Healthy Mediterranean Cooking at Home

Tag Archives: Feast of the Seven Fishes

It is tradition that the Sicilians (and many Italians) have a seven fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Some think that each fish represents a day of the week, but most traditions come from the observance of the Cena della Vigilia (the dinner of the vigil), the wait for the birth of Christ in which early Christians fasted on Christmas Eve. Other theories include: the number represents the three Wise Men or the Holy Trinity, or in some areas, there may be as many as thirteen fishes, one for each of the apostles plus one for Jesus. Each family and each region in Italy are different and it also depends on what kind of fish is available. In most of the southern coastal regions in Italy and Sicily, seafood is abundant and so it makes sense to include fish in the menu for this festive day. The dishes and the types of fish served for La Vigilia are ultimately dictated by geography. In Naples, for instance, the devout leave certain treats on the table overnight for the angel who heralds Christ’s birth; for this reason, many dishes are vinegar-based to preserve them. Around Lake Como in the north, large trout, which are only fished during the holiday season, are common.

In America, one can find a variety of fish to celebrate the feast according to his or her tradition. Just before Christmas, markets in New York’s Italian neighborhoods, for instance, stock up on a variety of Mediterranean and Adriatic products, such as triglia or red mullet; seppie called cuttlefish or inkfish in English (similar to squid but with a rounder body and thicker flesh); cicale a relative of shrimp; langostino a small, spiny lobster; tiny vongole or clams; baby eels for frying; fresh sardines and fresh anchovies. In my fish market located in Florida, Italian fish varieties are abundant this time of year.

While this Italian American Christmas Eve dinner menu does not include seven fishes, it is a menu in the spirit of the Sicilian Christmas Eve tradition.

Appetizers

Serve with Garlic Bread

Roasted Peppers and Anchovies

Ingredients

  • 12 oil-packed anchovy filets
  • 6 jarred roasted red bell peppers, skins, stems and seeds removed, cut into large strips
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

Alternately, lay anchovy filets and strips of roasted pepper on a serving platter in one layer. Combine parsley and garlic on a cutting board and finely chop together; sprinkle parsley-garlic mixture evenly over anchovies and peppers. Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper; let sit 10 minutes before serving to allow flavors to blend.

Sicilian Eggplant Caponata

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut in 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 6 ripe plum tomatoes, chopped (or 1 large can crushed tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup chopped green olives
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon capers, chopped

Directions

Combine all ingredients in a large enameled or stainless steel pot and mix well. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. You can cook this over low heat uncovered for about an hour, or cover it and cook over very low heat for several hours. The slow stewing method blends the flavors and the caponata is great reheated. This is an easy dish to make ahead of time.

First Course

Linguine with Clams and Chilies

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pasta, preferably linguine
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 hot chiles, stemmed and thinly sliced crosswise
  • Littleneck clams (about 30-36), scrubbed clean
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided

Directions

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until just al dente, about 6 minutes. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water and set aside.

Heat oil in a 12″ skillet with a cover over medium heat and add garlic and half the chiles; cook, stirring often, until garlic is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add clams and wine, increase heat to high and cook, covered, swirling pan occasionally, until clams open and release their juices, 5–10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer clams to a bowl; set aside.

Bring sauce to a boil over high heat and add reserved cooked pasta and 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid. Cook, tossing pasta occasionally, until sauce clings to the pasta, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle in some more of the pasta cooking water, if the pasta seems dry. Add 2 tablespoons parsley, season with salt and toss to combine.

Transfer pasta to a serving bowl, arrange clams over pasta and pour any clam juices from the plate over pasta. Drizzle pasta with more olive oil and garnish with remaining chiles and parsley.

Second Course

Serve with Broccoli Rabe or other green vegetable.

Swordfish with Tomatoes and Fennel

Ingredients

  • 2 ( 3/4 – to 1-pound) swordfish steaks
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 pound whole cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons slivered basil leaves

Directions

Pat the swordfish steaks dry with a paper towel on both sides. Season each side with a pinch each of salt and pepper and set aside.

