The Feast of the Seven Fishes: A Christmas Eve TraditionDec 2nd, 2011 | By Susan Sherrill Axelrod | Category: Food + Cooking, From the Magazine, Northeast Traditions
Photographs by Ted Axelrod.
In Christian cultures around the world, seafood is the culinary centerpiece of the Christmas Eve table. Fasting or meatless meals prior to a feast day was proscribed by the Catholic Church, and yet the practice of eating fish the night before Christmas has also been widely embraced by Protestants. My own family—Episcopalian—is one of many who sit down to a simple supper of oyster stew on Christmas Eve, and for Lutherans of Scandinavian descent, the preserved whitefish called lutefisk is often on the holiday menu.
Nowhere, however, is the fish tradition more robust than in Italy, where families—especially in the southern and central regions bordering the sea—celebrate with the time-honored “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” There are varied interpretations of what is known historically as the Cena della Vigilia—the Vigil Supper. The most common story holds that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, absolution, holy orders, marriage and extreme unction (last rites). Other explanations include the seven deadly sins, or the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to reach Bethlehem, or even the seven hills of Rome. Some Italians, and Italian-Americans, prepare holiday feasts of 12 or 13 fishes, representing the 12 apostles, plus Jesus; others celebrate with 10, for the 10 stations of the cross.
Generally enjoyed early in the evening to give the family time to go to midnight Mass, the feast is prepared and savored in Italian-American communities from New England to New York. Common dishes on this side of the Atlantic include fruiti di mare (fruits of the sea) salad, mussels and clams oreganata, fried calamari, baccala (salt cod), and pasta dishes with tomato sauce and a variety of fish and seafood. And increasingly, restaurant chefs are offering their take on the tradition.
For the past three years, Chef Lee Skawinski has hosted a Feast of the Seven Fishes Christmas Eve dinner at Cinque Terre, one of his two Italian restaurants in Portland, Maine. Skawinski (as you might guess) is not of Italian heritage, but he travels twice a year to Italy. His holiday seafood feasts were inspired by a visit several years ago to Liguria, the coastal region in the North known as “the Italian Riviera,” whose capital is Genoa. Liguria is not an area usually associated with the Christmas Feast tradition, but it is certainly rich in fish.
“We came home from Italy and had this idea that the Italian seven fishes feast could be something different we could do on Christmas Eve,” says Skawinski. “It started out with 30 people and now it’s progressed to where we serve 100 people and it’s a great night.”
Cinque Terre is the only Portland restaurant that offers the Feast of the Seven Fishes and one of the few even open on Christmas Eve. Skawinski’s feasts are four-course affairs featuring seven different kinds of fresh, local fish and seafood, prepared in his signature, clean and contemporary, Italian-influenced style. His 2010 Christmas Eve menu included crab bruschetta, sea scallops with truffled mushroom risotto and roasted cod with basil crust, tomato, chard and white beans.
“I like to showcase individual fishes,” says Skawinski. “When you’re over in Italy, everything is so simplified and that’s what we took away from there. In Liguria, like Maine, they have such beautiful fish at their doorstep; let the fish sing, don’t cover it up with sauce.”
Roasted Cod and Mussels in Tomato Ragu
Whole Roasted Branzino with Stewed Artichokes
Brodetto Pesce with Broken Capellini
At Ceia Kitchen & Bar in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Chef Billy “Brando” Brandolini offers a more extensive interpretation of the seven fishes tradition. His menu, available the entire month of December, will begin with trout crudo with smoked sea salt, lemon mist, mixed pepper and dressed rabe leaves, and continue with courses starring lobster, clams, salt sardines, squid and branzino, before culminating in an “all of the above” pasta dish.
Ceia’s owner, Nancy Batista-Caswell, is Portuguese and her chef’s family is Italian; at the year-old restaurant, whose name means “supper” in Portuguese, they meld both traditions, swirling in a little French-style cuisine, too. This will be the first Feast of the Seven Fishes at Ceia, and Batista has planned a preview of the menu on December 1. She says if guests want to recreate some of Brandolini’s recipes at home, she is happy to share them.
“For Italians, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a time when the family cooks together. I think it would be great to have Ceia become part of people’s celebrations.”
