As a first-generation Italian American, Linda Prospero has embraced family holiday tradition her whole life. For many Italian Americans, Christmas Eve is the day of the Festa dei Sette Pesci, or Feast of the Seven Fishes, an adaptation of an Italian tradition known simply as La Vigilia — the Vigil.
“When I was growing up my parents always had a huge Christmas Eve feast,” she says. “I don’t even remember that they called it the Seven Fishes. It was just a plethora of dishes on our table,” she says.
There was always pasta with squid or crabs, and lots of fried fish, including smelt and baccala, also known as salt cod. Each year her parents would go to Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market, which is still there today, to buy their seafood. And some years there were surprises, like the year her brother, on leave from the Navy, brought freshly caught conch home with him.
Today Prospero, a Scott Lane resident, is an accomplished home cook and, since 2008, the blogger behind the website Ciao Chow Linda. The former journalist started the blog in 2008 after she spent a regenerative year in Italy “off of the treadmill.” Over the past decade she has made hundreds of recipes to share on her site and on Instagram, often with entertaining reminiscences or snippets of the history behind the things she makes. Around this time of year, her posts often have a holiday angle to them. Just about any recipe she has ever made for Christmastime, including desserts, can be found on the blog.
Prospero, now 68, grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs. Her mother was from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, her father from Calabria. She remembers one year her grandfather, who lived with the family, insisted that eels be part of the Christmas Eve feast. So her parents came home from the market with a supply of the live, squirming fish.
Her grandfather usually did his cooking in a second kitchen in the basement — “typical Italian-American family,” Prospero says. “My mother relegated him to the basement kitchen because he would like to cook pig’s ears and pig’s tails and she did not want to tolerate that in her kitchen,” she says.
But on that day, instead of taking the eels to his basement kitchen, her grandfather went straight into the main kitchen and proceded to kill them there. “The room had these white curtains and they were covered with blood,” Prospero says. “My mother was irate.”
In those days, Prospero knew the holiday tradition as a participant — but not as a cook. In a post from 2010, she wrote that when she was dating her first husband, Rich, she “didn’t know a sieve from a spatula.” After they were married, she wrote, she had a daily reason for improving her culinary skills.
Over the years she gained confidence in the kitchen, and after the death of her mother and mother-in-law, she took over responsibility for planning and preparing the dinner. She also made it more her own, reducing the amount of fried fish dishes in favor of dishes like octopus salad or seafood risotto.
Prospero was married to Rich for 40 years. An engineer with Univac and later Johnson and Johnson, he was also a first-generation Italian American. They moved to Princeton from South Brunswick in 1990, raising a son, Michael, and a daughter, Christina, who both attended Princeton High.
In 2006, Linda decided to take a leave of absence from her job as a reporter for Reuters. Rich had already retired from J&J. They spent six months in Italy, after which she quit her job and they stayed another six months. During the time she was there, she took temporary employment doing English-language coverage of the Turin Olympics for a local newspaper.
A few years later, after returning stateside, she was inspired by her niece who had moved to Paris and started a blog about her experiences there. “I thought, I wish I had thought to do that the year I was in Italy,” Prospero says. “I love to cook, I love to write, I love to take photographs. That was the impetus for creating the blog.”
The recipes she uses can come from anywhere, although she has a particular fondness for Lidia Bastianich, the New York chef who has become well known through her cooking shows on public television. In 2008, posting the recipe for her mother-in-law’s stuffed squid, which today is always a feature of her Christmas Eve dinners, she wrote about how it had been passed down to her by her mother-in-law, and how after the death of her mother and mother-in-law some years before, the responsibility for hosting the feast had fallen to her. And she in turn has been preparing the next generation to take the mantle. Son Michael, for instance, is the one who makes the stuffed squid these days.
Although Rich Prospero died in 2010, Linda has remarried and maintained the holiday traditions. Husband Ron DeCicco has two sons of his own. Though he is also Italian American, he did not have a strong family tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. “He’s happy to take part in it now,” she says.
Prospero expects about 15 for the feast this year, including her father, now 97, and his second wife, to whom he has been married nearly 30 years. Christina, who lives in London, plans to be there along with her boyfriend, and Michael and his wife will be there with their newborn. Also planning to be there is one of DeCicco’s two sons, as well as his wife and children. (DeCicco’s other son lives in New Orleans.)
The menu will be similar to the one she had in 2016, which was as follows: Prosecco; cold shrimp with cocktail sauce; oysters with mignonette sauce; fried smelts; fried squid in tomato sauce; latkes; baccala mantecato; homemade fettucine with shrimp, scallops, squid, and clams; stuffed squid in tomato sauce; crab cakes; fennel salad; plus a buche de noel (a.k.a. yule log), cookies, and moscato for dessert. Prospero says this year she might shorten the menu a little and leave out the crab cakes.
One might notice the inclusion in the menu of latkes, the traditional hanukkah dish of fried potato cakes. It’s a nod to Prospero’s daughter-in-law, who is Jewish. One recent year, she says, they took the baccala mantecato, which is a dish in which the cod is turned into a spreadable paste, and matched it up with the latkes, in a new dish they called baccalatkes. “Actually it’s a great combo,” Prospero says.
