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Celebrate Christmas Eve With Fish

Most people probably know chef Don Pintabona as the executive chef of the Tribeca Grill, a job he held from 1990 to 2003, when he left to open a new restaurant, Trina, in Fort Lauderdale.

Now he's back in New York, ready to open a Mediterranean bistro called Dani (pronounced Donny) next week in Tribeca. The name of the restaurant, which will specialize in Sicilian cuisine, is a combination of his kids' names: Daniela, Alex and Nicolas. It's also kind of a joke because he dislikes it when people call him "Donny."

Pintabona also has agreed to take the Chef on a Shoestring challenge, creating a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner on a special entertaining budget of $80.

In his cookbook, "The Shared Table, Cooking with Spirit for Family and Friends," published earlier this year, Pintaboma writes: "I would venture to say that every Italian home has a traditional Christmas Eve dinner. It is often the same meal shared by their immigrant ancestors those many years ago.

"This meatless menu has enormous religious significance, as it is thought to reflect the seven sacraments or seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and always features seven fish courses. Tradition in some Italian households raises the number of fish courses to thirteen. Whatever the menu, the Christmas Eve meal is, without question, the one tradition that almost all Italians keep."

Here is his Christmas Eve menu:

  • Baked Clams
  • Baccala Salad
  • Linguine with Crab, Calamari, Shrimp and Mussels
  • Flounder Braciole
  • Cauliflower Cresspeda with Lemon-Pepper Aioli
  • Ricotta Cookies

Pintabona serves it with an antipasto plate of olives, celery, tomato etc., bottles of wine and an assortment of holiday cookies, which is not included in the $80 budget.

Here are his recipes:


"My dad takes great pride in his baked clams," Pintabona writes. "Nobody can help him make them! They are always on the menu on Christmas Eve and often served as part of an antipasto at Sunday dinner and anytime when the clamming is good. I always ask him to make them for me when I have friends over for a football Sunday. I have to say that although I give his recipe here, you'll probably have to borrow my dad to get them to taste as good as his do!"

6 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup fresh Italian bread crumbs
2 dozen cherrystone or littleneck clams, well scrubbed
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
juice of 1 lemon (optional)
about 1/4 cup water
freshly ground pepper


1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs and sauté for about 2 minutes, or just until they are taking on some color. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 F

3. Working with one at a time, carefully shuck the clams over a small bowl to catchy any juices. Discard the top shell and reserve the juice. Loosen the clam meat from the bottom shell by running a small knife under the broiler (see note).

4. Combine the reserved bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic, and oregano (if desired) in a small mixing bowl. Add the reserved clam juice, the lemon juice (if desired), and 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil and toss to combine.

5. Spoon about 1 teaspoonful of the bread crumb mixture on top of each clam, pressing down lightly so that the breading covers the entire shell. Pour the water into the pan and drizzle some of the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over the top of each clam. Finish with freshly ground pepper all over.

6. Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake the clams for about 8 minutes, or until the tops are lightly golden and the edges are bubbling. Remove from the oven and preheat the broiler. Place under the broiler at least 5 inches from the heat source and broil for about 30 seconds, or until the tops are slightly crisp. Serve hot with some Italian bread to dip in the liquid from the baking pan.

NOTE: For cherrystone clams, first chop the clams and place them back in the shell before adding the topping.


"It is said that cod is the fish that has nourished common folk the world over, " Pintabona writes. "In Sicilian cooking, this is certainly true, as every household has a recipe for either a salad or a stew featuring dried salted cod, and for many families, the dish will be at the center of the Christmas Eve dinner.

"Salt cod must be soaked for at least twenty-four hours, with the water changed frequently, before it can be cooked, and, unfortunately, it emits a very unpleasant smell as it soaks (When I was a boy, the soaking was done outside to keep the smell out of the house). Many cooks think that once that cod begins cooking, the smell becomes almost fresh, but to me, the smell remains strong and unpleasant. But after you acquire the taste for baccala, you will be willing to suffer the smell."