Batista is looking forward to what she hopes is the first of many holiday Feasts at Ceia on Christmas Eve. “I’m excited about it . . . to do this in a way that identifies the traditions people have in their own homes, . . . and collaborate and have that experience in our restaurant. It’s going to be very warm and inviting and I think for many people, they’re going to walk out the door thinking, ‘that’s been the best Christmas Eve I’ve had’—that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Thirteen years of “best Christmas Eves” have been enjoyed at Felidia in New York City. Chef Fortunato Nicotra was born in a village in Sicily, but it was not until his family moved north to Torino that he remembers celebrating Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. He has continued to honor the tradition at the top-rated Felidia, where three, pre-set menus are offered the week before Christmas—five fishes in three courses; seven fishes in five courses and 13 fishes in seven courses.
For the three nights right before Christmas, the restaurant’s private dining room is reserved for guests to enjoy the 13-fish menu. “I think it’s great because it’s like a big family sharing the Christmas dinner—we put people together,” says Nicotra. “It’s what the thing is supposed to be. It’s not just about eating, it’s about socializing. It’s a ritual.”
While Nicotra’s menus throughout the year draw on Italian tradition, his food is quite different from what many people might think of as traditional Italian. He cures his own meats and makes his own pasta, but also fills ravioli with pear and serves a complex raw octopus “mosaic” that has become a signature dish.
His Christmas Eve menus will depend on what fish are in the market that week, he says. Offerings might include salmon cured with pastrami spices and eel glazed with balsamic vinegar on top of fennel and oranges. “I love the Japanese glazed eel and it reminds me a little of that,” says Nicotra. He will sear fish on one side, leaving the other side raw, like sashimi. “We do that because it’s light—if we do all the traditional fish, it’s very heavy.”
There may also be bavette pasta with clams and broccoli rabe, grilled bronzino and octopus, seafood risotto, or fish soup. And baccala, the traditional salt cod, which Nicotra says he prepares in two or three different ways: “baccala mantecato, whipped with garlic and potatoes, served on toasted bread; pasta with baccala, tomato sauce, pine nuts and raisins, finished in the dining room with toasted bread crumbs—spicy—my favorite; and baccala and butternut squash frito, with chestnut, bean and garlic puree for dipping.”
Asked if his wife, Shelly, and three young children will come for dinner at Felidia on Christmas Eve, Nicotra says, no, they will be waiting for him at a friend’s home in New Jersey, just as they do every year.
“I like to keep all the traditions, especially with my kids,” says Nicotra, who exemplifies how food and wine bring people together by regularly hosting groups of friends old and new at his home on Sundays, his only day away from the restaurant. But when he leaves Felidia on Christmas Eve to join his family, he’s off duty.
“They prepare the basic menu and everybody brings something—at least 15 fish dishes,” says Nicotra. “I usually don’t cook, that’s the best part.”
Roasted Cod and Mussels in Tomato Ragu
Chef Lee Skawinski, chef and owner of Cinque Terre and Vignola, Portland, Maine showcases great local seafood in this recipe.
- Four 5-ounce cod fillets
- 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon butter, softened
- 1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 2 cups white wine
- 4 dozen Maine mussels
- 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, preferably
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped capers
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped anchovies
- Red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup diced potato
- 1/4 cup shaved fennel
- Olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Lemon wedges
1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Butter a cookie sheet or shallow baking dish large enough to hold the fish fillets; add the fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Rub the fish with the softened butter and coat with bread crumbs. Sprinkle parsley evenly over the top.
3. Pour 1 cup of white wine in the bottom of the pan, place the pan in the oven and roast fish for 8 to 12 minutes, or until it is opaque and firm. Coat the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil.
4. Add capers, garlic and anchovies and stir until garlic is fragrant and capers are toasted. Add potato and fennel and sauté for 1 minute.
5. Add mussels, tomato sauce, red pepper flakes and the remaining 1 cup of white wine. Cover the pan and simmer until all the mussels are open, watching carefully to make sure you do not overcook them.
6. To serve, place mussels around the perimeter of four large shallow bowls. Place some of the sauce in the bottom of the bowl and lay a piece of the fish on top. Drizzle with more olive oil if desired and serve with lemon wedges.
Whole Roasted Branzino with Stewed Artichokes
Chef Billy “Brando” Brandolini of Ceia Kitchen & Bar in Newburyport, Massachusetts, likes to feature this spectacular dish on his Feast menu. To make it simpler, use prepared artichoke hearts.
