It’s no secret that on Christmas Eve, Italians and Italian Americans celebrate the holy night with “La Vigilia”, or “The Vigil”.  Authentically, it’s nothing more than staying up late, eating, drinking, and attending midnight mass.  Many Italians fast on Christmas Eve, avoiding meat and dairy and enjoying a variety of pasta and fish dishes served leisurely throughout the evening. 
However, somewhere along the line of immigration, Italian Americans have made this out to be the “Feast of the Seven Fishes”. No one really knows what this means.  Many believe the number 7 represents the 7 Sacraments. Some say it represents the 7 days of the week or the 7 deadly sins.  Others say it’s 12 fishes and represents the 12 apostles. 
Regardless, it is a night for enjoying the ocean’s bounty and many have trouble coming up with several different fish dishes to serve. This one, lifted from La Cucina Italiana magazine is both delicious and easy.  I should also say, as delicious as they were hot, they were also good at room temperature.
Sardine fritte con scamorza affumicata
Fried sardines with smoked mozzarella.  Here’s what you’ll need.  It looks like a lot, but it’s easy.
16 butterflied sardines (2 to 3 ounces each), heads removed
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound scamorza or smoked mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1/3 cup whole milk
1 cup coarse plain bread crumbs
Vegetable oil for frying
 2 cups baby arugula
 2 lemons, cut into wedges  
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup hot water
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
FOR SARDINES: Arrange sardines on a work surface, flesh-side up; season with salt and pepper. On top of 8 sardines, layer cheese, then top with remaining 8 sardines skin-side up, to form neat packets. Arrange packets in a baking dish and cover sardines with parchment or wax paper. Weight with cans of canned vegetables or a heavy skillet. Refrigerate at least 1 hour, up to 8 hours. Remove sardines from refrigerator, remove weight. Let sardines come to room temperature before frying. Just before you are ready to fry sardines, prepare sauce.
FOR SAUCE: In a medium bowl, combine oil, lemon juice and salt; whisk vigorously to combine. Whisking constantly, add hot water, drizzling in a bit at a time. Add garlic, oregano, parsley and generous pinch pepper; whisk to combine. Adjust
salt to taste.

Spread flour on a large plate. In a large shallow bowl, lightly beat together eggs and milk. On a second large plate, spread bread crumbs. Working with 1 sardine packet at a time, lightly flour packet, then dip in egg, letting excess egg drip off, then firmly press into bread crumbs to coat all sides. Transfer to a large plate or baking sheet and repeat with remaining packets.
Place a wire rack over a baking sheet and arrange near stove.
Fill a large skillet with oil to come 1/4 inch up sides. Heat oil over medium to medium-high heat until shimmering. In batches, carefully fry packets, adjusting heat if necessary (oil should not smoke), until golden brown and just cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer packets to wire rack to drain, then season both sides with salt and pepper.  Serve with the sauce on the side.

Fried Sardines with Smoked Mozzarella and Lemon Herb Oil

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