Preparing a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes Dinner at Home

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Ideas for a Multi-Course Seafood Menu Celebrating This Italian-American Tradition

Plan a mixture of make-ahead and quick-cook dishes so you can enjoy this feast with your family and friends this holiday season.

Increasingly across America, those of Italian descent are embracing or rediscovering the Christmas Eve tradition of the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” or festa dei sette pesci. The exact origins of this tradition are difficult to pin down, but it is believed to have originated in Southern Italy as an extension of La Vigilia or the tradition of abstaining from meat on specific holy days, here while waiting for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. Today the Feast is primarily celebrated by Italian-American families and sometimes consists of 9, 11, or even 13 different fishes or fish courses. The number “7,” the most popular in this tradition, is claimed to relate to the number of Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, or the Seven Days of Creation, or the Biblical number of perfection, although the are many different religious explanations for the number of fish chosen.

Regardless of the history or numerology, many restaurants are now serving Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners on Christmas Eve for those who cannot meet the challenge of preparing such a feast in their own home. But perhaps you would like to host a Feast of the Seven Fishes at home and prepare the meal yourself. It can seem an incredibly daunting task at first, but with some careful planning it can be done with a mixture of prepare-in-advance dishes as well as some quick-cook ones to finish at the last minute. This article will give you some ideas on selecting dishes for such a feast, however many fish you decide to include.

Feast of the Seven Fishes: Planning a Menu

There is no set menu of precise dishes you must prepare for a Feast of the Seven Fishes. Often, the fish used is a matter of family preference through the years, or simply what is the best and freshest at the market (or directly from the fisherman’s boat). Each course does not have to celebrate only one fish, so combining two or three in a single course is a good way to save time and effort on your part. A possibility for a multi-course menu might be to present, in this order:

1. A cold seafood salad or appetizer.

2. A warm, simple seafood appetizer.

3. A seafood-based soup or chowder.

4. A pasta course with a seafood-based sauce.

5. A “main course” involving whole or fillet fish.

6. A simple, light dessert – no fish required in this one.

Six courses may seem like a lot of food, but portions do not have to be large. The goal is to have a plentiful bounty of seafood-focused dishes that all diners can sample, whether just a small bite or a full plate. Here are some suggestions for each of the six courses outlined above for your Feast of the Seven Fishes.

1. A cold seafood salad or appetizer.

A creamy baccala salad, Venetian-style.

A creamy baccala salad, Venetian-style. This can be served with toast points or crostini.

A simple shrimp cocktail can do nicely. Boil, shell and chill the shrimp the night before or in the morning, so that plating and serving will be easily. Garnished simply with cocktail sauce, lemon, and some fresh spring mix. Few people can resist a good shrimp cocktail. You can also try preparing a traditional baccala (salt cod) salad, although this will require more time and effort as the cod must be soaked in advance for at least a day in milk or water. After that, however, the fish cooks quickly, and then can be mixed with a simple combination of celery, carrot, olives, lemon, oil and garlic, refrigerated, and served when ready to eat.

Another possibility is a mixed, chilled seafood salad of shrimp, calamari, and/or crab, tossed in a light lemon-caper vinaigrette. This, again, can easily be prepared ahead of time and will taste better if it’s had some time to marinate. Serve over lettuce with chopped onion and tomato for a refreshing starter to the meal. Or, if one wants to be clever, you can start the meal with a Caesar Salad – just make sure you’ve added anchovies to your dressing!

2. A warm seafood appetizer.

There are many possibilities for this course, but try to keep it simple, something you can pop in the oven to warm up or cook while enjoying the first course. Bacon-wrapped scallops are always a crowd-pleaser. So are small skewers of shrimp or marinated swordfish cubes, broiled with lemon wedges and onion and served with a pesto dipping sauce. You could also prepare in advance (or buy frozen) small seafood dumplings to steam or bake at the last minute, or miniature crab/fish cakes.

Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce.

Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce.

My personal favorite is to prepare small stuffed calamari, broiled at the last minute and served with a side of tomato sauce. The calamari can be stuffed and prepared in advance, with a simple filling of breadcrumbs, chopped onion and garlic, parsley, herbs, and a little parmesan cheese. Secure with toothpicks and then broil quickly until cooked through. The smaller the better, as large calamari can become tough.

