Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bringing Back a Favorite Christmas Dish

NPR has been running a series this week on holiday food traditions among various cultures. Yesterday morning, it was Southern Italy’s turn with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The food described—everything was breaded and fried—was nothing like the meal I remember my grandmother and then my mother preparing, but the story nevertheless awakened some culinary longing.

My mother had a kitchen in our basement that I only recall being used for this Christmas Eve spectacular. The fish arrived early in the morning from Abel’s Fish Market, packed in wooden crates filled with chopped ice.

Shrimp, clams, calamari (squid), polpi (octopus) and lobsters were my mother’s responsibility. Baccala (dried salt cod) and eels were the specialties of my Aunt Susie.

These days, the only remnant of the seven fishes that still graces our Christmas Eve table has been shrimp, served cold with cocktail sauce, just as my mother did. But when my mouth started watering as I listened to the radio on my way to work, I realized I needed to recreate at least one other of my mother’s dishes this year to satisfy what is clearly more than a fond memory.

I decided it would be octopus. Succulent morsels of purple and white flesh, dressed lightly in olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and garlic. Most people cringe when I describe the huge pots of water simmering on my mother’s downstairs range with these many-tentacled creatures bobbing gently. It took a few phone calls to locate octopus in my very New England town, but I succeeded in cornering four of the twenty pounds the fish manager at my local supermarket had managed to secure. The octopus arrives next Friday, just in time for Christmas Eve. This is how I intend to prepare it:

4 pounds of octopus, cleaned and rinsed

1 whole garlic clove

1 bay leaf

1 cup celery, chopped in small dice

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 4 lemons

1/4 cup chopped parsley

4 garlic cloves, chopped fine

Salt and pepper

Fill a large stock pot with water and bring to the boil. Holding the octopus with tongs, plunge it into the boiling water for 10 seconds. Repeat two more times, then return octopus to the pot and boil about an hour together with a clove of garlic and bay leaf. When done, you should be able to pierce it easily with a fork.

Allow the octopus to cool and then cut it into small chunks.

Blend the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and chopped garlic.

Toss the octopus with the celery and the olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and garlic mixture.

Drizzle with additional olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.