Meals during the holiday season are typically dominated by hearty meats and roasted birds, so seafood can be a refreshing option. And what better way to showcase seafood than with a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Southern Italian (and Italian American) Christmas Eve custom that features at least seven different types of fish and shellfish.
ORIGINS OF THE FEAST
Eating seafood on Christmas Eve comes from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat before holy days. Historically, fish was considered magro (“thin” in Italian) and most suitable for the poor, whereas meat was a luxury enjoyed by the wealthy.
Though this tradition is celebrated all over Italy, its origins are in southern Italy where, along the coast, seafood was most bountiful. The custom was brought to United States likely between 1880 and 1924, when over 4 million Italians, primarily from southern Italy and Sicily, immigrated here. Today, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is as beloved by Italian Americans as it is by families in Italy.
Some Italian cooks are completely unfamiliar with the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” That’s because, depending on where they grew up, the tradition might go by another name—La Vigilia (The Vigil), or simply, Christmas Eve dinner.
Despite the feast’s popularity, the origin of the number “seven” still remains a bit of a mystery. Some theories hold that it was derived from the seven sacraments. Others attribute the number to the seven cardinal virtues or to the seven days of the week. Today, some families set a different number all together—in some cases an ambitious 12 (possibly for the 12 apostles). In other households, there's less of an emphasis on the number of different types of fish served and more focus on the overall abundance of the meal, which is typically an almost unending feast, not only of seafood but of fried vegetables such as artichokes, potatoes, and squash blossoms.
Ultimately, whether you’re Italian, Italian American, or just a pesce lover, what’s truly important is that seafood is prepared, shared, and enjoyed on Christmas Eve with the people that you care about.
If you want to prepare your own feast of the fishes, the only rule is to skip the meat. Otherwise, anything goes. If you’re feeling ambitious, cook seven courses, or, if not, put lots of seafood into a single dish. There’s so much flexibility and the potential combinations are endless.
TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
Don’t feel like making a starter? No shame there. How about serving raw oysters with a zippy mignonette or a few fancy tins of sardines or tuna served charcuterie-style with flavored salts; mustard and red pepper-jelly; and crusty bread.
Fried CalamariSquid is inexpensive, requires almost no prep, and cooks in minutes. In other words—it's perfect for starting off a Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Cóctel de Camarón (Mexican Shrimp Cocktail)Dishes served at a Seven Fishes feast don't need to be Italian—or even Italian American. This variation on shrimp cocktail consists of cooked shrimp tossed with chopped vegetables in a bright tomato sauce.
Caesar SaladEven the anchovy-inflected dressing in this classic salad counts as a fish dish during this feast. In our version, we use six of these salty cured fish mashed to a paste.
Linguine with Seafood (Linguine allo Scoglio)Featuring five different types of seafood, this one dish will almost get you to the finish line if you include it in your Seven Fishes celebration.
Spanish-Style Toasted Pasta with Shrimp and ClamsTraditional recipes for fideuà can take several hours to prepare. Our streamlined version will leave you time to add another seafood dish or two to your feast.
Roasted Whole Side of SalmonA whole roasted side of salmon is an easy yet impressive way to feed a crowd at your feast. For salmon that was silky throughout and evenly browned across its surface, we salted it for an hour, which helped the flesh retain moisture and protein (which would otherwise seep out unattractively during roasting).
Sous Vide Butter Poached Lobster TailIf you're serving a smaller gathering at your Seven Fishes celebration, make it a little luxurious with lobster. Using sous vide and frozen lobster tails make this dish easy to prepare with excellent results.
Moqueca (Brazilian Shrimp and Fish Stew)This coconut milk–based stew has such big flavor yet comes together so quickly that it sounded too good to be true—until we made it for ourselves. It's perfect for this celebration.
Poached Fish Fillets with Sherry-Tomato VinaigretteThis restaurant-style dish delivers super-moist, delicately cooked fish that will be the highlight of any Feast of the Seven Fishes.
You can’t skip dessert. Pick up some cannoli or serve sweets that can be made ahead and will satisfy without being too heavy, such as the ones below: