Traditions, we all have them. Some we hold onto so tightly and never want to let go for fear of losing forever the people or places they remind us of. This is especially true when people in our lives pass away, when we physically are no longer near the places where these memories came from. Food is the connector often between that memory and the present day. Holidays seem to be a real trigger for these emotions and traditions. One way I keep my Mom and Dad at our Holiday dinners is by recreating in some way a dish that was served by them as we grew up. Specifically I’m talking about my Mom’s Stuffed Calamari (squid) in Sauce that was one of many Seafood dishes she served on Christmas Eve. For ItalianAmericans it was an extention of the old Catholic pre-Feast fasting, when the night before a religious holiday no meat was allowed. While this practice in the Catholic church is centuries gone, it became part of the Christmas Holiday traditions in Italy. No matter where you go in Italy there will be families that are only eating Fish or Seafood and in Italian America, since most of our ancestors came over 100 years ago to the USA we still celebrate their 100 year and older traditions. What changed between Italy and the USA over these 100 years is the amount of seafood and fish dishes that are served. Oh yes, there are a few places in Southern Italy where there’s a number attached to the amount of fish dishes on Christmas Eve but it’s not a majority practice. Somehow the name, Feast of the Seven Fishes was coined here in the USA and in the last 30 years it’s the name and sometimes practice ItalianAmericans follow. Historically, most of Southern Italy was quite poor 125 years ago and that’s why they immigrated in such large numbers to the USA. People living in those meager conditions would never have the means to pull off a multicourse fish and seafood dinner. Fishermen needed to sell the better fish to make a living and basically fed their family the unwanted bits and pieces. So that fish dinner on Christmas Eve was often a Brodetto, a mix of fish and seafood pieces that streched it into a meal for many. Baccala’, the dried Salt Cod was also a popular item because it was plentiful and kept for months before it was to be used. Coming to America the initial Christmas Eves, or La Vigilia as it’s called for the new Immigrants were small affairs similar to what they had in Italy with maybe a few more dishes here and there because all foods were more accessible and plentiful in the USA, especially the urban centers. Fast Forward to the first generation of ItalianAmericans born in the USA and around the time of WWII we enter the BOOM time of the 1950s where people are doing better, the celebrations were bigger as the families grew and the number of dishes served went up exponentially. My Dad never made tons of money, he always provided us with what we needed and then some, but Christmas Eve was the BIG NIGHT. All types of seafood were in the kitchen with Mom at the stove frying, baking, grilling, braising. This is how I believe the “Feast of the 7 Fishes” became a thing, an ItalianAmerican thing. One of these dishes is My mom’s stuffed calamari and I’d like to share it with you for your Christmas Eve or whenever. I don’t do the whenever. Mom made it once a year, so I do to. To honor her. To remember her. It’s what makes it a tradition.
STUFFED CALAMARI FOR 6
TIME: 2 HOURS
Southern Italian Seafood Sauces with tomato are generally composed of only a few ingredients, often perfumed with really good olive oil and garlic, a good dose of heat from peperoncino (either fresh italian red chiles or dried). Sometimes a touch of White Wine, and parsley. Seafood sauces paired with fried seafoods tend to be heavier on the oil, garlic, peperoncino, and a pinch of oregano in there. They are also thicker. This One for the Stuffed Calamari is one of the first types. More like a regular pasta sauce.
3 TBS GOOD EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
3 SLICED CLOVES OF GARLIC
1 TSP PEPERONCINO (DRIED HOT ITALIAN CHILE FLAKES)
1/2 TSP SEA SALT
1/8 CUP WHITE WINE
2 28 OZ CANS OF GOOD QUALITY ITALIAN PLUM TOMATOES, like San Marzano, or a good POMODORI PELATI. Crush the tomatoes with your hands or a processor.
3 SPRIGS OF ITALIAN FLAT LEAF PARSLEY
Make the sauce first. In a saucepan/pot heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and peperoncino. Sprinkle the salt over that. Stir making sure the garlic doesn’t burn. After about 2 minutes on medium heat add the wine. Let this come to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Now add the parsley then the tomatoes. Blend well. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Let this simmer for 1/2 hour. While that’s going on let’s stuff the CALAMARI!!!
10 CLEANED MEDIUM SIZE CALAMARI “TUBES”
1/8 CUP CHOPPED CALAMARI TENTACLES
1/2 TSP LEMON ZEST
JUICE OF 1/2 LEMON
1 1/4 CUP GOOD ITALIAN BREADCRUMBS
2 TBS OLIVE OIL
2 FINELY MINCED GARLIC CLOVES
2 TBS. FINELY MINCED FRESH ITALIAN FLAT LEAF PARSLEY
3 TBS GRATED PECORINO
1/2 TBS. PEPERONCINO
15 PIGNOLI NUTS
PINCH OF SEA SALT
10 CAPERS (OPTIONAL)
5 GAETA OLIVES , CHOPPED (OPTIONAL)
Blend everything together except the tubes. This will form a stuffing blend for you. Some years mom blended an egg into the mix, others she did not. The eggs will create a solid stuffing, no egg creates a looser one. I always make the non-egg one. With each Calamari tube carefully fill each one leaving room at the bottom, and about an inch or more at the top. The Stuffing will expand and you don’t want the tubes to burst into the sauce (and yes that’s happened to me plenty of times and it makes for a really tasty sauce to serve over macaroni, but with all this work, you want your calamari to stay nice, capisci? Good). Fold the tops over so you can skewer them with a long toothpick. But they time you’ve done all this the sauce is ready for the calamari!! Simply drop the calamari into the sauce and make sure they are all covered. Simmer this for 50 minutes, Remove from the heat and let it sit in the sauce for 15 minutes. Done.
HOW TO SERVE? Glad you asked. However you would like is my first answer. My second answer is go Italian style but serving the sauce over a pasta for a first course (primo) then the Stuffed Calamari with a side vegetable as a second course (secondo) OR, like Mom did it, the sauce on the macaroni and with the Calamari on the side all at once. Thanks to all who asked me for this recipe today, I’m sure my Mom is smiling!!