Fishful Thinking – An Italian Christmas Eve

The only thing wrong with fish is, so far as I’m concerned, its expense.

Good, fresh fish is expensive and that’s that.  Even good frozen fish ain’t exactly cheap …  So, it stands to reason that one will tend to buy and consume the cheaper kind of fish such as anchovies and mussels more often than, say, lobster or wild Atlantic salmon.  The preparation of the cheaper ichthyological specimens can entail more work than many might care to summon but, who knows, maybe I can convert the odd reader or two?  Just because they are cheaper doesn’t mean they aren’t yummy to eat.

The traditional Christmas Eve menu in Rome (and in nearly all parts of Italy) is a strictly fish code affair (i.e. no meat) and this year there were going to be 19 of us gathering for this hallowed meal.  Now, aside from any budgetary consideration and the job of coming up with a menu suitable for a buffet dinner (i.e. no knives), you tell me how on earth was I going to come up with fish dishes that I could prepare for so many people, given that fish requires a minimum cooking time for best results and, worse, needs to be served the minute it is cooked?  (Can you imagine warming up a pre-cooked fish dish?  Ugh! The very idea …!)

The reason I didn’t get my knickers into too big a twist was that I have had quite a bit of practice now where fish is concerned and have also become quite adept in the crafty art of showcasing fish dishes without breaking the bank.  The answer to above question is, and I highly recommend it, room-temperature fish salads which can indeed be prepared in advance – so pretty, so colourful yet calory-thrifty, so nutritious, so delicious, so party perfect!

Thus on my menu were:

– the classic and expensive ‘insalata di mare’ consisting of  squid, octopus and (this being Christmas) lobster accompanied by parsley leaves, mandolin-sliced carrots and celery, seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice,

– a cheap-and-cheerful couscous salad with mussels,

– an equally cheerful but not-as-cheap emperor rice salad with king prawns (emperor rice is known as “riso venere” in Italian, i.e. the rice of Venus),

– tuna log slices (the kind of tuna that comes packed in olive oil) served with home-made mayonnaise, with chopped up radicchio leaves as a garnish,

– the uber-classic “insalata russa” – a potato salad with carrots, peas, olives and, again, home-made mayonnaise topped with freshwater crayfish imported from Denmark.  It was expertly made by our friend Elena from Roumania (where they make this insalata russa using chicken instead), and

– some raw shell fish : tartufi di mare (clams) and razor clams

With the invaluable help of my two sisters who came over from England, we also served everyone a plate with five ceramic spoons containing the following amuse-bouches:

– a small slice of boiled octopus topped with a little pesto sauce (my mother made the octopus),

– a baby chunk of mozzarella in a lemon zest sauce,

– polenta with truffle (as in “posh polenta”, remember?),

– aubergine (eggplant) with parmesan and tomato sauce,

– as well as, bending the non-meat rule somewhat, a mussel wrapped in a thin gauze of lardo and

– last, a teensy cube of fois gras served with quince jelly.

The plate looked quite swish and oh là là, if you know what I mean, but was actually imbued with good husbandry and was easy to prepare, cook in advance and assemble.

I almost had to suppress a giggle at one point because, except for some mayonnaise and that almost-gossamer slice of lard enveloping the mussel, it really did seem as if I were serving everyone diet food!  It really was “health” food!  Even emperor rice is said to rival blueberries for its antioxidants and health-promoting anthocyanins.  Freshly squeezed lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil …. A very-this-time-of-year treat, also, were the bunches of grapes served with parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar — again, healthy as anything and with the added bonus of  requiring no cooking whatsoever!

Lest you should think we are an overly virtuous and self-complacent family when it comes to eating, let me reassure you that there were other dishes much more in keeping with “naughty but nice” including scrumptuous supplì (fried rice croquettes) brought over by my in-laws and home-made patés and cheese-bread brought over by my sister-in-law, lots of chocolate and panettone – not to mention a good flow of bubbly and wine!

The point of my post is that there is nothing wishful about fishful thinking …

The Insalata di Mare ….

The couscous salad with mussels

The emperor rice salad with king prawns

the tuna log slices slathered in home-made mayonnaise and garnished with radicchio and parsley

the amazing Insalata Russa made by our friend Elena from Romania …

the tartufi di mare (clams) and razor clams … eaten raw, with maybe a squeeze of lemon juice — only for the intrepid!

a wintery treat: grapes, parmesan cheese and a drop of balsamic …

rolls of aubergine/eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan

Boiled octopus topped with a little pesto and tomato.

N.B. and P.S.  Not that it matters but I would like to point out that the last three photos in this post were snapped in September.  The reason I used them here is because I didn’t manage to photograph the same dishes on Christmas Eve … too busy getting on with the party!


About myhomefoodthatsamore

Community celebration via food, wine and all beautiful things.
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