Feast of the Seven Fishes: Celebrating Christmas the Italian Way

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Photo Credit: Mike Slone

Is your mind still reeling, deciding on a healthy Christmas feast that won’t complicate your health or counter your weight loss program? Here is one festive menu for you – “Esta dei Sette Pesci”! It means “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” It is a traditional Italian fare cooked for Christmas. You don’t have to be an Italian to enjoy its health benefits and mouth-watering goodness. It is enough to love seafood to revel in this utterly delicious seafood bonanza.

The Story Behind the Feast of the Seven Fishes

There are several stories about how Esta dei Sette Pesci begun.Get some ideas from Maria Vultaggio of the International Business Times who wrote the post Feast Of The Seven Fishes History 2014: Christmas Eve Menu Item Facts. She says it is definitely Italian and a tradition in Sicily and Naples, yet it isn’t popular in the northern region. In America, the traditional Christmas fare was introduced by the migrant Italians.

She writes:

“When Italians immigrated to America, they brought their tradition. Catholic Italians abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, so instead they indulge in “frutta di mare,” or seafood.

The seafood bonanza is the result of the biblical admonition against eating meat and dairy products on Christmas Eve. That means no butter either.

Whe seven? The number s thought to reflect certain meanings. In a New York Times post by Maria Laurino, 7 Fish (More or Less), a Holiday Tradition,  she wites:

“The significance of seven types of fish has yielded numerous theories, including a correspondence to the number of sacraments in the church, the seven days of creation, the seven virtues of Christian theology, and a reminder of the seven deadly sins. Families have their own interpretations… the number of dishes… can vary widely — from 3, representing the number of wise men, to 13, signifying Jesus and the apostles.”

Frutta di mare (seafood), however, can be any seafood, not just fish – octopus (pupa), scallops, baccala (cod), calamari (squid), eel, clams, scungilli (conch), blue crab, shrimp, smelt, etc.

Your Version of the Seven Fishes

So, what shall be your version of the seven fishes? If you have a big family, go ahead and opt for a banquet of 13 (or leave out Judas and make it 12). If you find this a tedious chore, 7 would be just as great. If you’re cooking for just yourself and your special someone, three is acceptable (3 wise men/kings). How about, cooking just one dish with 7-13 kinds of frutta di mare?

If you’re looking for some “guideline,” why not check out Rochelle Bilow’s How to Cook the Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve for Bon Appétit.  Bilow says:

“There are no hard-and-fast rules about the preparation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes… Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve. Preferably with wine.”

What are the tips to keep in mind? Bilow consults with Lauren Fougere, sous chef at Hearth in New York City. She usually serves “… five courses with one palate cleansing dish and a dessert.” Modify as you wish.

Hearth’s Feast of the Seven Fishes Guide

“First Course: Something Snacky”

“You’ve got six more courses to go, so it’s in your and your guests’ best interest to pace yourselves. Don’t go too heavy or rich.

Fougere suggests bacalao, which can already be bought salted, or you can make salmon rillete. Serve it with toasted bread drizzled with olive oil.

Second Course: A Bracing, Light Salad

“A cold seafood salad for the second course is an ideal way to move into the more substantial courses.”

Fougere recommends grilled squid with greens served alongside a light, bright, or even fizzy drink. Other worthy considerations would be Smoked Trout Salad with Herb & Horseradish Dressing or Crab Salad with Pimiento Mayonnaise from Eating Well.

Third Course: Something Hearty, Grilled, Seared, and ‘Meaty’

“Choose center-cut fillets of fish like cod, salmon, or bass, or else go with dramatic presentation”

This dish is grilled head-on prawns over a smoky soup for Fougere. To emphasize the essences and flavors, highlight it with legumes or other veggies. That could be a Grilled Whole Trout with Lemon-Tarragon Bean Salad or Baked Cod with Chorizo & White Beans.

Fourth Course: Pasta!

“We serve a really traditional spaghetti with clams,” says Fougere. “This is an Italian menu, after all.” Whatever seafood you pair with your noodles, build flavor with a pinch (or more) of pepper.

Peperoncino with olive oil and garlic would be good, just as Seafood Linguine and Skillet Tuna Noodle Casserole can make great substitutes.  Get your pasta dish paired with a hearty wine.

Fifth Course: A Hearty Seafood Stew

“Even the ‘heaviest’ course is pretty light,” explains Fougere. That’s the virtue of an all-seafood menu.

A tomato-based cazciuco is Fougere’s choice of a stew in Hearth, but you can make it Bouillabaisse with Spicy Rouille or New England Clam Chowder garnished with some fresh herbs. The reds would be make great pairs, but choose a bottle that is both low in acid and is light.

Sixth Course: The Palate Cleanser

“Palate cleansers aren’t just for fancy tasting menus. Hearth serves a bracing, citrusy course to separate the savory and sweet.”

If grapefruit sorbetto is Fougerre’s choice of citrusy palate cleanser, why not try EpicuiosFresh Ginger and Citrus Sorbet, Ginger-Citrus Fruit Salad or a granita

Seventh Course: Cookies, Cannoli, or a Light(ish) Dessert

“As the cap on a seven-course meal, the crew at Hearth likes to keep things light with simple Italian cookies.”

Chocolate-dipped cake-like rainbow cookies make a great conclusion to a delicious Feast of Seven Fishes. Great alternatives can be some healthy Christmas cookies, such as Cranberry-Honey Spice Pinwheel Cookies  or Apricot-Almond Sandwich Cookies.

What else is there to do to have a memorable feast using the best frutta di mare? Make sure to but your ingredients days before, not on the same day you’re to cook it. Good luck and “mangia bene tutti” (eat well) on Christmas!

Buona Natale(Merry Christmas)!

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