An Italian Christmas Eve: a family gathering and a feast of fish

The living room lights are turned off and the room is dotted with candles. My older sister and one of our cousins enter the living room, carrying a stable and the main figures for a nativity set.

It is Christmas Eve, a time when all of the family gather. It is the one time of year when we are all together. The preparation of the food and the love and care that accompanies our meal on Christmas Eve are vital and rejuvenating elements for us as Italian-Americans.

On Christmas Eve fish is the traditional food. The main course of the evening meal, which is served just after sunset, traditionally consists of linguine alle vongole (pasta with clams), roasted peppers, a salad, and fruit and nuts for dessert.

The clams we use are caught and frozen by one of my aunts. It is illegal to harvest clams in southern California during the fall and winter months, so they must be collected in May, June, July, and August.

Fresh, sweet peppers, too, are homegrown in my uncle's backyard and most of the fruit - oranges, persimmons, and figs - are from our own orchards.

After the Nativity set is arranged, the younger children are allowed to blow out the candles and the lights are turned on. Children are given a special treat, usually a small piece of chocolate. Nuts are served in the shell so the father of each household can crack the shells and give out the nutmeats to his family.

The time of cracking the nuts is also the time for storytelling. Every year we hear the same stories, of Christmases the brothers and sisters remember from growing up together. They are family stories, as traditional as the family meal.

Here are some of the family recipes which are good at any time of year. Linguine Alle Vongole (Pasta With Clams) 1 pound linguine noodles 1 quart water 2 teaspoons olive oil 4 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup flour 1 cup milk 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 clove garlic, diced 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes 1/2 teaspoon parsley 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1/2 teaspoon basil 1/2 teaspoon red chili pepper 2 cups clams

Boil pasta in water and oil until cooked. Drain and set aside, but keep warm. Melt butter and add flour. Gradually add milk, lemon juice, garlic, tomatoes, and seasonings. Add clams and cook 5 minutes. Serve over pasta. Serves 4. Roasted Peppers 6 large peppers 1/2 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic, chopped 2 teaspoons basil 2 teaspoons oregano

Roast peppers on a cookie sheet 20 minutes at 400 degrees F. Turn and roast another 20 minutes. Cool and remove skins and seeds; slice into thin strips.

In a bowl, mix together the oil, garlic, and seasonings. Sprinkle dressing over roasted peppers and serve.

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