A Guide to Christmas Fish in Naples
Christmas Eve is a fish lovers dream across the South of Italy. In the days leading up to the holiday, fish markets across Naples work over time to keep up with demand. There are many nouveau preparations of old favorites. But classics are classics for a reason. Below is a by no means exhaustive guide to Neapolitan Christmas fish and their simple preparations!
Slippery, slithery baby eels. They look like snakes and that is not a coincidence. According to local folklore by eating the snake like creatures, you are symbolically eating Satan and therefore glorifying the reign of Christ. To prepare, one buys live at the fish market, kills at home, coat in flour and deep fry in sunflower oil. Drizzle with lemon (if feeling fancy, garnish with parsley) et voilà, you have your own edible talisman to protect against the devil.
While not native to Mediterranean waters, cod features prominently on the Neapolitan Christmas table. Throughout the year Neapolitans often enjoy cod stewed in tomatoes, capers and olives. But for Christmas, once again the preference is fried. Soak salted cod in water for 48 hours (you can add salt to speed up the desalinization process). Rinse, pat dry, coat in flour and once again, deep fry in sunflower oil. Sauced & Found recipe here.
Now you can find Branzino at Whole Foods Markets all over the United States. But it used to be almost exclusively found in Southern Mediterranean waters. For Christmas, we often prepare Acqua Pazza or crazy water style. Pat dry a whole Branzino that has been cleaned and scaled. Rub with salt and pepper. Heat an unpeeled garlic clove in olive oil with a large sauté pan over medium heat. Swirl to release garlic aroma and remove. Add whole fresh or canned cherry tomatoes, salt, pepper, oregano and stir. Add branzino, reduce to a simmer and gently cook covered for 15-20 minutes depending on thickness of fish. Serve on a platter with potatoes. It is worth noting that Branzino has pin bones. No matter how you filet it, that is just how this fish is. If you detest pin bones, make cod or monkfish instead.
A big version of Anguilla, these fat eel are a Neapolitan Christmas delicacy. If you are squeamish, ask your fish monger to ethically kill and butcher for you. Deep fry as you would with angulla.
December is not really considered the ideal season for mussel harvesting in the Bay of Napoli. But Christmas means seafood and mussels are a beloved local favorite. The simplest and most ubiquitous version is impepata or peppered. Soak and clean mussels in your sink. Heat a large stockpot over medium heat, add mussels, A LOT of cracked pepper, cover and steam until all mussels are open. Drizzle with lemon juice and service on generous platters with lots of bread. As any civilized person know, the best part about the mussels is the juice. And the best part about the juice is the sopping up with bread. As this recipe is super simple and does not feature any cream (unlike the cretins use up North in Gaul), it is essential that you use the best quality of mussels local to your area.
So so easy! Monkfish is also not really native to Neapolitan waters but we love it all the same. Some even call it the pauper’s lobster. It is tender, mild and slightly sweet so we can work with that. In Naples, we buy Monkfish flash frozen from Surgelato (flash frozen goods) vendors. Trust us, flash frozen fish can often be excellent. The simply bring salted water to gentle boil and cook flash frozen fish directly for about 15 minutes. While cooking create a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and parsley. Drain and pat dry Monkfish. Serve on a platter with butter lettuce and drizzle dressing. Some people like to eat with mayonnaise. Fair enough but if you go that route, make your own aioli.
Orata is very similar to Branzino in taste and texture. You can also prepare according to identical recipe for Acqua Pazza style fish. Make sure to ask you fishmonger to clean and scale. If you really hate seeing the whole fish- have her cut into filets for you.
There are two classic Christmas preparations of polpo in Napoli- alla Luciana and al’insalata. Alla Luciana requires stewing in tomatoes. To make octopus salad, bring a pot of salted water (with a carrot, celery and onion) to boil. Dunk polpo in three times, each time resting in the hot water for 5 seconds allowing his arms to curl up. Finally cook at between a simmer and a boil for 30 minutes. Turn off heat, cover and allow to rest (and residually cook) for an additional 30 minutes. Drain and rinse octopus in colander. Pat dry and using scissors cut into rustic bite sized pieces. Toss with GOOD extra virgin olive oil, parsley and lemon. If you are on a budget, you can do half potato, half octopus. But c’mon it’s Christmas!
Plump sweet clams simply tossed in spaghetti is the Neapolitan primo of choice for Christmas. Vongole verace are best. Lupini come in a close second. After soaking and cleaning clams to rid of sand, warm a sauté pan over medium heat. Add an unpeeled clove of garlic and swirl to release aromas. Add clams, cover to steam until open. When all are open, set clams aside and filter liquid through cheesecloth-covered strainer. Cook spaghetti and prepare clam sauce. Add unpeeled garlic cove and generous olive oil to sauté over medium heat. Swirl to release garlic aroma, remove peel and add three to four cherry tomatoes, squashing a bit to release juices. Add clams, clam juices and sauté. Add cooked spaghetti toss to coat in juices. Garnish with parsley. Sauced & Found recipe here.