The ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’ is a Christmas eve classic for many families. Hook & Barrel breaks it down with Angelo Peluso.
There is nothing like the holidays to put an intense spotlight on food. Holiday celebrations are a time of gatherings, and food tends to be the primary binding agent among family and friends. And there is no higher level of passion for food than the period around the Christmas season.
For one segment of the population, the Christmas Eve repast known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the epitome of seafood indulgence. The “feast” is a traditional Italian-American celebration that occurs on Christmas Eve, embracing the preparation and presentation of fish and seafood. Abstinence from eating meat on “La Vigilia” by Catholics, in part, led to this practice. In its purest form, seven selections of seafood are prepared as part of the grand meal.
Seven is a Sacred Number
The number seven has significance in that the roots of this feast lie deep in biblical and religious representations: seven sacraments; seven sins; the creation of the earth in seven days; and the mention of the number seven many times in the Bible and other religious writings.
For some, the feast may consist of seven distinct species of seafood, yet for others, it can include just several fish choices prepared in seven different ways. And for those who embrace the complete and grand style of the feast, seven full courses can be served. One of the more contemporary variations of this celebratory meal is to offer diners tasting portions—allowing diners an opportunity to sample a variety of dishes rather than consuming one large main course. Yet, there are no restrictions to how magnificent or modest the feast can be.
Of Course, It’s About Fish & Seafood
One requisite is that fish and seafood are the primary components of the meal. This can be accomplished from the simple to sublime. At one end of the spectrum are cioppino or bouillabaisse-style preparations where all seafood selections are combined in one pot. And at the more extravagant end of the spectrum are seven individually prepared recipes.
I typically prepare only saltwater species for the feast and forego freshwater fish. In so doing, one can also pay tribute to the traditions of the meal that have roots in the sea and maritime culture. Yet, it is certainly acceptable to utilize freshwater species like trout, salmon, perch, walleye, or any other fish that appeals to your palate. But typically, my family menu will embrace the briny species such as cod, flounder, tuna, swordfish, crab, mussels, clams, and squid.
Over the years, I have also added several themed recipes that involve local species of fish, to include blackfish, scup, sea bass, and striped bass. Since fishing seasons for those species run close to the end of the year, many anglers may still have fresh portions of fish in their freezers. If those fish were properly cared for at the time of harvest, and suitably frozen, they should be perfectly fine for the dinner. By including them in the feast, the home chef can add a very personal touch and local flavor to the meal.
Consistency is Key
When I think back to my childhood days and the feasts enjoyed among my family, there was a notable degree of consistency regarding the components of those Christmas Eve meals. Our traditional menu back then for the feast was always anchored with a large pot of tomato marinara sauce that complemented the preparation of many of our seven seafood staples.
Those seafood choices included: shrimp; clams; mussels; baccala (salted cod); squid; fillet of flounder; and sea scallops. The shrimp and calamari rings and tentacles were typically simmered in the marina sauce, while the squid bodies were stuffed Neapolitan-style, and then they too were bathed in sauce. Seared scallops and flounder rollatini would round out the meal.
Should your meal require the purchase of seafood from a reputable fishmonger, then be certain to order your selection of fish in advance of the holiday. General demand for seafood tends to be much higher than normal around the Christmas Eve time period, so it is the wise chef who orders their choices ahead of the buying rush. The high turnover of product at this time of year tends to ensure freshness of seafood. I like to order my fish about a week in advance and pick it up first thing on the morning of the Eve.
But, You Can Mix It Up
While tomato-based sauces tend to complement the customary fish preparations served for the feast, they are by no means the only way to go. For many of the mild-flavored fish like sole, fluke, or flounder, butter-based and cream-based sauces enhanced with garlic and a variety of herbs add a nice flavor profile. Dill and fennel fronds are two personal seasoning favorites. One such preparation is a garlic-butter sauce that includes lemon, crushed dill, salt, black pepper, tarragon, basil, and rosemary.
There are many fish-friendly herbs, so choose those that pair well with the specific seafood and your tastebuds. Aside from using time-honored and traditional tomato sauces to enhance your dishes, fish and seafood can also be grilled, fried, baked, broiled, and steamed. A variety of pastas like linguine, penne, and angel hair complement these seafood preparations quite well. The use of hot and cold dishes offers a nice contrast to both appetizers and main courses. My family has also used the feast as an opportunity to enjoy other culinary delights such as tastings for cheese, wine, beer, and assorted desserts.
Pan Seared Swordfish with Italian Rice and Beans
Serving for two
- 1 lb. of swordfish steaks
- 11/2 cups chicken broth
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- Olive oil
- Creole or Cajun seasoning
- 1 cup long grain white rice
- 1 can cannellini beans, drained
- 1 small can diced tomatoes
- 4 Tbsp. white wine
- Italian Seasoning (basil, parsley, oregano) to taste
- 1 medium red onion chopped
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 stalk celery chopped
- 1 scallion chopped
- 6 small asparagus stalks chopped thin
- ½ Italian green pepper
Apply a small amount of olive oil and salt/pepper to both sides of the fillet, followed by a liberal amount of Creole or Cajun seasoning. Set fish aside until ready to cook. Make rice using chicken broth instead of water. This will add additional flavor. Add olive oil to the skillet, and place heat on medium high. Add onion and garlic, and sauté until onion is translucent and fragrant. Next add celery, scallion, green pepper, asparagus, salt, black pepper, and Italian seasoning.
Continue to sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook off alcohol. Add beans and diced tomatoes and allow mixture to simmer on low heat until ready to serve. Add a small amount of olive oil in another skillet and heat to medium/high.
Add additional black pepper to both sides of the fillet. This will enhance blackening. Place fillets in skillet and grill for about three minutes on each side. Plate the fish with the rice and beans.
Cod Amatriciana with Potato Gnocchi
Serving for two
- 1-lb. cod fillets, cut into 4-oz. portions
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 4 oz. pancetta or guanciale, chopped
- Small bunch Italian parsley
- 5/6 leaves fresh basil, chopped
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- Black pepper
- 2/3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
- Crushed pepper flakes
- 1-lb. fresh or packaged potato gnocchi
Season cod fillets lightly with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and oregano. Set aside until ready to grill. Heat one tablespoon of oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta or guanciale and let render in its fat and until it begins to crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Add onion, cover skillet, and cook until onion begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and juice and ½ cup of water. Season with salt and red pepper flakes (to taste). Bring to a boil and then back down heat. Simmer for about 25-30 minutes until sauce thickens.
Boil water in a pot, and heat olive oil in the skillet. When olive oil is hot, add the cod fillets. Grill for about 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until flakey. When the cod is almost cooked through, add gnocchi to the water pot and cook for 2 minutes. Do not over-cook or the potato will begin to overly soften. When cooked, mix with sauce. Plate cod over a liberal serving of sauce and then plate gnocchi.