On Christmas Eve, our family will gather to celebrate La Viglia di Natale (the night watch for the midnight birth of Jesus), better known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, to enjoy the same traditional Sicilian seafood dishes that our mother prepared for us years ago, plus a few new ones we’ve added over time. Growing up, we never heard Christmas Eve dinner referred to as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We just knew that on Christmas Eve we’d observe the Catholic tradition of abstinence from meat and our mother would be preparing an array of seafood specialties that have been made by Italian women for generations. Baccalà (salted cod), stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, pulpo (octopus) salad, fried shrimp and scallops, baked fish, all came to the table on Christmas Eve. Truth be told, as children, these exotic fish dishes challenged our young palettes. Our mom would joyfully terrorize us by dangling an enormous octopus in her hand before she plopped it into a pot of boiling water. And when mom added celery, olive oil, garlic, parsley and lemon turning it into a salad, those chopped up tentacles had even less appeal. But our parents made us taste a little bit of everything so we dutifully sampled these gifts from the sea, then headed out to enjoy the rest of the eve with our good friends, the Gucciardis and the Aguannos. We young ones couldn’t wait for midnight, the breaking of the vigil, when the piping hot pizzas and spicy sausage and peppers came rolling out of our dear Aunt Vitina’s kitchen.
While we may have been reluctant participants when we were kids, over the years we grew to love those holiday dishes and long for our mom’s playful pulpo teasing. My sisters and I still make the traditional foods: fried shrimp and scallops, the calamari with red sauce (my husband’s favorite) and yes, the pulpo salad. And little by little, our children have learned to love most of them too. I must admit we retired the baccalà some time ago (no need for salted cod now that we have refrigeration!) but we’ve added a new favorite, stuffed rolled swordfish: thinly sliced swordfish stuffed with a classic Sicilian stuffing of breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, raisins and parsley, then rolled and skewered with onions and bay leaves. These little wonders melt in your mouth – and our kids didn’t have to wait to grow up to appreciate them.
Stuffed Rolled Swordfish (Involtini di Pesce Spada)
Serves 4 – 6
12 slices of swordfish cut ½ inch thick and cut into rectangles, approximately 4” x 6”
1 ¼ cup, plus ¾ cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup raisins or currants
¼ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
2 – 4 tablespoons, plus ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil for rolling
1 ½ onions, sliced in eighths
12 bay leaves
3 – 4 long wooden or metal skewers (if using wooden skewers soak in water for 30 minutes before using).
In a medium bowl combine and mix together ¾ cup of the bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, garlic, raisins, pine nuts, lemon juice, pepper and salt. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil as needed until mixture is moist, but still crumbly.
Pour 1/2 cup olive oil into a small plate. Place the remaining 3/4 cup bread crumbs on another small plate.
Season swordfish lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of breadcrumb mixture on each swordfish slice. Starting from the narrow end, roll each one up like a jellyroll. Then carefully roll the swordfish in the olive oil and then the breadcrumbs. Thread onto skewer, add an onion section, then a bay leaf and repeat. Depending on size of swordfish, you can usually fit about 3 swordfish per skewer.
To Grill: Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Brush swordfish and onions with remaining oil and season again with salt and pepper. Place on the hottest part of the grill and cook for 3 minutes, then gently turn and cook for another 3 minutes or until done.
To Bake: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place swordfish skewers on a lightly oiled pan and bake for approximately 10 to 12 minutes or until done.
Carefully remove the swordfish, bay leaves, and onions from the skewers. Discard the bay leaves. On a serving platter, arrange the swordfish rolls, the baked onions and lemon wedges. Serve hot or warm.
Note: If you can, have your fishmonger slice the swordfish for you. Santa Barbara Fish Market does it for me every year.