Linda Prospero’s Stuffed Squid
15 – 20 squid, medium size – cleaned
6 cups of diced, sturdy white bread, trimmed of crusts
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup white raisins, soaked in water for about 1/2 hour
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk, or more if needed
salt and pepper to taste
Instructions: Buy the squid already cleaned, but rinse them under water and remove any cartilage that still might be left in the body. It will pull out easily and look like a strip of milky, translucent plastic. If you want, trim the wide end of the squid for a more even look.
Place all the filling ingredients in a bowl and mix until you have a moist consistency. Stuff the bodies of the squid, but don’t fill them completely since the squid will shrink during cooking.
Place a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a casserole and lay the squid on the sauce. Cover squid with more sauce.
Bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes. If you make this ahead of time and refrigerate, be sure to take out of the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before baking. If you bake these much longer than 1/2 hour, the squid will be tough and chewy.
Use your own recipe, or follow mine, which is about double what you’ll need for the squid recipe. Use the rest another time – for pasta, or pizza or whatever you like.
1 large can (28 oz) San Marzano tomatoes
1 large can (28 oz.) tomato puree
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, finely minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red or white wine
1 T. dried basil
1 t. red pepper flakes (or more, if you like your sauce spicy)
Instructions: Place the olive oil in a large pot, and add the onions and carrots. Saute until soft, then add the garlic and saute a couple more minutes. Break up the whole tomatoes with your fingers, or using a food processor, but leave some texture. Do not break them up so much that the sauce becomes smooth. We like it with some tomato lumps in it. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree to the pot, along with the wine, salt, pepper, basil and red pepper flakes. Simmer on low heat for about one hour.
Noel at the Nassau Club
Steve Pieretti is the general manager at the Nassau Club. Every year the club celebrates the Christmas holiday with a party and brunch.
For a number of years now a buche de noel, or yule log has been a regular feature of the brunch. Buche de noel is a traditional French holiday cake made in the shape of a log that has fallen in the woods. Like most, the one that the Nassau Club serves is embellished with leaves and fungi and other forest finds — all made out of sugar.
Pieretti, who lives in New Hope, says he introduced the buche de noel tradition to the Nassau Club to honor the memory of an important person from his life. He did it in memory of Bernard Norget, for many years a chef and chef patissier in New York City. Norget, who died in 2011, was also chef-owner of Maxim’s New York in the 1980s, and Pieretti was his business partner. During that time they started a catering company and buche de noel was one of the desserts they would often sell to their catering customers.
Members of the Nassau Club are also accustomed to eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. That’s an adoption of an American southern tradition that holds that black-eyed peas, if eaten on January 1, signify good luck for the coming years. “It also cures your hangover,” Pieretti says wryly.
For many people, the winter is a time of holiday tradition. Alejandro de Casenave has fond memories of Christmas in Puerto Rico. The executive chef of Witherspoon Grill lived there until he was 11, when he moved to Lawrence with his family.
“In Puerto Rico, we celebrated Christmas poolside, and beachside,” he says. “Moving here was a little daunting at first, seeing snow and being cold. I was used to wearing shorts and swimming.”
Each year for Christmas his family would prepare lechon, or a whole roast suckling pig, in the backyard. It takes hours to cook, and while it was on the fire they prepared rice and beans and other side dishes. Lechon is a holiday tradition in many Caribbean territories, including Puerto Rico and Cuba, where de Casenave’s mother is from. “I’m very lucky because my mother’s family is Cuban and my dad’s side is Puerto Rican, so I had this mix of the two cultures,” he says.
De Casenave and his family may live in New Jersey now, but that hasn’t prevented them from maintaining their holiday tradition. The chef and his family still get together every Christmas Eve for lechon with all the fixings.
Another Christmas tradition in Puerto Rico is the coquito, a drink that literally translates as “little coconut” and which is sometimes called Puerto Rican eggnog. There are variations found throughout the Caribbean and Latin America that feature some combination of evaporated milk, condensed milk, coconut cream, egg yolks, spices, and rum. De Casenave remembers his mother, Mercedes, making coquitos every year — with a twist.
“My mom being a creative type, switched the rum to brandy, that being the Cuban part for us, and she would add chocolate syrup to it,” de Casenave says.
Mercedes, who worked for many years as a label translator for Bristol-Myers Squibb, would make the coquitos, bottle them, and give them to people as gifts. For kids, she made a virgin version. That coquito tradition lives on today. Only now, de Casenave’s mother makes enough so that he can give it away to his friends and co-workers as well.
De Casenave, 30, lived in San Juan until the family moved north. After graduating from Lawrence High, he attended William Paterson University to study finance. Unfortunately, his studies coincided with the Great Recession of 2008, and finance no longer looked like a great career option.
So he moved back home and enrolled in the lauded culinary program at Mercer County Community College. He worked in kitchens locally and in New York before settling in as executive chef at Big Fish, the restaurant in Princeton MarketFair. In 2015, he moved on to Witherspoon Grill in Princeton, first as sous chef to Chris Graciano, and then, after Graciano moved on, as executive chef.
