CHRISTMAS EVE FEAST OF THE 7 FISH
The best part about being Italian, or being anything for that matter, has to be about great food traditions, but especially Italian food traditions. The wonderful thing about Italy is its 21 distinct regions. It is said that people in Northern Italy never even heard of the Feast of the 7 Fish. And, why would they? They are up in the north, in the mountains and in some cases, even landlocked. Italians are very frugal people, using mostly only the ingredients closest to them, cheapest and most available. You won’t see traditional Italians buying lobster from other regions or caviar from anywhere.
So how great is it to be Southern Italian and love fish? Its great, I can tell you that. This is my most favorite meal and tradition of all time. In fact, if I am ever on death row, this would be my last meal. Forget anything else I’ve ever mentioned in the past.
Why 7 Fish? Some will say 7 days of the week, 7 sacraments, or the 7 holy days of the Catholic year and/or 7 has been mentioned 700 times in The Bible, the number mentioned most. Then you will have some that say the 12 months, the 12 disciples, but even if you decide on 7, 9, 12 or even 13, remember, its usually an odd number. Italian feel odd numbers are lucky, just like putting 3 coffee beans in the Sambuca.
One thing most agree on, is that you don’t repeat a “fish” or seafood item (if you have fried shrimp, you don’t also have shrimp cocktail, select a different type of fish) and at least one course should include pasta, normally linguine.
Of course, you will have many traditions and variations, as you will see not just in regional groups and even families of these regional groups. Here is one of my all time favorites, Mary Ann Esposito (who is Sicilian) televised this on PBS from her show Ciao Italia:
1) Baccala: I think everyone can agree on this, even in other cultures like the Portuguese. Its a cold codfish salad which uses salt cured cod, soaked in milk or water and rinsed twice a day for at least 3 days. The rest is up to taste, but usually includes chopped black and/or olives, parsley, green and/or red peppers and maybe even potatoes.
2) Shrimp: Shrimp of any kind, anyway. It might as well just be chilled as well as once they are cooked, but some will dip them lightly in flour and pan fry.
3) Jarred Tuna: Of course you can use canned tuna, but the best is jarred and from Italy. All you really need to know here is how to boil pasta. The rest is just tossing in the tuna, parsley, olive oil and some lemon, even oregano. Ciao Italia got a bit fancier with chopped onions and sundried tomatoes, but my cousin (a Sicilian now living in Rome) kept it simple, but I always add red pepper flakes as well. I’ve never seen this done with garlic (not everything Italian has garlic in it).
4) Smelts, Sardines or Anchovy (all must be fresh): simply coat with flour, with salt, perhaps some pepper, fry in olive oil. This you can serve with marinara (tomato) sauce on the side since its fried, be sure to re-seaon with some salt after it comes out of the fryer.
5) Stuffed Calamari: I have seen this stuffed with everything from chopped mussels, scallops and breadcrumbs, and even raisins. This recipe is not as simple as the others. You can buy the calamari (squid) cleaned, but you still have to make the stuffing and let it simmer in tomato sauce for at least an hour or it will be chewy, and you will need toothpicks to keep the stuffing from falling out while cooking
6) Clams: These can be sautéed, steamed or even served with linguine. Usually you will have garlic, olive oil, chopped diced tomatoes, chopped parsley and perhaps even a little butter. You can even use cockles for this (baby clams). And of course, you can use mussels just as easily instead, but in that case, you definitely want to use the red tomato sauce because mussels tend to be “meatier”.
7) Swordfish: This would be the last and the largest dish of all, served in agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce), no, that would not be the same stuff you get at a Chinese restaurant, but it would be cooked vinegar until its reduced, for the sour and reduced white wine, sugar and raisins for the sweet. This is authentically Sicilian and brought over from the Arabs of Northern Africa.
Now, you have the variations which do not vary too much, but here are some alternates:
8) Eel: the old school folks will still cook this, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had it, but its just simply pan fried, very thin.
9) Scampi: Shrimp will do just fine here, since scampi is a type or different species of shrimp (like prawns, like langoustine, etc). When someone calls it “shrimp scampi” they mean “scampi style” which is basically butter, garlic, white wine. And of course you use all that extra sauce for pasta of your choice.
10) Lobster: Contrary to what I said before, Lobster is quite cheap now, even cheaper than steak, actually even cheaper than hamburger meat at $5 per pound, so why not? Some will have ravioli with lobster sauce, but why not just have lobster? Grilled, baked, however you like. Here you see the tails split and done in the oven under the broiler with butter.
11) Calamari: You can serve this any number of ways, like with a salad similar to the baccala, in red tomato sauce, but everyone’s favorite is always going to be fried. I don’t think you can walk into any chain restaurant or pizzeria and not find it on the menu these days. I prefer it with lemon wedges, not marinara sauce.
13) Crab: This is the wild card here when it comes to this feast. New Jersey has the most Italians of any other state, and you can be sure that those Italians living in South Jersey are using and serving crab quite often, especially on Christmas Eve. I am thinking they would be whole, but who knows, they could be making crabcakes, putting in the sauce, cold salad, steamed and served cold with just the claws, or even the rest tossed with pasta.
14) Tilapia: Also known as St. Peter’s fish, tilapia is an inexpensive fish which is a lot like flounder which is a thin fillet and can be dipped in flour, then egg, then breaded and fried and served with lemon.
15) Octopus (Polpo): Usually steamed or grilled, but delicate, you must cook it just right, here is an appetizer from Eataly in New York City.
16) Scungilli: This is conch (shellfish) which can be served in soup, or in a salad with other ingredients like tomato, celery, parsley, but keeping it light. Since there really are no soups on the Christmas Eve Fish Feast, I would prefer a light tomato broth of conch as one of the 7 courses.
17) Oysters: Now we are getting into the far extreme of the fish feast spectrum where almost anything goes, and yes, that would include raw oysters, or any form of seafood that can be eaten raw, which would also be clams, ceviche, even sushi or caviar. You also have variations of other shellfish we previously mentioned like Clams Oreganato (baked with breadcrumbs, garlic, diced red pepper and topped with bacon and olive oil) or Oysters Rockefeller, Clams Casino, etc etc.
18) Grilled Salmon: I’ve never seen it, but I know fellow Italians I grew up with that have included this in their holiday lineup as well.
19) Caviar: Why not kick it up a notch if you had a great year? And, with all this food, maybe this should be the first course, just a small taste of caviar with a shot of vodka to start things off?
So instead of 7 Fish dishes suggested for Christmas eve, you got 19 so you can determine what is available, what is fresh, which is within budget and which is easiest/fastest to prepare when entertaining a large or even small crowd.
I am sure there are a few variations I am missing here, but in any case, in the Italian household, “dinner” is always served at 2pm on a Sunday or holiday and does not end until usually 7pm when the coffee and desserts come out. “Guests” usually leave around 8pm but family stick around until 9pm when the leftover antipasti is brought back out for nibbling while watching TV and/or whatever sporting event or special movie is on TV at the time.
Nothing brings people together like food. And nothing brings family together like tradition. Add both, and you have all those memories which will last a lifetime, and if you want to make those memories happy, do not talk about money, business or politics. But, that is always a given, and if you are Italian, almost always come up. Take the high road, ignore it and ask to pass the bread, wine or pasta if you are asked.
Cent Ani & Buon Natale!