Fish… for the holidays? While fish may seem like a non-traditional holiday meal, the ritual of eating fish and seafood on Christmas Eve dates back to the birth of Jesus Christ. This honored Italian tradition, known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes or “Esta dei Sette Pesci” in Italian, originated with Catholics from the southern regions of Italy, such as Naples and Sicily. This tradition is also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia) that commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of baby Jesus.
During the fasting period on Christmas Eve day, Italians refrained from eating meat and dairy products. Instead, they indulged in seven different fish or seafood dishes, which may have included baccala (dried, salted cod), crab, calamari, clams, lobster, oysters, pupa (octopus), scallops or shrimp. The fast ended when Holy Communion was received at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Why seven you might ask? Some believe it has to do with the seven sacraments or even that the world was created in seven days. The number of courses can vary. Some families do seven for the sacraments. Some do ten for the Stations of the Cross. And some even do 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus. Regardless of the symbolism, the observance of Christmas Eve dinner, or “Cena della Vigilia,” is all about family, the spirit of the holiday and seafood.
If you’re planning on cooking the feast for the first time, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Keep the first course light. There are many more dishes to go. Try something simple like salted cod or salmon spread on toasted bread. A cold seafood salad for the second course is an ideal way to move into the more substantial courses. For the main course, try grilled, fried or boiled finfish and shellfish. Be sure to have seafood pasta and stew courses as well.
Fresh Shucked Oysters
Fresh raw oysters are magnificent. The flavors can drastically changed depending on the type of oyster you buy. They can be very briney, sweet, umami and mushroomy. The important thing is to buy oysters as fresh as possible, store them properly and shuck them at the very last moment.
Chowders are a great way to warm up during the cold months. They are hearty soups loaded with bite-sized morsels of deliciousness. This creamy salmon chowder is rich in flavor but light enough to serve before the main meal – as long as the portion isn’t too big.
Octopus salad was a staple at my Sicilian grandparents house every Christmas Eve. The difference of textures between crunchy celery and soft octopus combined with really good extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs was the perfect way to set the palate up for the rest of the meal.
Cod is a great fish to please lots of people. It’s not overly powerful and will take on the flavors of whatever you season it with. In this case, we use a red pepper and onion relish. The fish takes on lots of flavors including a little sweetness.
Nearly everyone has tried shrimp scampi in the past. This is a foolproof recipe that will have the most die hard and pickiest of eaters clamoring for more. The rice is a nice touch as it is not as much of a carb commitment as say a traditional bowl of pasta.
Seared diver scallops are one of the best bang for your effort seafood dishes in the world. They’re easy to prepare while, but don’t let the ease food you. This simple preparation will result in a luxurious dish just as good as any fine dining seafood restaurant.
Grilling a whole fish is a showstopper dish. Think of it as the thanksgiving turkey. Keeping the fish intact will not only be visually stunning, but the natural flavors will be enhanced and the fish will keep most of its moisture.