oil sizzles and cooks rapidly. Add the eggplant in a single layer. Do not crowd the pan. (You may need to cook in batches.) Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is crisp and browned on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pieces to paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining pieces. (Eggplant may be cooked several hours ahead. Simply reheat it on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so before proceeding.)
In a medium skillet over medium heat, cook the olive oil, garlic and scallions for 30 seconds. Add the fish and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fish is just barely firm and no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and oregano, bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (tender yet firm to the bite). Drain well. In a large heated serving bowl, combine the pasta, eggplant, fish and sauce. Toss well. Stir in the cheese. Sprinkle with oregano or parsley and serve immediately.
* Note: Orechiette is a small, disk-shaped pasta; translated, it means "little ears."
Per serving (based on 6): 317 calories, 15 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 15 gm fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 196 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
Michele Scicolone is the author of "Pizza Anyway You Slice It" (Broadway Books, 1998) and "Savoring Italy" (Time Life and Williams-Sonoma, $39.95).