De Casenave says he looks forward to getting off early every Christmas Eve and celebrating the holiday — and lechon — with family. They eat dinner at 10 p.m., then at midnight they drink coquitos and open presents.
And as they celebrate, de Casenave can think about the many friends and co-workers who get to enjoy his family’s coquito tradition along with him. “It’s a little piece of home I get to share with friends on a cold day,” de Casenave says.
Coquito from Maria Morales
2 cans evaporated milk
1 can cream of coconut
1 can coconut milk
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup white rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Instructions: Blend everything except the rum until you get a smooth mixture. Add the rum and mix again. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve cold and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
The healthy tradition
Dorothy Mullen says you can say that her holiday food tradition is not to have a holiday food tradition. The founder and board president of Princeton’s Suppers Programs is known as an advocate for people who want to improve their health by changing the way they cook and eat. Through her programs she and her facilitators work with people to understand the way they eat and the way that eating makes them feel — and how changing eating habits can affects health issues like diabetes, anxiety, cognitive loss, and mood swings, possibly in ways different from what they have come to believe (www.thesuppersprogram.org).
Mullen says personally she looks to cook, eat, and share the holiday foods that don’t lead to a need for New Year’s resolutions. “Our traditions at Suppers are all around enjoying the holidays to the fullest extent possible without going into the old drinking and eating habits that created your health problems to begin with,” she says. Pressed, she says if there is one thing she serves to holiday guests every year, it is roasted brussel sprouts. “Roast them at high heat with kosher salt, and when they caramelize, they sweeten,” she says.
Suppers has hundreds of recipes to help people get through the season. Like a “Christmas in a bowl” wild rice salad with pomegranate, or roasted vegetable soup with butternut squash, apples, and, if you’d like, roasted chicken (vegans can opt for roasted cauliflower instead).
Learning to listen to one’s body and to make meaningful changes to one’s eating habits is a difficult enough task any day of the year. But Mullen knows that the challenge becomes that much greater during the holidays, when so many traditions revolve around food and drink — lots of food and drink.
“Holidays are a challenge when people want to celebrate but their holiday traditions make them feel sick,” Mullen says. “At Suppers, we see it across religions, ethnicity, and age groups.”
Mullen says there can be serious challenges to socializing once you have to manage blood sugar or you’re concerned about advancing cognitive losses or inflammatory conditions. Cookies, pies, and sweet potatoes laced with brown sugar or the latkes, kugel, and challah attach to consequences like high blood sugars, brain fog, and even the pull back into addictive eating patterns.
Mullen and her staff know that few people want to be the person at the holiday party who brings something good for you. So in December, many Suppers meetings are oriented toward sharing delicious recipes for holiday side dishes and desserts “that taste so good you don’t have to apologize that they’re ‘healthy,’” Mullen says. “It’s our daily practice to make the delicious food and the healthy food all the same food, and at the holidays we kick it up a notch.”
Dorothy Mullen’s Christmas in a Bowl
(Holiday Wild Rice Salad)
1⁄2 cup dry wild rice
1 celery rib (finely diced)
1 large pomegranate
1 cup diced cucumber (not the seeds, just the flesh)
1 cup chopped parsley
1 lemon (juiced)
1 drizzle olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt (more or less to taste)
Yields: 6 servings
Instructions: Cook the wild rice according to the directions for al dente, about 50 minutes. Seed the pomegranate (here’s the best way to do it). Combine the rice and seeds with the celery, cucumber and parsley. Dress with lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Salt to taste.
‘Munchies for Mensches’
A tradition that has started up in recent years at the Jewish Center in Princeton has grown considerably in recent years. It’s called Munchies for Mensches, and it was started by member Barbara Schwartz in 2009.
At the time, Schwartz was a teacher at the Jewish Center. Before that she had been at Congregation B’Nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, where she was a volunteer for a program called Goodies for the Good Guys. Each year members of the congregation would bake or buy baked goods and candy to be assembled on trays and distributed to police officers, firefighters, and hospital personnel who were working on Christmas Day.
After leaving B’Nai Tikvah, Schwartz and her family continued to do their own, scaled-down version of it. In 2009 Schwartz had the idea to get other members of the Jewish Center involved. Volunteers assemble the trays, wrap them in cellophane, write up nice cards, and deliver them throughout the Princeton area. “Picture long tables with cookies on the tray, an assembly line,” she says.
In 2009 the Jewish Center made 17 trays. This year social action co-chair Lewis Gantwerk says they’ll distribute as many as 70 trays to police, fire, and medical personnel as well as to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the area.
While Schwartz is still a member of the Jewish Center, she is no longer a teacher there. Today she works as synagogue administrator at Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pennsylvania. But she says she’s proud knowing that Munchies for Mensches is still going and growing.
“When people receive [the trays], they’re just stunned,” Schwartz says. “They’re taken aback that people would do this for them. It’s such a good feeling.”
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Princeton Echo.