Have I mentioned that my family is Italian? I grew up third generation, which is close enough to still have some of the food traditions, not close enough to identify people by what parish they attend. So Christmas Eve for me is about fish. The typical Italian feast is seven fishes (for the sacraments), or 10 (for the stations of the cross), or, if you are really ambitious, 13 (for the apostles + Jesus). I felt like I had to be realistic about what I could reasonably manage, however, so I just planned 3 (I guess for the tripartate divinity, or something like that, if you must have some divine symbolism with your holiday meals).
I hatched a plan to try to make a really traditional meal for La Vigilia, which necessitated finding eel. My recipe (Batali, found on the ‘tubes) called for raw eel. I found plenty smoked, and otherwise cooked (though in the latter case, only in a town 45 mins away from my home), and I was beginning to despair of ever finding raw, when it occurred to me to call the seafood/sushi restaurant by where I work, and lucky me, they had it.
It also called for caper berries, which are not available at my local Whole Foods, but which yielded a frustrating/hilarious conversation with the Whole Foods Cheese Lady that went something like this:
me: Do you have caper berries?
wfcl: We don’t have any fresh ones. We have some in jars in aisle 3.
me: Those are capers. Caper berries are different.
wfcl: I know.
me: (tilting head slightly rightward in contemplation) So you don’t have any then?
When my friend J who works in Malibu offered to pick some caper berries up from her local deli and they were SOLD OUT, I was bummed. Mario Batali, I love you, but come on. There’s only so much energy I have for hunting down exotic ingredients, and I’d already expended most of it just finding the fish. I’d have to live in New York or Rome to even attempt this recipe as written. I think I understand now why there are no reviews of it on Epicurious.
I figured I’d abandon the recipe entirely and maybe go for frying, but once I saw the fish, I was back to Batali. I’m pretty easily squicked out, but usually less so by fish. Still, there was something about the still-silver head-on aspect of the eel that made baking it in red sauce in the oven seem vastly preferable to the much touchier frying plan. I have more than I need – the fish guy seemed to think that with the heads removed, three would be about right for 2 adults, but frankly, three is about two more than I can really take if I’m making two other fish as well.
In addition to eel, I had Manila clams and salt cod. What a lovely trio.
Ultimately, the eel worked, but was not a recipe I’d return to. This is probably user error, more than anything. You can get eel in sizes from baby up to steaks, and mine was somewhere around adolescent. I adjusted the baking time accordingly, but it still wasn’t quite right. My guess is that Mario is starting with a pretty different cut than I was. I still have half of what I bought left, and based on what I know now, I’ll probably man up and fry it.
Here’s a shockingly accurate photo of how I felt eating it:
And for the clams, I steamed them, then dumped a garlic/butter/wine/cream sauce over them which was so simple it didn’t even require a recipe (just fry some garlic up in half a stick of butter, add 1/2 C wine, boil, swirl in a little cream, maybe some lemon, definitely some parsley), and frankly it was may favorite thing on the table. I also made the Bittman braised chard from How to Cook Everything, and for someone who is up to her eyeballs in chard, it was an freaking REVELATION.
Tomorrow, my house will be full of family time, then kids + cousins. The cuteness is already overwhelming.