Christmas Eve Fish Dinner
The Christmas Eve fish dinner in the Italian tradition can be dated back to well before Christian times. You see, that even before Christ, the winter solstice (December 25th) was also the birthday of another God, Mithra. In 1500 BC the Ancient Persians believed he was born from a virgin (like Jesus) and was also a vegetarian. So, when the sun is lowest in the sky marked the birth of Mitrha, later Jesus. You can research the remarkable similarities online, but this is not a lesson in religion, rather, an explanation as to the significance of the date, holiday and how it made its way into the 21st century from 2,500 years ago.
So, Mithra had 7 rituals, the Jewish people have 8 Days of Channukah, Jesus was a Jew, they symbol for Christians to have secret meetings was a simple fish drawing and of course, there are 7 sacraments, Kwanzaa has 7 principles, one celebrated each day… you get the idea. No matter how you look at it, its a year-end festival no matter what you believe in that carries you into the new year over the course of a week.
So, that is the answer to your question “Why 7?” Now, back to my favorite topic, feast of the 7 fish by Italian Catholics on Christmas Eve. You know the Italian love of food is only ultimately equivalent to the art of cooking which then seeks the ultimate reward of eating great, homemade, home prepared food, at home.
In the previous century, a typical Christmas Eve Fish Dinner would be something like this:
Baccala A staple at any Christmas Eve dinner, it’s a dried cod, and takes several days to prepare.
Calamari (squid, boiled)
Shrimp (shellfish, boiled)
Clams (shellfish, steamed, baked or in sauce for pasta)
Crab (shellfish, boiled)
Flounder, Tilapia (or other type of whitefish, baked)
Mussels (shellfish, cooked in tomato sauce)
Some others when times are good and/or when you are closer to these fresh ingredients (perhaps if you live by the sea)… Lobster; Tuna with Cannellini Beans; Salmon & Chick Peas; Oysters; other regional varieties, etc.
So, here is how my friend Vinny and his family usually does it. Sure there are always plenty of other foods that pescaphobes can enjoy (those who fear or simply do not like seafood)… you have many other choices like antipasti with olives, cheese, vegetables, breads, cold cut meats, pasta, garlic bread, etc. But here we go…
Antipasti. Usually consists of various Italian cheeses, provolone, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, olives, prosciutto, salami, sopressata, sun dried tomatoes, crab dip, sea legs, vegetables, bread, crackers, eggplant caponata, etc).
Next we have the actual feast of the 7 types of seafood:
1) Cold Shrimp Cocktail served with fresh lemon and cocktail sauce which has plenty of fresh spicy horseradish
2) Cold Bacala Salad with onions, peppers, celery
3) Lobster Ravioli served with a pink vodka cream sauce
4) Linguine with Red Clam Sauce
5) Stuffed Calamari
6) Shrimp Scampi Style with angel hair pasta (shrimp and scampi are similar but scampi means cooked in white wine, garlic, olive oil and commonly butter)
7) Broiled, Baked or Grilled Lobster.
So, you get the idea, sorry if these appear out of order, but I need to learn this new version of this software. Of course, the meal is finished with Espresso, Demitasse, or as Ralph Kramden would say “neither, just a small cup of strong black coffee” and of course some Italian pastries.
Hope I got it right… if it were me, this is is what I would serve:
Naturally I would start with Antipasti, you MUST! Bread, veggies, cheese, salumi, then on to the actual fish:
1) Clams Oreganato
2) Scungilli Salad (octopus)
3) Bacala Salad (perhaps Portuguese style with potatoes)
4) Linquine with Clam Sauce, RED & WHITE!
5) Fried Flounder or Tilapia
6) Mussels Marinara
7) Lobster OR Shrimp Scampi over Linguine
Just a personal preference, but of course I can easily change that to a raw or cold bar of crab, lobster, clams, shrimp, perhaps some seared scallops, caviar, it all depends on your tastes… but its a great meal, MAKE IT A GREAT MEAL no matter what faith you are or what you ethnic/religion background is. Like Thanksgiving, you must celebrate the end of a long year and welcome in a new one, and no better way to do that with great food, a lot of it for family, good wine and remember, the winter months are upon us. We won’t have another chance to celebrate like this before the Spring when Easter, Passover and/or other holidays arrive.
Bon Apetite, Cent Ani!