Another possibility is a seafood pizza or flatbread, especially for a smaller gathering. Top your pizza dough with garlic, olive oil, a splash of white wine, some chopped tomatoes and the seafood of your choice: crab meat, shrimp, calamari tubes, or even clams and mussels in shell. When the clams and mussels cook and open, their delicious juices will mix with the sauce on the pie to create a wonderfully rich flavor.

3. A seafood-based soup or chowder.

A mixed seafood soup with clams, shrimp and calamari

A mixed seafood soup with clams, shrimp and calamari

This is where a creative chef can go wild and use almost as many kinds of seafood as he or she wishes.

In fact, if you want to plan a simple Feast of the Fishes and have done the first two courses as outlined above, you can probably stop here with a seafood stew featuring four, five, or many more fishes. A classic Italian seafood stew usually starts with sauteed onion, garlic, carrot and celery, then a broth of white wine and tomatoes, simmered with spices until flavorful. Then the fish is added in order of time needed to cook – usually chunks of white fish fillet first, then shellfish such as clams, mussels, shrimp or lobster. For a more Sicilian feel, add fennel to your sauteed vegetables and some orange juice to the broth.

The other great thing about a seafood stew is that it often tastes even better the day after preparing it, as the flavors have had more time to mellow and merge together. One tip, however, is to wait until right before serving to add the shellfish to cook, as they will only require a few minutes and may be tough and overdone if re-heated.

4. A pasta course with a seafood-based sauce.

A seafood pasta with baby shrimp and two types of clams.

A seafood pasta with baby shrimp and two types of clams.

No proper Italian meal would be complete without a pasta or risotto course. But risotto is very time consuming and intensive to make, so stick with a pasta here for your Feast of the Seven Fishes. I would recommend a quick-cook pasta dish such as Linguine with Clam Sauce. It requires very few ingredients (fresh, preferably, or canned clams if you must), clam juice, white wine, garlic, olive oil, parsley, salt and red pepper.

Another possibility, if you are accomplished with making stuffed pastas, would be shrimp or lobster ravioli in a simple butter or cream sauce. The ravioli can be prepared in advance, even frozen, and then quickly cooked and served in a rich yet simple sauce. Only 2-3 ravioli per person should be required.

5. A “main course” involving whole or fillet fish.

Branzino filets in a simple lemon, herb and olive oil sauce.

Branzino filets in a simple lemon, herb and olive oil sauce.

In my extended Italian family, this course usually consists of a breaded, fried fillet of sole or flounder. But fried food can get heavy toward the end of the meal, and also is labor-intensive to prepare at the last minute. I would recommend trying a lighter fish preparation at this point, such as baked fish parcels. Each parcel only needs contain a small (2-3 oz.) filet of a firm white fish such as red snapper, grouper or sea bass. On a small square of aluminum foil, place the fish fillet and then add some olive oil, white wine, chopped onion, capers, olives, grated lemon rind, whatever you prefer. Or, you could simply add a little olive oil and a previously made tomato sauce, some pesto, or butter and a spice seasoning mix for fish. Wrap up into a bundle, and keep refrigerated until ready to bake. A small baked fish parcel can be fun to serve as well as delicious, as each guest receives a sealed bundle on their plate and gets to enjoy opening it themselves.

Another option would be to prepare and oven-roast a large, stuffed whole fish, such as a 2-3 pound branzino. The fish can be stuffed with an aromatic mixture of herbs and citrus fruit, covered in seasonings, oil, and red wine, and then allowed to slowly roast in the oven while the rest of the meal is underway. Petit potatoes and other small vegetables can be added to the roasting pan for more flavor.

6. A simple, light dessert

Italians do not typically indulge in heavy desserts, and after such a feast you will not want to, either. Offer your dinner guests some strong coffee, espresso, or Italian liquors such as Sambucca or Amaretto to digest the meal. A plate of cookies and some fresh fruit should suffice for those with a sweet tooth.

Hopefully this article has given you some good ideas on how to stage and plan a Feast of the Seven Fishes for your family. If not already a Christmas Eve tradition in your home, perhaps you can now make it one for generations to enjoy for years to come.

Souces:

* Baccala Salad Recipe – BellaOnline.

* Feast of the Seven Fishes – Wikipedia.

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