Christmas Eve Menu - The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Okay, I confess. I don't really know the Catholic traditions and holy days. My father was a lapsed Catholic and I was raised in the First Suburban Church of Whatever.
But that doesn't keep me from observing the ancient tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. While it's rooted in the teachings of the Church, for me it's just an excuse to go all out with my favorite fish dishes.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian Christmas Eve tradition built around fish of all kinds and prepared in as many different ways as possible. Our friends Donna and Pasquale introduced it to us about ten years ago in their kitchen in Tribeca.Christmas Eve in the ancient Catholic church was a vigilia di magro -- a sacred fast day, on which no meat could be consumed. This stricture has long since been lifted, although many devout Italians still fast on Christmas Eve. In Southern Italy and Sicily the tradition of a Christmas Eve feast organized around fish dishes developed over the centuries, and the tradition lives on in all regions of Italy.
The menu and the number of fish dishes varies from family to family and village to village, but it's usually seven, although the reason cited for the number varies. Donna's dad says it's a commemoration of the last seven of the Ten Commandments, which prescribe rules of human interaction -- as opposed to the first three, which address human relations with God. Others say it is to remind us of the seven deadly sins. In any case, seven fish dishes is a feast!
Two dishes that seem to show up in everyone's traditional Feast of Seven Fishes are smelts and baccalà in some form or another.
Baccalà is better known to a lot of New Englanders as salt cod -- a staple on the long sea voyages of whalers and traders in colonial days. Also important in Portuguese and Puerto Rican cuisine (it's bacalao in Spanish), salt cod is usually available in markets around the end of the year, though you might have to ask for it. If you have an Italian specialty market that carries salt cod it's usually worth the price premium to buy the higher grades they usually carry. (If you think you might want to try this, read the recipe now..it takes some planning ahead.)Smelts are those silvery six-inch fish that show up in the fish markets every year around the onset of winter -- relatives of trout and salmon, they are wild-caught in the winter as they move into position off the coast for their early spring spawning run up the rivers.
Other candidates for the Feast of the Seven Fishes include Tuna Livornese (pictured above), Boiled Shrimp, Baby Calamari Stuffed with Shrimp, Cod Roasted with Pancetta, Leeks, Mushrooms and Tomatoes, Steamed Lobster or Shrimp Risotto, Roasted Mackerel with Lemon and Thyme, Smoked Trout or Salmon, Baked Sea Bass or, for a less formal touch, try my Jambalaya Calzone or a Smoked Salmon Pizza.
The meal is usually served one course at a time, with lots of time between courses, in the Italian tradition, during which the cooks work on the next dish and the guests drink wine and talk...and talk!
So here's is our menu for this Christmas Eve. We hope you enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes, with these or whatever fish dishes you choose!
And for dessert...
We wish you a wonderful Feast, and a peaceful, happy Christmas!