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A feast of seven fishes

A Christmas Eve spread -- Italian-style -- draws from the sea and those familiar Mediterranean staples of garlic and olives.

By John Edward YoungCorrespondent / December 20, 2011

Cabras, Italy

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

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A Christmas meal, whether celebrated on the night before or on Christmas day, pretty much follows ethnic lines around the world. In Britain, the once common roast goose of Dickens's day has given way to turkey, accompanied by Brussels sprouts and roasted potatoes with trifle or plum pudding for dessert.

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In Scandinavia, a smorgasbord is de rigueur. In France, there might be foie gras, roast capon, and bûche de Noël, and who knows what else! Plenty of room to pull out all the culinary stops.

One of the best and most enjoyable Christmas Eve dinners I've ever attended was given by the Italian owner and head chef of a cooking school in Cambridge, Mass. It was the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei Sette Pesci), which consists of seven different seafood dishes.

The seven fishes, generally thought to represent the seven sacraments, could vary greatly, I was told, but always included a calamari salad. This feast was no exception. The calamari was there in all its squiggly glory. Alongside was an elegant salmon mousse, a plate of silvery sardines, a large bowl of colossal poached shrimp blanketed in paper-thin slices of prosciutto de Parma, and baked haddock.

Desserts were numerous and crowned with an imported lemon panettone alla Milanese, flavored with almond and studded with sultanas and candied orange.

This feast ended at the stroke of midnight when the youngest child in the family marched solemnly through the living room and placed a small figurine of the infant Jesus in a crèche tucked under the Christmas tree, while everyone sang "Silent Night."

Then, quicker than you can say mangia, the fish was swept away and out came spaghetti and meatballs, veal Parmesan, and braciole, an Italian classic of stuffed and rolled beef flank swimming in marinara sauce. Hungry anyone?

CALAMARI SALAD

Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

If you're not experienced with cleaning these slippery cephalopods, look for frozen, cleaned squid. Freezing in no way inhibits the flavor or texture.

1-1/2 lbs. cleaned squid

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 small red onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, halved

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

2 celery ribs, cut into 1/4-inch slices

Small bunch of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

Rinse squid under cold running water, then lightly pat dry between paper towels. Halve tentacles lengthwise and cut bodies (including flaps, if attached) crosswise into 1/3-inch-wide rings.

Have a large bowl of ice water ready.

Cook calamari in a small amount of boiling, salted water, uncovered, until just opaque, 40 to 60 seconds. Drain in a colander and immediately dump calamari in ice water.

When cool, drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Whisk together lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bowl, then stir in onion and let stand 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine squid, olives, tomatoes, celery, and parsley in a large bowl. Toss with dressing and season with salt and pepper. Let stand at least 15 minutes to allow flavors to develop, or refrigerate overnight.

SHRIMP WRAPPED WITH PROSCIUTTO

Although these are baked, they may also be grilled.

12 8-inch bamboo skewers, soaked in water for 30 minutes

9 slices paper-thin Italian prosciutto

18 medium, raw shrimp (16 to 20 count) shelled with tails left on

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

Pitted Kalamata olives, optional

Warm French bread, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Slice each piece of prosciutto in half lengthwise. Wrap one piece of prosciutto around each shrimp; slide shrimp onto skewers, leaving a bit of space between each one.

Place skewered shrimp on a large piece of crinkled aluminum foil.

Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic in a small bowl.

Drizzle shrimp with olive oil mixture, then sprinkle each skewer with a pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste.

Bake 5 to 6 minutes on each side, being careful not to overcook.

Remove from oven, and slide shrimp from skewers onto a large, warmed platter; sprinkle with parsley.

Serve alongside a small bowl of Kalamata olives and crusty French bread.

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