Friday, December 31, 2010

The Feast of Seven Fishes

This is our first "non-Dorie" post but since the event was held on a Friday and it involved wonderful food, Nana and I decided to share.  Last Friday was Christmas Eve and our families shared the tradition of the Feast of Seven Fishes.     

~ Festa Dei Sette Pesci ~               

The basic premise is that the Italian Catholics share a Christmas Eve meal that is meatless, focusing on fish dishes.  The number seven is believed to refer to and honor the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. There is typically also pasta, not to mention all the salads and desserts.  Needless to say, it is truly a "feast" when you consider how much and how wonderful all the courses are.  In fact, you would do well to diet a few days before hand and go easy on breakfast and lunch that day.....

There is no set menu, and while some dishes are newer- there are a basic few for which it just simply wouldn't be Christmas Eve without.

This year's "Seven":

1)  Baccala  -  this is salted cod. Nana makes a wonderful antipasto type salad of this.  Made ahead of time.  Mainstay of the Feast - this dish is Christmas Eve to our family.   

2)  Smelts - small fish deep fried, typically in flour only.  This year it got the same beer batter as the calamari.  My boys referred to these as "little fishys" when younger.  We fry these in between courses (OK, the boys do with my husband and father....deep frying is the "men's job" in our kitchen :)  Mainstay.


beer for batter only- we enjoy Champagne as we cook !

3)  Mussels - cooked in white wine, with onion & parsley.  Another mainstay.

4)  Chickpeas with Tonno (tuna)  - this was a fairly new addition.  The tuna is made into a salad with chickpeas (garbanzo beans) ahead of time.  You really need to find this Italian tuna at a specialty store.  Even though we live in suburban Philadelphia, Nana had trouble locating the correct tuna this year and actually ended up purchasing it from Bob's Italian Foods in Medford, Mass.  Nana highly recommends them.

5)  Shrimp -  Nana makes her "BBQ Shrimp" (name is really misleading- it is like broiled seasoned shrimp) and this dish is one of the few that we have at other times throughout the year.  The shrimp is marinated in olive oil with a mix of vinegar, oregano, parsley,and tomato paste, and then broiled in the oven.

Nana found this recipe years ago and it is spectacular.  I personally like to make the shrimp and then cook up some spaghetti or angel hair to go with it.  I use the oil baste as my sauce and serve the shrimp on top with more cracked pepper and parmesan cheese.   And don't forget the French baguette on the side.   Heaven.

6)  Calamari - we always serve this breaded and deep fried. This year it was a beer batter.  Mainstay.   

7)  Crab Louis - this is also a fairly recent addition.  It is crab salad that is very rich and has a bit of a sweet taste to it.  It is especially good spread on top of a slice of the rustic Italian bread that Nana serves with this meal...just in case you were not full enough ;) 

Nana added a marinated mozzarella and tomato salad, as well as a large mixed green salad to complete the meal.  And did I mention the fresh rustic bread ?

A few bottles of a great champagne to go with the dinner and it was a Merry Christmas.

We ended the meal with delicious Italian pastries, strufoli (honey balls), panetone, with a wonderful assortment of candies from Sees Candy... direct from San Francisco.  

I can not recall a Christmas Eve that our families did not celebrate this meal, although the location and participants have changed over the years - resulting in many calories and even more wonderful memories.  The hosts were originally (for me) my Italian grandparents....this would be Nana's "in laws".  The baton passed to my Italian Aunt Rita who is perhaps one of the best cooks and hostesses that I know.  You will never leave her table hungry or feeling like you have not received love, attention and the best food available.  I personally tease that my husband decided he would propose to me after he got the previously unheard of "non-family" invite to attend the Feast of Seven Fish at Aunt Rita's house.  You can't get a better testimony regarding meals and traditions than that ! 

The family has grown and changed locations over the years and as my cousins, brother and I have grown and married we have brought others into the fold.  One of the most wonderful changes to the tradition came when my own two sons (now 14 and 17) were given their own aprons from Nana and Grandpa and called into service to help with the fish frying that occurs in between courses.  It should be noted that Nana and Grandpa bought these aprons on a trip to France...just to make the initiation of the young chefs all the more memorable.    The boys were quite young at the time but even young children are not only able to batter the fish for deep frying by the adults, but love the chance to get their hands into the ingredients.

The 7 fishes of choice have changed a bit over the years- and we sometimes add to the mix but never to end up with an "even" number of fish dishes....I am not sure why, but the custom is that you must end up with an odd number.  So if you add lobster as the 8th fish, you had better come up with another recipe to make it to 9.  I think a few years we made it up to 13.  After all, it is only one day a year ;)

We also had the pleasure of being joined this holiday by my Aunt Paula who flew in from San Francisco to help us with the Feast.  We have enjoyed sharing this meal with her on many occasions over the years and find the feast to be a wonderful opportunity to enjoy those we are able to celebrate with today as well as to enjoy the memories of those with whom we have shared the tradition in the past.

On one last note.  Nana and I took a gourmet bus trip with my 14 year old this summer, and traveled to various locations in New York City....including a trip to the Italian markets in the Bronx.  We had folks on the bus who grew up all over the country- the west, mid west, mid Atlantic, etc.  Somehow we got on the topic of this Feast and people were calling out from all over the bus about their families celebrating too and which fish they selected- regardless of where they were from. We were quite surprised, and my son was amazed. Like this blog and most food topic, food really does bring strangers as well as family together.

Happy New Year from Tricia and Nana !


  1. Tricia and Nana...what a incredible post! This meal sounds so special...not only the food, but all the traditions surrounding it. Thank you so much for sharing it with us! I love all the details and feel like I was in the kitchen with you and your family. Happy New Year! I'm looking forward to cooking with you both in the coming year.
    PS...loved the bit about your husband's cute!

  2. This is a beautiful tradition. I'm glad that your family is still passing it on through the generations. The food looks incredible, too!

    My heritage on my mother's side is French-Canadian and on Christmas Eve, our family has a traditional feast after midnight Mass called réveillon (some people do this on New Year's Eve, too). We have a range of traditional dishes like pâtés de cochon, tourtière and goose, along with sucre à la crème and many other goodies. You've inspired me - perhaps next year I'll share a similar post about our family tradition. :)

    Thanks again for this post and a happy New Year to both of you!

  3. That was really nice - what a great tradition for your family.

    Happy New Year!

  4. HI Ladies, I just had baccala for Christmas dinner in Italy. lovely to have found your blog and see your wonderful cooking.. Look forward to following you. Carla

  5. Hi all,
    Nana and I (and our families) have very much enjoyed the comments this week. We appreciate all of our French Fridays friends. We were also thrilled to get a visit from "Carla"...who if you don't THE Carla Coulson. A famous Parisian (OK, she is Aussie) photographer. I have enjoyed her work in Vicki Archer's books..."My French Life" and "French Essence". Carla and Vicki are friends and both contribute to make the books amazing. And perfect for this time of year when it is cold outside, we are cooking French recipes...and can go sit and transport ourselves through the photos she has captured. Enjoy and thanks to all- Tricia