1 pound salt cod
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes, well washed and cut crosswise into 1/4 inch think slices
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 small red onion, peeled and diced
red pepper flakes
2 ribs celery, well washed, trimmed, and diced
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 cup diced roasted red bell peppers
1/2 cup sliced pitted ripe olives
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley plus more garnish
3 tablespoons chopped, drained, vinegar-packed capers
6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Place the salt cod in a deep bowl with cold water to cover. Soak for 24 hours, changing the water and rinsing the cod under cold running water every couple of hours.

2. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and simmer for about 6 minutes, or just until tender. Remove from the heat and drain well. Refresh under cold running water, drain, and dry pat. Set aside to cool.

3. Bring a pot of lightly salted cod water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and simmer for about 6 minutes, or just until tender. Remove from the heat and drain well. Refresh under cold running water, drain, and pat dry. Set aside to cool.

4. Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, and red pepper flakes to taste and sauté for about 3 minutes, or just until the onion has wilted. Remove from the heat.

5. When the fish has cooled, using your fingers, pull it apart into small pieces, discarding any bones and skin. When the fish is in smaller pieces, carefully check for and discard any small pinbones. Place the fish in a large mixing bowl along with the potatoes, celery, lemon juice and zest, roasted peppers, olives, parsley, and capers. Stir in the garlic-onion mixture and vinegar and toss to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours to allow the flavors to blend.

6. Uncover and taste. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary, with salt, pepper, and additional red pepper flakes. If desired, garnish the top with additional copped parsley before serving.


1/4 cup dried currants
About 1/4 cup olive oil
3 gloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 onion, peeled and minced
1 cup Italian Seasoned Bread Crumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Twelve 3-ounce 6 x 4 x 1/4 inch pieces flounder
Juice of 1 lemon
Lemon wedges (optional)


1. Place the currants in a small bowl. Add enough hot water to cover the currants by 1/2 inch. Set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until golden but not brown. Remove from the heat and scrape into a mixing bowl.

3. Drain the currants, discarding the soaking liquid. Add the currants, bread crumbs, parsley, and mint to the garlic mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine.

4. Preheat the oven to 350.

5. Lightly oil a baking pan large enough to hold the rolled-up flounder in a single layer. Set aside.

6. Place the flounder pieces on a clean, dry work surface. Place a piece of plastic wrap over each piece of fish and, using a metal meat pounder or cleaver, pound the fish until very thin. Place an equal portion of the stuffing in the center of each piece of fish. Working with one piece at a time, roll the flounder up, cigar-fashion, to make a tight, neat roll. Secure each roll with a couple of toothpicks. Place the fish rolls in a single layer in the prepared baking pan. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the rolls with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Cover the entire pan with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the filling is hot and the fish is cooked through. Remove the fish from the oven.

7. Preheat the broiler. Place the fish under the broiler and broil, watching carefully to prevent burning, for about 4 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown but not dry. Remove from the heat and drizzle with the lemon juice. Serve hot, with lemon wedges on the side, if desired.


1 Batch Nana's Marinara Sauce (Recipe follows)
1 Cup Bottled Clam Juice
1 lb. Can Crabmeat (Claw meat), picked clean of any shells
1 lb. Medium Shrimp, peeled, deveined & cooked (See below)
1 lb. Calamari Bodies, cleaned, cut into rings & cooked (See below)
1 1/2 Dozen Mussels, washed & poached (See below)
2 lb. Linguini Pasta, cooked
1 each lemon
2 each bay leaves (optional)
2 Tbsp Chopped Basil
2 Tbsp Chopped Parsley
to taste Salt & Pepper
1 teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes (optional ) , or to taste


1. In a medium saucepot , add the marinara sauce and bring to a simmer over a low flame. Add in the cleaned crabmeat and allow to simmer slowly, stirring often , for about 20 minutes .

2. Add the cup of clam juice to the sauce and stir in to mix, leave sauce on a very low flame and season to taste if necessary with red pepper flakes.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, adding the juice of 1 lemon and 1tbsp of coarse black pepper (or peppercorns) and 2 bay leaves if you have them in the house.

