My family is mostly a mix of the English isles and Germany, but we embrace one Italian-American tradition just about every Christmas Eve: the Feast of Seven Fishes. An event that includes, as you can gather by the name, a host of seafood dishes, it’s a dinner that fish lovers can’t miss.
Nearly always including baccalà (salted cod), this is a dinner that often features clams, calamari, shrimp, scallops, anchovy, clams, oysters, eel, and other sea creatures. The “fish” are incorporated into pasta and soups or maybe fried or simply grilled. You can’t help but enjoy it.
Traditionally known as “The Vigil” in Italy, this meal is a celebration that commemorates the wait for the birth of baby Jesus. As a Catholic, I’m used to the no meat on Sunday thing during Lent, and this sort of rises out of that tradition.
Baccalà is one of the many examples of food of the poor becoming mainstream. Barbecue and many hearty soups, stews, and roasted dishes arose from meals cooked by the poor. This food of the common people, as they may have said in centuries past, illustrated that you could do a lot with a little. Baccalà is the epitome of that tradition.
My favorite part of the feast is the way Italians incorporate fish into pasta. We’ve all had spaghetti, meatballs, lasagna, and other typical Italian staples, but working tender cooked clams, calamari, scallops or even octopus into a well-made pasta is divine. You get a lot of that during the Feast of Seven Fishes.
Many families make turkey, ham, or another meat as their centerpiece dish on Christmas Eve, but from my perspective, featuring the versatile aspects of seafood is the way to go. There is so much you can do with cod, squid, oysters, and shrimp that will tickle your palate and bring a different perspective to your Christmas Eve dinner.
Bon Appetit has a great guide for making your own Feast of the Seven Fishes. Start with an easy introduction to the fish-centric feast, something like a seafood dip with nice bread crisps, crackers, and a good white wine. This will get you in the mood for what’s to come, but not overwhelm your palate and stomach.
Next, move to a salad. My favorite, and something you can get year-round at many restaurants of varying styles, is a grilled octopus salad. There is so much you can do with octopus, from something spicy to something bright and crisp. It’s the perfect vehicle for a starter salad in a feast like this.
For the third course go big, with a hearty grilled fish, like salmon, cod, bass, or even some prawns. This is the first course where you should begin hitting your palate with strong flavors. Incorporate some nice grilled vegetables like eggplant or squash to pair well with your fish.
Then you can move on to the pasta, my favorite. Spaghetti with clams is a perfect example of a dish for this course. Tender clams in a silky pasta with parsley, some pepper, and a heavy dose of cheese is a home run here.
Of course there are many other incarnations of seafood in pasta, and my brother, who has spent more than a little time in Italy, would probably say that you shouldn’t limit yourself to something this simple. Explore your options and, above all else, cook what you like to eat.
Then it’s good to move on to a stew or soup. Cioppino would work well here. Include some fish, muscles, octopus, squid, maybe even some cod in your stew. Throw in white wine and some herbs for a simple but satisfying fifth course.
For the final two courses, you can go for a palate cleanser like gelato, then a dessert like cookies, or my favorite, cannoli (“leave the gun, take the cannoli”).
This all works out to a marvelous evening, with an experience you might not be used to for your traditional Christmas Eve dinner. With a house full of relatives and wine flowing like water, there is no better pairing than a great seafood “feast.” Have a merry (and tasty) Christmas!