Around the world, wherever Christmas is celebrated, Christmas Eve is a time of waiting. And because, other than kids waiting for Santa, that often means adults committed to fasting and abstinence, what a lot of those adults are waiting for is food.
Southern Italy, Sicily and virtually all the Little Italys in this republic named after explorer Amerigo Vespucci have the perfect solution: The Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Italians are hardly the only Europeans who find reason to over-indulge as part of la Vigilia di Natale. The French Creoles of New Orleans, for instance, have their “reveillon” tradition, which in the late 19th and early 20th century was a multi-course food orgy that began when they got home starving after Midnight Mass, technically early Christmas morning. Still, the Italian feast is one of the few that hopscotches through Roman Catholic teaching to find justification for a sumptuous seafood meal. With lots of wine.
After all, traditionally, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence, like Fridays. That meant no meat, thus convincing a lot of believers everywhere it was the perfect day to eat seafood. All the same, Christmas Eve is a lot bigger deal than anybody’s weekly Friday. In southern Italy itself, and especially in the America to which so many from the poverty there immigrated, Christmas Eve became more than a matter of a baby in a manger. It became an opportunity to thank the Almighty, while possibly showing off all the good things life in the new country had provided.
No one knows exactly why, but the celebration became known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes. And while Catholic Friday was always a day of contemplation and moderation, what would be the harm (these folks wondered) of eating lots and LOTS of fish. The theme over time became abbondanza, abundance. And with some Italian-American families dishing up not seven seafood dishes but nine, eleven or more, Christmas Eve became half boast and half red-gravy Thanksgiving.
One of the nicer touches – one that seems quite different from most all-American turkey-dressing Thanksgivings – is that no single seafood menu or even recipe attached itself. One theory is that Italian cuisine varies so much from region to region that unleashing a kitchen full of nonnas (grandmothers) will never produce the same flavors twice, much less in two households with roots in different regions.
In Seven Fishes menus, there is some tip of the hat to the typical Italian meal progression – antipasti (hors d’oeuvres of cured meats and cheeses), primi (appetizer but usually one or more pasta dishes), secondi e contorni (main course like grilled whole fish and vegetable side dishes), and dolci (desserts and other sweets). Still, that’s “only” four courses, not seven. Most menus grow from there, adding a seafood soup and/or a seafood-kissed salad, or simply having two or three very different seafood pastas.
In a cooking marathon with so few rules (other than everything being Italian, of course), almost any seafood is fair game. In fact, the more the merrier – fish from haddock to salmon, plus the salted and dried cod known in the Mediterranean world as bacala. Shrimp, mussels, clams, crabs and scallops are also quite typical. Lobster shows up in certain household, but that really WOULD be abbondanza.
BRODETTO DI PESCE
More Americans are probably familiar with zuppa di pesce, the classic Italian fish soup; but we think the soup served as part of The Feast of Seven Fishes ought to be as light and flavorful as you can make it – nothing thick and filling, in other words. As the name implies here, this more broth than soup. The bread slices at the bottom of the bowl are very optional, for that same reason.
1 onion, minced
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
5 cups seafood or vegetable stock
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Special Marinara
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound skinless fish fillets, such as cod, cut in chunks
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Freshly ground white pepper
12 slices crusty Italian bread
In a soup pot, cook the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil until translucent, then add the stock, white wine and marinara. Bring to a boil. Add the shrimp, reduce heat and cook for 3 minutes, then add the fish and cook 3 minutes more. Add the parsley and white pepper, stirring gently to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes. Set 2 slices of bread at the bottom of each bowl and ladle hot soup over the top. Serves 6.