Christmas Eve, La Vigilia (the vigil), as it’s called in Italy, is traditionally a meatless meal, eaten late in the evening. But just because it lacks a big lamb or pork centerpiece doesn’t mean it skimps on quality or quantity. To the contrary. This is a meal of many fish dishes and usually takes hours to eat, each dish brought to the table separately, in ceremonial fashion. For Italian-Americans seven fish dishes are usually the amount prepared, but this seems to be more an American than a purely Italian tradition. People debate what the number symbolizes, except that it most likely refers to the seven sacraments. In Italy, especially in the South, nine, eleven, or thirteen fish dishes are more the norm and they have specific religious symbolism. Nine represents the Holy Trinity times three. The number thirteen stands for the twelve Apostles plus Jesus, but the preparation of eleven seafood dishes seem to stand for the twelve Apostles minus Judas (very popular in Sicily for some reason).
My New York Italian family usually prepared three, I believe because it was relatively easy to prepare and get them out to the table without too much kitchen hysteria. Usually we started off with some type of cold seafood salad that could include calamari or scungilli, then on to linguine with clam sauce, and after that often we’d eat a big platter of giant broiled shrimp with garlic and lemon. Other traditional dishes can involve octopus, sea urchin, oysters, baccala, eel, and whole sea bass.
My mother’s father always prepared this beautiful pasta with lobster. I never tasted his version since he died young, but I’ve recreated it from my mother’s description. It’s really lovely.
Merry Christmas to you.
Spaghetti with Lobster, Tomato, and Cognac
(Serves 4 as a main course)
3 small lobsters (about 1 1/2 pounds each)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, cut into small dice
3 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus the leaves, chopped
A generous pinch of sugar
About 8 big scrapings of nutmeg
A generous pinch of Aleppo pepper (or a smaller pinch of cayenne)
1/3 cup cognac or brandy
1 35-ounce can high quality, Italian plum tomatoes, with the juice, well chopped
1 pound spaghetti (Latini is the brand I always use)
A dozen basil leaves, lightly chopped, plus a few whole sprigs for garnish
For the best flavor and texture, the lobster for this dish should be sautéed raw. This means either hacking the things up alive (something I no longer have the stomach for) or, my new solution, having your fish seller kill them for you. You just have to make sure to cook them the same day. Once you get your lobsters home, you’ll need to cut them into pieces. Get a sharp, heavy knife or a cleaver and start by cutting the lobsters in half horizontally through the top of the shell. Remove the head sac, located on either side of the top of the shell. Now separate the tail sections from the head sections. Remove the claws and front legs in one piece, and give the claws a swift whack with the back of your knife or cleaver to crack them. You’ll notice a long, dark intestinal tract running along the top of one of the tail sections; pull that out. Remove the tomalley, and the roe if you find any, and place in a small bowl, mashing it up a bit.
If you don’t want to bother with all this, just have your fish seller cut up your lobsters for you.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water over high heat.
In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, celery and leaves, thyme, a pinch of sugar, salt, Aleppo or cayenne, and nutmeg, and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add half of the cognac and let it bubble until almost dry. Add the tomatoes and a splash of water and simmer, uncovered, for about 8 minutes.
In a very large sauté skillet (or two smaller ones), heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat (a little more if you’re using two skillets). When hot, add the lobster pieces, shell side down, and sauté until they turn pink, about 4 minutes. Turn the pieces over and sauté for a minute on the other side. Now add the remaining cognac and let it bubble away. Add the tomato sauce and the tomalley and roe if you have it, and let everything simmer, uncovered, until the lobster is just tender, about 5 minutes. The sauce will be a bit loose. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and a pinch of Aleppo or cayenne, if desired (this is not meant to be a full-on Fra Diavolo hot sauce. You really want to a hint of heat). Add the basil.
While the lobster is simmering, add a generous amount of salt to the boiling pasta water and drop the spaghetti into the pot. Cook until al dente. Drain the spaghetti, leaving a little water clinging to it, and pour it onto a very large serving platter. Drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil and give it a toss. Pour the lobster sauce over the top and garish with the basil sprigs. Serve right away.
Dining With the Saints is written by chef Erica DeMane. EricaDeMane.com
Image: Detail from a fresco of The Nativity (1303-1305) by Giotto di Bondone located in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.