Il Cenone: A Calabrian Christmas Eve Feast

Il cenone is the highlight of Christmastime at my house just as it is in Calabria. A Calabrian Christmas Eve dinner usually includes thirteen dishes, and is always centered around seafood. The fish is mandatory because the Roman Catholic Church made the day before Christmas (la vigiliа) a day of fasting and abstinence from meat, and some authors speculate that the thirteen dishes represented food for Jesus and his twelve disciples.

In the old days fresh fish wasn't available in rural areas and people could afford only baccala (salt cod),  stoccafisso (dried cod) and dishes like pasta with cured anchovies. These are humble dishes but are so delicious that people still continue to keep them on the menu, even with their new-found affluence. Today  they also use all the fresh fish available and make great seafood extravaganzas from them.

This morning I have started soaking the baccala so it will be ready on the 24th. On the morning of Christmas Eve I will make my run to the  fish market early in the morning and depending on what I find I will create my menu on whatever fish is available. I might prepare spaghetti con vongole (pasta with clams) or spaghetti with Dungeness crab or with swordfish. Following the pasta course, we  may have baccala (salted cod) either fried, braised with potatoes and dried sweet peppers, or in a salad with potatoes. I may also make a seafood salad that includes calamari, clams, and mussels, as well as lots of vegetable like cauliflower salad, broccoli rape sauted with garlic, and escarole salad.

My mom will be busy in the late afternoon making grispelle and cuddurieddi (fried leavened dough with potatoes), cannariculi and cicirata. (See my previous post for the photos.) I usually add some non-traditional desserts, such a tronchetto di Natale (chocolate Christmas log) or a semifreddo di torrone. (See below for the link to the recipe). Of course panettone is always on our table and this year as in the past two years my friend Fanny always brings a panettone made by Colavolpe in Calabria, which is studded with dried Calabrian figs and dark chocolate.

Below is a typical menu that would appear at my home on Christmas Eve. The highlighted dishes have links for recipes that were published in Sunset Magazine in December, 2007. For the others you will have to wait until my cookbook is published next fall 2010.

Wishing you all buon Natale!  Happy holidays and a great 2010!

Grispelle e Cuddurieddi

Tartine al Burro con Bottarga di Pizzo (Crostini with bottarga butter)

Spaghetti con Acciughe e Mollica (Spaghetti with anchovies and breadcrumbs)

Involtini di Pesce Spada (Grilled stuffed swordfish rolls)

Baccalà alla Verbicarese (Salt Cod with sweet red peppers and potatoes)

Insalata ai frutti di mare (Mixed seafood salad)

Insalata di Baccalà con Patate (Salt cod and potato salad with red onion and capers)

Broccoli Rape (Sauteed broccoli rabe with garlic)

Insalata di Cavolfiore (Cauliflower salad)

Chinule (Sweet Christmas ravioli with chestnut filling)

Cannariculi e Cicirata (Fried ridged pastry with honey Glaze)


Semifreddo al torrone (Semifreddo with Almond Nougat)

Frutta e dolci (Clementines, hazelnuts and walnuts, roasted chestnuts, chocolate coated figs and torrone)