As a chef, I love the cooler feast-filled holidays and welcome any excuse to cook or experiment in the kitchen. As a chef who married into a New York Italian family, I have a whole new appreciation for what all is involved in the family dinner production, particularly at Christmas. Because let’s face it, Italians know how to make holidays all about the food. And the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the epitome of an Italian family dinner.
The origins of the Feast are hotly debated as to whether the tradition is authentically Italian or if Italian immigrants adapted the tradition with their own American spin around 1880-1924. In Catholic-dominated Italy, La Vigilia (the vigil) is the hours-long Christmas Eve celebration awaiting the birth of Christ on Christmas Day. It was a day of abstinence from eating meat and instead, observant Catholics noshed on the fresh seafood that celebrated the bountiful Italian coastline.
Different Italian families will give a variety of answers as to the fish in the dinner preparation but the most commonly used seafoods are: vongole (clams), baccala (salt cod), frutti de mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch) and aragosta (lobster.)
Seeing as the Feast is a minimum of seven courses, it’s wise to be strategic in your menu planning. Work from lighter food to heavier dishes; salad counts as a course; and not every dish has to be served with pasta. For appetizers, start with baked clams, fried smelts and baccala with tomatoes and capers. Next, pan-seared scungilli over a tossed arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette. Shrimp cocktail will enliven the palate and prepare your taste buds for seafood cioppino, mussels and pasta, or shrimp pomodoro. And for the pièce de résistance, try crab-stuffed lobster tails or spicy lobster fra diavolo!
If you’re feeling ambitious and ready to impress the in-laws with a nostalgia-fueled dinner, serving the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a delectable culinary blend of family tradition and religion. But if the holidays are your time to unwind with friends, leave the Italian cooking to the trusted culinary professionals at Mazzaro’s Italian Market (2909 22nd Ave S.,St. Petersburg), Italy Bottega (1045 Central Ave., St. Petersburg) or Ippolito’s Italian Market (14100 Walsingham Road, Largo).
When it comes to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, there are no set-in-stone rules about the preparation but one thing is a must: serve this meal with plenty of wine. Salut!
Seafood Cioppino (Italian Seafood Stew)
Yield: 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cup fennel bulb (white part only), diced
1 ½ cup yellow onion
3 garlic cloves minced
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
4 cup seafood stock
1 ½ cup dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc recommended)
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound skinless cod fillets cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound sea scallops, halved crosswise
1 dozen mussels, scrubbed
1 dozen littleneck clams
2 whole star anise pods (optional)
Fresh parsley to garnish (optional)
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the fennel and onion and sauté until tender (approximately 10 minutes). Stir in garlic, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes and cook for two minutes, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, stock, wine, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the seafood in the following order: first cod, then shrimp, scallops, and lastly, the mussels. Do not stir. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat, cover and cook for 10 minutes until the seafood is cooked and the shellfish open. Add star anise pods. Simmer for two minutes. Discard any mussels that have not opened. Ladle into bowls and serve garnished with minced parsley.