The Feast of the Seven Fishes

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Another request from the readers...

What to make on Christmas Eve.

If you are an Italian American then Christmas Eve is celebrated by serving a boat load of fish.  Some call it The Feast of the Seven Fishes.  In Italy they just call it a grand meal. 

It appears that the root of this tradition is based mostly in the religious fervor of abstaining from eating red meat until Christmas day.  Folks stayed away from meat eating during various religious days throughout the year and the eve before Christmas was no exception. La Vigilia or Vigilia di Natale; the vigil held until midnight when baby Jesus was born. However, in true Italian style, just because one is abstaining from one type of food doesn’t mean you go hungry.  Oh, the contrary.  Instead they serve an abundance of something else.  Hence, bring in the fishes!

 My mom and grandmothers prepping. It takes a village and a few generations to feed an Italian family!      Photo credit: Paul Majewski

My mom and grandmothers prepping. It takes a village and a few generations to feed an Italian family!     Photo credit: Paul Majewski

So serving seven fishes is a made up number really.  Some Italian American families go up to 13. These are clearly people will a ton of time on their hands. Preparing that many dishes, and ones that are not so easy to pull off is no simple feat.  But usually this group has a team of grandmothers, aunts, cousins, etc all pitching in.  It seems that whatever the number count, it is always an odd number since that brings good luck.  However, the number 7 is believed to hold a higher significance as it is based in religious reasons. Some theories:

  • The number 7 is the most repeated number in the bible, making appearances over 700 times.
  • God did all his work in 6 days and the 7th he rested.  I would say he could use a day off.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church there are seven Sacraments.

Blah blah blah.  The number isn’t as important as the tradition of serving fish.  I’m not so big on the why but continuing traditions that bring good memories.  If it’s a tradition that is based on something religious and that has meaning to you, great.  If not, but the tradition evokes love and laughter with family and friends, well that my friend is what it is all about.

 Family meal. Eat up everyone!                                                                                                                                             Photo credit: Paul Majewski

Family meal. Eat up everyone!                                                                                                                                            Photo credit: Paul Majewski

If you are going to attempt the feat of The Feast of Seven Fishes, start early.  And I mean that.  You will need several days of prep if you are going to make any of the tradition recipes.  I have listed them at the bottom of this post with links to popular recipes.  This list is the most common fish used for the feast.

  • anchovies 
  • salted cod fish
  • clams
  • eels
  • lobster
  • merluzzo (cod)
  • mussels
  • octopus
  • sardines
  • scungilli
  • shrimp
  • smelts
  • squid
  • whiting

So let's say that you are interested in trying this tradition but just want to give a nod to the fishes, as opposed to swimming with the fishes, which is another reference entirely. Then swim along with me. I like abundance but I don't have a team of helpers. Below are a few dishes that are simpler in preparation and in numbers.  Pick and choose among my recipe list below. I’m suggesting you start off with 3. Still an odd number for good luck, if you believe in that sort of thing, and much easier to manage. These recipes are not traditional Italian but a lighter version than all the usual fried options and much less demanding. You should only need one day of prep prior and help on the day of.

I had every intention of writing about some of the dishes below prior to this post but alas I had other recipes I wanted to share with you all year long. So you will just have to give it a whirl with my quick instructions.  You can always call or email me with questions.  I mean that.  

The FIsh usually swim onto the plates in an order like this:  First course, something light and snack like.  Then followed by a salad of seafood. Then a dish that is a bit heartier, like a roasted, grilled or seared fish, followed by the pasta course then a hearty seafood stew.  I think I hit most of these courses with the exception of the stew.  But remember I was trying to ease up on the workload for you.

 

Smoked Trout served on potatoes with sour cream & chives

  • Cut small new potatoes in half, slicing off a tiny bit of the rounded edge so they sit properly.  Boil until tender. Let cool.  Top with flaked pieces of smoked trout, a dollop of sour cream and sprinkling of chives.
 Little bites of yum, smoked trout with sour cream & chives on potato rounds

Little bites of yum, smoked trout with sour cream & chives on potato rounds

Crabmeat & Citrus 'Martini'

  • Combine fresh crabmeat, with yellow bell pepper, celery, grapefruit and orange sections and mint. Serve in a martini glass with endive leaves and spoon the juice from the citrus into each glass.  
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Boquerones 

  •   Fresh anchovies can be served in several ways.  Check out the highlighted title link for serving ideas.
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Salmon & Cucumber Rounds

  • Cut English cucumbers into 1/2” rounds. On plastic wrap, spread smoked salmon out to create a full layer.  Spread whipped cream cheese over the entire layer. Sprinkle with chives (capers and minced shallots optional).  Roll up the entire layer to create a log. Wrap and refrigerate for a couple of hours. Before serving cut into 1/2” rounds, place on top of the cucumber and finish with a small piece of fresh dill

Bellini with Crème Fraiche & Roe

  • These mini bellinis that can be store bought, top with crème fraiche & your favorite roe.
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Whole Baked or filet of fish: Salmon, Trout, Sole , Grouper or Grilled Shrimp

 Roasted Salmon

Roasted Salmon

 Stuffed Dover Sole

Stuffed Dover Sole

 Oven Roasted Grouper Filets with roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic

Oven Roasted Grouper Filets with roasted tomatoes, onions and garlic

 Grilled Shrimp served with grilled yellow peppers and onions, and creamy polenta.

Grilled Shrimp served with grilled yellow peppers and onions, and creamy polenta.

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 Yes, JuanCarlos was out in the snow cooking a paella!

Yes, JuanCarlos was out in the snow cooking a paella!

All the above dishes not only would be my choices for Christmas Eve, but these were the dishes I served for a New Year's Party, only I swapped out the linguine & clams for seafood paella.  That dish is one that my 'also good in the kitchen' husband likes to tackle. The fun part about a paella (although not a traditional Italian dish,  is that guests love to watch it come together.)

 

 

If you feel that you have the strength of a mighty Italian, then go for the gold.  Below is a list of some of the most common dishes served during the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  I provided links to recipes from popular sites for your reference.  Please note that I have not tried these recipes. My goal was to do some of the leg work finding  links to make your search less stressful.

•   Baccalà (salt cod) as a salad or fried

•   Baked cod or Baked cod & potatoes

•   Baked Clams casino or a lighter, easier version Clams Casino

•   Cod fish balls in tomato sauce

•   Deep fried calamari

•   Deep fried cod

•   Deep fried fish/shrimp

•   Deep fried scallops

•   Fried smelts

•   Insalata di mare (seafood salad)

•   Linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce

•   Marinated or fried eel

•   Octopus salad

•   Oyster shooters

•   Puttanesca traditional tomato sauce with anchovies

•   Scungilli salad (sea snail)

•   Shrimp cocktail traditional version   or Roasted Shrimp Cocktail version

•   Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce

•   Stuffed-baked lobsters

•   Whiting

Whatever you serve, whether it's 7 or 13 fishes, or no fish at all, just remember the most important ingredient of all... LOVE.

 After all the fish, leave room for the dessert!                                                                                                                   Photo credit: Paul Majewski     

After all the fish, leave room for the dessert!                                                                                                                  Photo credit: Paul Majewski    

Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays. Eat well. Be well.