What does Christmas smell like to you? Maybe it’s the sharp, resinous scent of freshly cut pine trees or the warm, enveloping fragrance of cinnamon and nuts in freshly baked cookies. But to me, Christmas smells like squid.
We did not do the famous Feast of the Seven Fishes at our house when I was growing up. My mother, who was born and raised in Chieti, in Abruzzo, Italy, had never even heard of this ritual until after moving to the U.S. in the 1950s. She’s convinced it’s just one more Italian-American mistranslation of her beloved homeland’s culinary traditions, much like bologna, stuffed shells, and red clam sauce. That’s not to say we didn’t eat fish and seafood on Christmas Eve—we just never knew we were supposed to count them.
Many seafood dishes have come and gone from our celebratory table over the decades. We typically serve fedelini with tuna and tomato sauce as a first course, although once or twice we’ve made linguini with clams instead. There was a sautéed whiting streak in the ’70s, an oysters-on-the-half-shell era during the ’80s, and a flirtation with skate, both fried and sautéed, in the ’90s. And during the last decade or two we’ve seen a dalliance with shrimp cooked retro-style with white wine and garlic. My mother also cooked eel two ways—broiled as well as agrodolce style with olives, raisins, and vinegar—for quite a few years simply because it was something her mother had cooked on Christmas. (Mom gave up after nearly a decade, finally admitting she was the only one who liked them.)
But no matter what else my mother brought to the table, there was always her luscious, richly sauced Calamari in Umido per la Vigilia di Natale, or Christmas Eve calamari. Everything else took a backseat to it. I haven’t had a Christmas Eve without it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, before squid were popular in the Unites States, my mother would place her order well ahead of time at the fish market. The squid were sold whole and not cleaned, so early every Christmas Eve morning she’d set about these messy, time-consuming tasks. I can still see her standing over the kitchen sink, meticulously peeling off every last bit of gray skin with her fingernails, working out the thin interior bone, snipping the sacs into rings, and slicing the creepy tentacle crowns into bite-size pieces.
As kids, my sister and I would watch her tend to the squid, transfixed by the creatures’ curly tentacles. Did we ever offer to help? Hell, no. We wouldn’t have touched those slick, tubular bodies or alien tentacles in a million years, though we somehow had no problem devouring the “creepy crawlers,” as we called them, once they were bathed in Mom’s sauce (and after we’d tirelessly poked and prodded them with our forks).
And these calamari are all about the sauce, which requires no exotic ingredients, just onion and garlic, a little chopped tomato, wine, parsley, and a hit of vinegar at the end. The making of it certainly isn’t complicated, although the results suggest otherwise. As the calamari braise, they turn from pearly white to clay red and become exceptionally tender and infused with flavor. They, in turn, impart a wonderful, nutty sweetness to the sauce, which takes on the perceptibly briny taste of the ocean as it thickens. It was—and still is—just the perfect thing to mop up with a chunk of crusty bread.
Mom’s calamari has remained a constant on our Christmas Eve table. However, now that my sister and I have grown up, things have changed a little. A few years ago my mother finally allowed me to take over the Making of the Calamari. I, of course, buy the squid already cleaned, as they’re still quite a lot cheaper than most seafood. Truth be told, I feel a little like I’m cheating by avoiding the hard labor. My mother seems to feel this way, too, given that she always feels compelled to sift through the package when we get home, as though looking for imperfections. And even though she ‘s constantly singing my culinary praises to her friends and neighbors, I can tell she’s always a little surprised when my calamari turns out just as good as hers.
We’ve also begun to count the number of fish and seafood dishes at the table. For this we have my sister’s husband, Tony, to thank. He grew up with the practice and insists that we abide by it, too. As much as my family loves to eat, none of us can quite stomach the thought of preparing and eating seven (seven!) fish courses. So I make a very un-Italian smoked salmon spread and we end up opening a tin or three of sardines or smoked clams, and we’re usually able to hit the magic number. But as far as I’m concerned, we could open six tins of fish. Because when it comes to our Christmas Eve feast, if you do the math, there’s only one seafood dish that counts.
Christmas Eve Calamari
In recent years, I’ve noticed a most troubling trend: disappearing tentacles. It seems many restaurants no longer serve calamari. They serve only calamari rings—typically fried so as to appear like a pile of tiny onion rings. There’s not a tentacle in sight, presumably because they’re a reminder of what one is actually eating. The truth, however, is that the calamari tentacles hold much of the flavor. They also add texture and quite a startling visual appeal. Kids do love them. I speak from experience.–Domenica Marchetti
LC In Defense of Tentacles and Frozen Squid Note
The creepy, otherworldly tentacles Domenica mentions are still commonly available along with their accompanying sacs, whether fresh or frozen, at many a seafood counter. To select impeccable fresh calamari, look for white, shiny specimens that seem slick and smell like the sea. Store them on ice in your fridge for no more than a day. Although fresh is lovely, frozen squid is arguably fresher, in a sense, and compromises little, if anything, in taste or texture. Simply thaw under cool running water just prior to using.
Christmas Eve Calamari Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 45 M
- 1 H, 45 M
- Serves 4
- 2 pounds cleaned calamari (fresh or frozen), both sacs and tentacles, washed and thoroughly dried
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 large cloves garlic, passed through a garlic press
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- Generous pinch red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped oregano leaves
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 can (14 1/2 ounces) stewed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 8 slices rustic Italian bread, plain or toasted (bruschetta)
- 1. With kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the calamari sacs (bodies) into 1/2-inch-wide rings. Cut each crown of tentacles in half lengthwise to yield bite-size pieces.
- 2. In a large sauté pan with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring from time to time, until softened and translucent, 7 to 8 minutes.
- 3. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic and the salt to form a paste. Add the paste to the onion in the pan, add the red pepper flakes and oregano, and stir to incorporate everything thoroughly. Add the calamari and stir to combine. Sauté for a minute or two. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the wine, and let the mixture bubble for 2 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes and their juices, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover partially, and simmer gently until the calamari are tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
- 4. Uncover and continue to simmer gently until the sauce has thickened somewhat, which may take up to 15 minutes. Stir in the vinegar, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook for 2 more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt if needed. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Serve in shallow bowls with the bruschetta or bread.
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