- 5 whole bronzino or sea bass, scaled and gutted
- 6 cups smoked sea salt
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 cup washed, chopped mixed fresh herbs
- 12 fresh artichokes, tips of leaves trimmed, stems cut so they can sit flat
- Organic vegetable broth
- Lemon wedges
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place sea salt, olive oil and herbs in a large mixing bowl. Mix well and allow to sit for a few minutes to blend the flavors.
2. Place a roasting rack in the bottom of a roasting pan large enough to hold all of the fish. Place the fish in the pan and encrust with the salt mixture on both sides. Roast the fish for 20 minutes or until the crust is a light golden brown.
3. Bring the broth to a simmer in a large saucepan.
4. Remove the outer leaves of the washed and trimmed artichokes. Place them into the broth and simmer over medium low-heat until they are fork-tender, about 30 minutes.
5. Remove the artichokes from the broth and arrange them on a platter standing up. Lay the roasted fish over them. Serve with lemon wedges.
Chef Fortunato Nicotra of Felidia, in New York City, makes this wonderful savory spread of whipped salt cod. He recommends using a heavy-duty electric mixer with the paddle attachment or a food processor.* You can put the spread in containers and store sealed, in the refrigerator, for up to a week. You can also freeze baccala mantecato. The texture will not be as creamy, but it will have good flavor and makes a delicious pasta sauce.
- 1 pound boneless baccala (salt cod), soaked to remove salt**
- 1 medium russet potato (about 1/2 pound)
- 2 plump garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup half-and-half or light cream
- 1/2 cup poaching water from cooking the baccala
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. When the baccala is sufficiently soaked, cut it into smaller pieces—6 inches or so—and put them in a saucepan or deep skillet with at least an inch of water to cover. Bring to a boil, set the cover ajar (rest it on a wooden spoon set on the rim of the pan), and cook at a steady bubbling boil for 20 minutes or more, until the cod is easy to flake but still has body and shape. Don’t let it start to break apart. Lift it out of the cooking water, and let it drain and cool in a colander. Reserve a cup of the cooking water.
2. Meanwhile, rinse the potato but leave it whole and unpeeled. Put it in a small pot covered with cold water. Bring to the boil, and cook steadily until you can easily pierce the potato with a knife blade. Let it cool, and peel it.
3. Set up the electric mixer and flake all the fish into the bowl. Beat with the paddle at low speed to break the fish up more; drop in the minced garlic, and beat at medium speed while you pour in half the olive oil; very gradually add the rest of the oil. Raise the speed to high and whip the fish to lighten it.
4. Reduce the speed to medium and incorporate the half-and-half gradually, then whip at high speed again. At this point, the whipped cod should be smooth and fluffy, almost like mashed potatoes but with texture. If it is very dense, you can thin it with the cooking water (but be careful: too much water will make it too salty). Finally, season with pepper and beat it in to blend. Serve on crusty bread.
Makes about 4 cups
* If you use a food processor instead of a mixer, follow the same order of additions, and process as needed to form a light, smooth spread.
** To soak baccala, first rinse it to remove all surface salt, then submerge it in water for 2-3 days, changing the water every 8 hours. When it is ready, the fish should only have a trace of salty flavor and the water will be clear.
Brodetto Pesce with Broken Capellini
This flavorful dish from Felida can be made even simpler by using top quality prepared seafood broth.
- 1 1/2 pound cooked lobster, meat removed from the shell; set shells and body aside
- 4 jumbo shrimp, meat removed from the shell and deveined; set shells and head aside
- 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 carrot, coarsely chopped
- 1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- Few sprigs parsley, chopped
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 4 ounces white fish, cleaned and cut into small pieces
- 1 calamari (squid) cleaned, and cut into small pieces (or 11⁄2 cups cut squid)
- 4 ounces capellini (angel hair) pasta, broken
- Chopped parsley for garnish
1. In a large stockpot, over medium heat, add the body and shells from the lobster and shrimp. Add all the vegetables, the tomato sauce, and 3 cups of water. Cook for 25–30 minutes. Strain the liquid from the shells and put the liquid back into the pot and back onto the stove.
2. Add the chopped calamari and cook for 5–7 minutes. Continue with adding the lobster meat, shrimp and white fish. Continue to cook for another 5–7 minutes.
3. Add the broken capellini and cook until just al dente, about 6 minutes. Finish with the chopped parsley and serve in warm bowls.