For my family here in New York, Christmas Eve is always spent at my aunt & uncle’s home as my aunt has hosted the holiday every year for 30+ years in honor of my uncle’s nameday. The food we indulge in is usually a mix of typical Greek dishes as well as some Greek-American favorites: baked ham, pork/chicken “kabobs” with peppers and onions baked in a light tomato sauce, roast beef, pastitsio, roasted potatoes, taramosalata, tzatziki, spanakopita, tyropita and all the typical Greek Christmas sweets including kourambiedes, melomakarona and baklava.
Walking into the local fruit and vegetable market I frequent–Strawberry Farms–the other day I was hit with all the delicious sights and flavors of the impending holiday from another perspective. Located in a predominantly Italian (and somewhat Greek) neighborhood of Whitestone (just bordering Flushing), the market was already brimming with foods enjoyed by the Italian community this time of year: sweet Panettone, shiny chestnuts, bright orange clementines, boxes of fresh green/black olives ready for brining and crate, upon crate, upon crate filled with salt cod or baccala.
I naturally gravitated towards the salt cod (or Μπακαλιαρο / Bakaliaro as we call it in Greek; it’s my favorite fish) and quickly picked through the crates to find a good piece. You see, I’d just seen a clip of a show, Food(ography), broadcast on The Cooking Channel highlighting Christmas Eve traditions and the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Anthony Pucciarello, executive chef at Luce Restaurant, shared a glimpse of the seafood and fish dishes his Italian American family enjoys each Christmas Eve… one of which was a gorgeous baccala salad that I was really eager to try. And so I did … and here you can see the results:
The Insalata di Baccalà was filling and light all at once. I tossed the salt cod with red cubanelle peppers I’d roasted myself, crisp green celery, refreshing parsley, garlic I’d sauteed in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, red wine vinegar and of course olive oil. Pucciarello’s aunt had dotted her baccala salad with celery, red onion, black olives, garlic and red peppers. Capers would also be a welcome addition to this dish.
Now decide whether or not you should introduce some new culinary traditions to your Christmas Eve. There is always room for something new and especially delicious on any holiday table. Check out these additional ideas perfect for a Feast of the Seven Fishes:
Mediterranean Cod with Hash Browns
Bourdetto (Stewed Scorpion Fish)
Tarragon Baked Red Snapper
Squid and Mussels in White Wine
Garlicky Squid with Spinach
Octopus Pot Pies
Shrimp in White Wine with Cherry Tomatoes
1 1/2 lbs. salt cod (baccala)
4 red cubanelle peppers
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 large ribs of celery, thinly sliced crosswise
Small bunch parsley, finely chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Put cod in a large bowl and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Soak cod, chilled, changing water numerous times (I think I changed the water out 8 times in 36 hours), up to 3 days. Drain and chill until ready to use.
Roast the red peppers until the skin is blackened and the pepper quite soft. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover and let sit for about 30 minutes. Uncover, peel skins and finely chop the peppers. Set aside.
In a small skillet/pan, heat the olive oil then stir in the garlic. Saute until the garlic is fragrant and softened slightly then remove from heat and bring to room temperature.
Drain cod and transfer to a 5- to 6-quart pot with 1 1/2 quarts water. Bring just to a simmer and remove from heat. (don’t boil the cod or it will become tough). Transfer cod to a large bowl to cool slightly. Break cod apart with your fingers then toss with the celery, garlic with the oil, roasted peppers and parsley.
Stir together the lemon juice, vinegar and sugar then pour over salad, tossing to coat well. Season with ground black pepper and let sit up to 1 hour before serving so that flavors develop OR chill, covered, up to 2 days (let sit at room temperature at least 1 hour before serving).