4. Drop in the shrimp and allow to simmer for 3 minutes, then strain out with a slotted spoon and cool under cold running water. Set aside

5. Add the mussels to the same water and simmer 2 to 3 minutes until they open, then strain out from water with a slotted spoon. Set aside

6. Add the calamari to the water and allow to simmer for 3 minutes and then strain out with a slotted spoon and set aside.

7. Bring the water back to a boil and add in the pasta with 1 tbsp of olive oil and stir quickly so that pasta doesn't stick. Boil the pasta for 7 to 8 minutes or according to package directions, leaving it al dente.

8. Place a large colander in the sink with a pan underneath to catch some of the pasta water and strain the linguini well.

9. Place the linguini back into the empty pot, add the hot crab sauce to it and then add in all the cooked fish and stir together over a low flame for a few minutes to incorporate and warm together. Add ½ cup of the reserved pasta water, if needed, just to moisten pasta

10. Garnish with the fresh herbs and hot pepper if desired and serve immediately on a large platter.


1/2 cup olive oil
1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 pounds very ripe Italian plum tomatoes, peeled, cored, and lightly crushed (or four 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes, with juice, lightly crushed)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
About 1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste (optional)
2 T dried basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes, or just until the onion begins to soften. Stir in the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes more, or just until the garlic begins to color. Immediately add the tomatoes and stir to incorporate the oil into the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a bare simmer. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, for 25 minutes. Midway through the cooking process, taste and, if necessary, add just enough sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

2. Stir in the basil and parsley and cook for 5 minutes, Taste, and if necessary, adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper, and sugar. Serve over pasta, as a dipping sauce for fried shellfish or calamari, or as a sauce for grilled poultry.


1 head cauliflower, well washed and trimmed of all leaves
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
4 large eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
about 1 1/2 cups water
about 6 cups vegetable oil
Lemon-pepper aioli (optional)

1. Break the cauliflower into 4 large portions. Place in a saucepan with lightly salted cold water to cover by 2 inches.
Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, or just until tender when pierced with the point of a small, sharp knife. Remove from the heat and drain well. Place in a colander under cold running water to stop the cooking. Pat dry.

2. Break the cauliflower into small florets. Set aside.

3. Combine the flour and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Combine the eggs and grated cheese in another mixing bowl. Slowly whisk the egg mixture into the flour, adding as much water as needed to reach a pancake-batter consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Heat the oil in a deep fryer over high heat to 350 F on an instant-read thermometer.

6. Working with a few pieces at a time, dip the cauliflower florets into the batter and then drop them into the hot oil. Fry, turning occasionally, for about 3 minutes, or until golden and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower to a double layer of paper towels to drain.

7. Serve warm with the lemon-pepper aioli as a dipping sauce, if desired.


2 large egg yolks
2 T fresh lemon juice, warmed
1 T white wine vinegar, warmed
2 T chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 T freshly grated lemon zest
1 tsp coarsely ground pepper
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
coarse salt
1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil


1. Place the egg yolks in the blender. With the motor running, add the warm lemon juice and vinegar.

2. With motor at the lowest speed, add the parsley, lemon zest, pepper, garlic, turmeric and salt to taste. When all of the ingredients are blended, begin adding the oil in a slow, steady stream. Process until the mixture begins to resemble mayonnaise. Stop the motor immediately or the aioli will get too hot and break up.

3. Scrape the aioli from the blender into a small serving bowl. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to one day.


2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 pound ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cups confectioner's sugar
1 and 1/2 tablespoons milk


1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line at least 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside

3. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until well blended. Increase the speed to high and beat until light and fluffy

4. Return the speed to medium and beat in the eggs, ricotta, lemon and orange zest and vanilla extract

5. Remove the bowl from the mixer and using a wooden spoon, beat the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture until a firm dough forms

6. Drop the dough by the teaspoonful onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving about 1/2 inch between cookies. Place in the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the oven and place on wire racks.

7. Place the confectioner's sugar in a small bowl. Beat in the milk to make a really thickened icing. Using a fork, drizzle the icing over the cookies while they are still warm.

8. Continue baking and finishing the cookies until all of the dough is used. Store tightly covered for up to 3 days.

Makes about 60 cookies

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