Merry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, please accept our wishes for a Happy Chanukah, Good Yule, or even the joyful renewal of the coming year. My offering is a recipe that is most unusual. It did not originate in our travels to Naples, although our recent visit sparked Jim’s memory of his mother’s Christmas Eve eel stew.
We have never spent Christmas in Naples. We come back to New York to celebrate various holidays with our families. Christmas now begins early in Naples and I was a little surprised. We visited Salerno on October 31st, a quiet holiday just before All Saints’ Day (November 1st), when people visit cemeteries to leave flowers or other offerings for loved ones who have passed on. Salerno was quiet, yes. But the Christmas decorations were up and ready to usher in a holiday that was still about two months away. The weather was still warm, and in the sunshine along the coast it felt like summer. The narrow streets farther inland, however, were dark and windy, foretelling the winter.
There was more heralding of Christmastime in Naples. Returning to our apartment in Naples, we walked along Via Tribunali. We came to a street that we had passed many times before – it seemed to be more of an alleyway than a street – but for some reason, unknown to us, we decided to go along Via Trinchera just to see where it led. It led to the Largo dei SS Apostoli
and a very plain-looking church that we read was built by Constantine upon a former Temple of Mercury.
When we entered the church, we were dazzled by its baroque chapels. And in one of those chapels, was a presepio.
The presepio is a grand Neapolitan tradition. It starts with the Nativity – the Holy Family, of course, along with the magi, shepherds and angles; but includes the people of Naples. There are pizza bakers, pastry makers, woodcutters, folks of the village eating in cantinas or drawing water from a well. Families add to this scene every year. And it ascends. Like going up a mountain. This presepio signaled to us that Christmas is coming and we would soon be going to our other home.
And the idea of Christmas caused us to think of our own upcoming Christmas Eve celebration and reminded Jim of his mother’s eel stew. He told me the following story:
“Every Christmas eve my Mother, following her family tradition of seven fishes, would prepare a Fish Stew whose main ingredients were eels and fennel (including lots of the feathery tops). The recipe was her Mother’s and a long standing tradition.
Of course being familiar and disgusted by slimy, wiggly eels that I used to catch in traps on LI Great South Bay, I and my brother gave her lots of grief about eating any. In the end for traditon s sake we held our noses & had a bite. That was hard to do.
Fast forward 40 years or so, just after Christmas and also after my father’s funeral, I visited my Mom’s house upstate. After an early morning ride I arrived around noon and as I entered her kitchen there was a delicious odor coming from a pot on the stove, I asked if I could have a taste.
Her indignant immediate response was NO!! Not after you & your brother gave me all that grief many years ago. The she said it was her families Ell Fish Stew from Christmas Eve.
So I begged. Delicious food is wasted on the young, etc. etc. She relented and it was truly wonderful.
One of my regrets was not thinking to get the recipe then. Many years later I polled all the family cooks, it was not to be found.”
Our project for this Christmas Eve became the attempt to duplicate eel stew. Working from Jim’s memory and checking the internet for ideas and suggestions, we came up with something that approximates his recollection, but is still a work in progress.
First, because we are back in New York, we went to Chinatown to buy live eels.
Once they were killed and cleaned,
we set out to cook them as follows:
1 lb eel.
1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 cups fennel, bulb and fronds only (make sure that the tops are light green and fluffy)
1 medium onion
4 cloves of garlic
¼ cup fresh parsley leaves
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
3 tablespoons additional olive oil
1/16 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
3 cups vegetable broth or water
Salt to taste
Cut eel into one-inch pieces and sauté in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salting to taste. Cover pan and set aside.
Using only the tender bulb of the fennel, slice it thinly. Remove the fluffy leaves from the stalks and add them to the bulbs.
Thinly slice the onion.
Mince the garlic and sauté it in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the herbs and onion. Cover the pan and continue cooking over medium heat until the onion slices are transparent and parsley is wilted. Add the sliced fennel bulb and fronds and the white wine. Cover and cook over medium heat. This dish is meant to be eaten with a spoon, so make sure there is plenty of broth.
When fennel begins to soften, add the broth. Cook until the fennel is tender. Put stew in a serving dish and top with the sautéed eel.
The stew is not exactly as Jim remembers it, but he says it is close. We’ll keep trying. He said there is definitely no tomato as there was in every recipe for eel stew we found on the internet. His sister recalled having a lot of thinly sliced onions in the stew, and Jim said his mother would use onion and garlic together. (I have been told that Italians don’t mix these two, but the Italian woman who taught me to make sauce had no objection when I mixed them.)
We enjoyed our Christmas Eve eel stew and will keep trying to improve it.
Have a very joyful holiday!