When I was a little girl, I would absolutely revel in the stories that my parents would tell me about their childhood growing up in Czechoslovakia; especially the ones that centered on how they celebrated Christmas time. These stories were so comforting to me as my parents would each recount special memories with a playful smile; there was always some air of mischief involved in these stories, some recollection of either themselves, a sibling or a cousin getting their hide tanned for some shenanigan or another. The stories were beautifully built around the very things that should make any child feel cozy: family, the love found between the members of that family, and rich tradition. Both of my parents had large extended families, and the holidays were always celebrated with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers/grandfathers, and great-grandmothers/grandfathers—not to mention all of the aunts and uncles and cousins. The focus for everyone during Christmas time was on the spiritual aspects of the holiday; no one really had high expectations for things of a material nature, as money was scarce. Getting a fresh orange in one's stocking was a delicious surprise that was cherished for its exoticism—imagine that! Life was hard, but in a way, simpler and more fixed on the important: love and faith. There may not have been an over-abundance of different foods on their holiday tables to partake in, but every bite of it had meaning; every bite had love, and it was apparent to all who tasted it.
My parents always described Christmas Eve as the most important time of the Christmas holiday for their families. It was a festive time when a special dinner was prepared, and everyone would gather to begin eating once the first star of the evening was spotted—a duty often designated to the children to keep them out of the kitchen and out of everyone's hair so that mothers and grannies could move about fluidly without tripping over the little ones. The first course was often a tangy soup, usually made with sauerkraut, followed by delicious, golden fried fish as a main staple with all of its comforting accompaniments. And everyone could hardly wait for the fried fish to be placed upon the table, all breaded and crispy, and succulent as it was. Once every bite was eaten, every morsel gone in everyone's very merry belly, the little gifts would be exchanged between family members, and the children would run off and play until the family would once again gather, wrap themselves in warm winter coats and hats, and walk to the local village church to attend a midnight mass, gratitude filling their hearts for what they had.
Things aren't kept quite as traditionally for our family as they once were back in the time of my parents' childhood in Czechoslovakia. Though Christmas Eve is still actually the special part of the tradition that we all continue to keep, we celebrate this special time in a slightly more quiet way, in our own way, by sharing a delicious meal, giving thanks for what's been done for us and what's been provided. In our house, we light a few candles to create a cozy environment to share stories and connect to one another, and create an atmosphere to connect to the spiritual, to God. I thought it would be nice, this year, to include a little taste of what my ancestors enjoyed eating at their Christmas Eve dinner for many generations past, with my own twist; it's a reminder of how life was once celebrated by those before me, by those who provided me with my physical roots and heritage. Sometimes, the traditions of those that came before us can help us to remember what is truly important and worth celebrating in our own lives today; they can create humility and gratitude for all that life has to offer, and that is so often what makes life taste as deeply rich as it does.
Taste what's good and pass it on.
Golden, Crispy Pan-Fried Fish with Lemon, Garlic-Sauteed Greens and Sliced Almonds
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4 tilapia fillets
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
4 cloves garlic pressed through garlic press, divided use
1 teaspoon sea salt, divided use
¾ teaspoon paprika, divided use
¼ teaspoon plus a pinch cracked black pepper, divided use
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided use
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
• Vegetable oil for pan-frying (between ¼ - 1/3 cup)
4 cups (heaping) mustard greens, coarsely chopped and woody rib/stems removed
¼ cup toasted, sliced almonds
• Lemon slices for garnish
-Place the tilapia fillets onto a large platter; add to them 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 cloves of the pressed garlic, ½ teaspoon of the sea salt, ½ teaspoon of the paprika, ¼ teaspoon of the cracked black pepper, 1 teaspoon of the lemon juice and the ½ teaspoon of lemon zest, and gently distribute these ingredients over the fillets to evenly coat each one; marinate the fillets for at least 30 minutes, up to 4 hours, depending on how full-flavored you like them (the longer the better!).
-After marinating the fillets, prepare to dredge them in the breading mixture by adding the panko breadcrumbs, the grated Parmesan cheese, ¼ teaspoon of the sea salt, the remaining ¼ teaspoon paprika and the pinch of cracked black pepper into a dish large enough to comfortably dredge the fillets in; mix the breading ingredients with a fork to blend the ingredients, and then dredge each fillet (one at a time) in the the breading mixture by gently yet firmly pressing each fillet, both sides, into the mixture; set the breaded fillets aside, and prepare the oil to fry them in.
-Set a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat; add in the vegetable oil, roughly 1/3 cup, and allow the oil to heat up (you can test it by dropping a small crumb of the breading into it, and if it floats, sizzles and fries, it's hot enough to fry the fish); once hot, add the fillets into the pan working in batches depending on the size of your skillet (do 2 at a time if possible, but don't overcrowd the pan); pan-fry the fillets for roughly 4 minutes for the first side, or until golden-brown in color, and then flip and fry the other side for roughly 3 minutes longer; once the fillets are fried, place them onto a paper-lined platter or large plate to drain, and set them aside keeping them warm while you prepare the mustard greens.
-To prepare the mustard greens, place a large non-stick skillet over medium heat, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil; once the oil is hot, add in the remaining 2 cloves of pressed garlic, stirring; as soon as the garlic becomes aromatic (takes just a few seconds), turn the heat off from under the pan, add in the mustard greens, and with tongs, gently toss the greens with the garlic-oil to coat allowing the greens to gently wilt and warm up; add in the remaining ¼ teaspoon of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, toss, and top the crispy pan-fried tilapia fillets with equal portions of the greens; sprinkle over top about 1 tablespoon's worth of the toasted, sliced almonds, and garnish with a semi-circle wedge of lemon. Serve with rice, roasted potatoes, or any favorite accompaniment.