Monday, December 19, 2011

Fish and chips and La Vigilia

Traditions die hard in Italy, particularly food traditions. That’s why most Italians will tell you that on Christmas Eve, known here as La Vigilia, they will eat ‘magro’ or ‘lean’. Don’t let that fool you. To interpret this as ‘light’ is completely mistaken! Since when have you heard of Italians eating light?  Rather, it just means no meat – of course, they compensate with extra vegetables and plenty of fish. 

The number of courses served on Christmas Eve tends to be symbolic – seven for the seven sacraments, 12 for the disciples, 13 with the addition of Jesus. The type of fish you eat really depends on where in Italy you happen live. A firm favourite in the past was il capitone (eel), either fried or in umido.  However, tastes have changed somewhat and it’s probably fair to say that today the preferred choice of fish for most Italians is baccalà or merluzzo (salt cod).

I’ve no intention of attempting 13 courses, or 7 for that matter! But, being a huge fan of salt cod, I do love cooking for Christmas Eve. That might have something to do with the fact that my family was, for many years, in the fish-and-chip business in Belfast. This year, like every year, I’m cooking salt cod two different ways – one for the Irish in me (deep fried in batter) and one for the Italian (alla Napoletana). As my family originated just outside of Naples, I guess you could say that this is a real family combo for me! 

Salt cod Neapolitan-style
Baccalà alla Napoletana

Baccalà is sold everywhere in Italy in the run up to Christmas. It is important to buy it in advance as it needs to be soaked in water for a couple of days before cooking. It’s also important to remember to change the water several times a day. Baccalà alla napoletana is a hugely popular dish cooked not only in Campania but across the country (albeit often under a different name).  The addition of sultanas and pine nuts really lifts the dish and makes it something special and festive.

Serves 4-6 people
Preparation time: 15 minutes + soaking time for the fish
Cooking time: 30 minutes

1kg salted cod fillet (ready to use)
800g tinned chopped tomatoes
150g black olives
50g sultanas
25g pine nuts
1 tablespoon capers
2 cloves of garlic
Flour of dusting
A little olive oil
Salt and pepper

To make the sauce, in a deep-sided frying pan gently fry the two cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil for a few minutes.  Next add the chopped tomatoes, olives, sultanas, pine nuts and capers.  Allow to simmer gently for 15 minutes and check for seasoning.  If necessary add salt and pepper.

Whilst the sauce is simmering take the fillet of prepared salt cod (see above) and cut into steaks of about 5cm wide.  Dust with seasoned flour and fry in a separate frying pan with a few tablespoons of olive oil until golden on the outside.  You can do this in batches.

Once all the cod has been fried, place into the pan with the sauce, cover and continue gently simmering for 25-30 minutes until the cod is cooked all the way through. Serve immediately over polenta or with crusty bread.

Deep fried salt cod
Merluzzo fritto

Serves 4-6
Preparation time: 15 minutes + soaking time for the fish
Cooking time: 15 minutes

1kg salted cod fillet (ready to use) cut into large pieces
Vegetable oil for frying
150g plain flour
75g corn flour
Good pinch sugar

Mix together all the ingredients for the batter with 225ml chilled water and 1tsp of salt and leave to rest for about 30 minutes.
Heat the oil to about 180ºC. Dip the cod pieces into seasoned flour to coat and then dip into the batter. Allow excess batter to drip off. Then fry in hot oil until golden and crisp, and cooked through in the centre.
Cook the fish in batches, drain on kitchen paper and keep hot in the oven while you cook the rest. When all the fish is cooked, sprinkle with salt and serve with lemon wedges or vinegar and oven baked chips.

Reinforcing salad
Insalata di Rinforzo

Insalata di Rinforzo hails from the Campania region in the south. Its name means to reinforce the appetite! Full of strong flavours typically of region, this dish will evoke memories for anyone who has ever visited Naples or the surrounding region. For me, this is one of those clever Italian dishes that feeds more than just the appetite. Both in the making and in the eating, the preserved vegetables bring back an all but distant memory of warmer summer days – a perfect tonic on a cold winter’s evening. For many people across the country, the preparation of the dish will have started on a hot July or August day when vegetables were being harvested and preserved fresh from the fields.

Strictly speaking, the peppers used are generally jarred and preserved in vinegar. However, along with the pickled cornicions, capers and salted anchovies, I find this over-powering and prefer instead to inject a little mild sweetness, which you can get by roasting the peppers. It’s just a question of taste because ultimately this is a great dish as it’s versatile, there are no hard-and-fast rules, it can be prepared well in advance and if you see it’s running low, you simply top it up!  What’s more, serve the salad on a large platter, put your feet up and let the guests help themselves.

Serves 6-8
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

1 cauliflower
3 red/yellow peppers
150g cornicions
200g black olives
150g large pickled onions
80g salted anchovies
4 free-range eggs
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Put the peppers on a baking tray and place in a pre-heated hot oven for about 15 minutes, or until the skins are blackened. Remove and place in a covered bowl and cool. Once cooled, peel the peppers and slice into strips. Set aside.

Break the cauliflower into florets and boil in salted water until tender, but still retaining a bite.  Set aside to cool.  In the meantime, boil the eggs for around 8 minutes until hard-boiled, then peel off the shell and set aside to cool.

To finish the dish, arrange the cauliflower on a large serving plate. Distribute the roasted peppers over the cauliflower and then the remaining ingredients. Finish off with the hard boiled eggs sliced in half. 

To make the dressing, simply whisk together the oil and vinegar, and season generously.  Pour the dressing into a serving jug and allow guests to dress their own salad to taste.


  1. I was interested to read Mario about the number of courses being symbolic. We have never had 7 courses nor more for that matter on vigilia, but my father-in-law does observe the fish on Christmas Eve. I am a fried fish fan. I am pretty sure we have had a variation of your Neapolitan style cod as well, given that my father in law is from near Naples (sort of). Buon Natale Mario :)

  2. The most I've ever had is 9 Cathy and as I'm a huge seafood fan, I enjoyed every course of it. Personally I don't have the time to prepare 7 courses these days, as I'm usually too busy preparing Christmas lunch. But I admire anyone that does!