Heat the olive oil, garlic and fennel seeds in a skillet with a cover over medium heat until the garlic softens and becomes fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Lay the swordfish steaks on top of the garlic and fennel seeds and cook until they turn white on the cooked side, 5 minutes. Turn the steaks over and cook another 5 minutes.

Add the white wine and tomatoes, cover the pan tightly and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the swordfish is easily penetrated with a skewer or paring knife. Timing will vary depending on the thickness of the steaks — thin steaks may take less than 5 minutes while very thick steaks may take as long as 15 minutes.

Remove the lid and transfer the swordfish to a heated platter. Increase the heat under the skillet to high and cook until the liquid in the pan reduces to a syrupy sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in the basil leaves and pour the sauce over the swordfish steaks.

Dessert

Struffoli

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup honey
  • Rainbow (multi-colored) sprinkles
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

Heat 2″ of cooking oil in a deep pan until its very hot.

Place flour and salt into a large bowl. Make a well (indentation) in the center of the flour and add the eggs one at a time, mixing slightly after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and mix well to make a soft dough. Turn dough on to a lightly floured surface and knead until soft and elastic.

Divide dough into halves and lightly roll each half 1/4 inch thick to form a rectangle. Cut dough with a pastry cutter into strips 1/4″ wide. Use the palm of your hand to roll strips to pencil thickness. Cut into pieces about 1/4″ to 1/2″ long.

In the heated oil, fry only as many pieces of dough as will float one layer deep for 3 to 5 minutes or until lightly browned, turning occasionally. Scoop out with a slotted spoon or spider and let the oil drain before removing and then place fried dough pieces on several paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

In a different pan heat the honey until it is hot. Add in the drained fried dough pieces. Stir constantly and carefully until all the pieces are coated. Remove, place in a bowl and keep it in the refrigerator to cool slightly. Remove and decorate with the sprinkles.


Many of the world’s religions employ some sort of numerology in their rituals, and Christianity is no exception. When it comes to the number of dishes served for Cena della Vigilia (Christmas Eve), however, there is no consensus. In many of Italy’s landlocked regions, three courses are prepared, representing the Three Wise Men, or in the Abruzzo region, where nine dishes are preferred for the Trinity times three and in parts of southern Italy, 12 are served for the number of the apostles. The norm however, seems to be seven dishes.

A traditional Christmas Eve dinner for many people of Italian heritage around the world is the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It is a tradition that goes back thousands of years and consists of at least seven seafood dishes and no meat.

The dishes and the types of fish served for Christmas Eve are ultimately dictated by geography. In Naples, for instance, the devout leave certain treats on the table overnight for the angel who heralds Christ’s birth; for this reason, many dishes are vinegar-based to preserve them. Around Lake Como in the north, large trout, which are only fished during the holiday season, are common.

These days, an Italian Christmas Eve dinner is still an important family affair; it is never served before 8 or 9 pm and the many courses are enjoyed slowly, one after another, giving people plenty of time for toasts, playful chatting and fun until midnight.

 

CLASSIC ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE MENU

 

ITALIAN CHRISTMAS APPETIZERS

 

Raw Oysters and Raw Clams

Fried Sardines

Smelts (small fishes that can be fried)

Fried Calamari

Cocktail Shrimp

Crabcakes or Oyster Shooters

 

ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE ENTREES

 

Mussels and Macaroni

Baccala or dried salt cod 

Stuffed Calamari

Linguini and Clams

Lobster Ravioli, Fried Shrimp, or Octopus Salad

 

SERVING SUGGESTIONS FOR ITALIAN CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER

Round the meal out with a classic antipasto of cheeses, olives, red peppers, anchovies, marinated artichoke hearts, and canned tuna.

On the side, serve sauteed spinach or escarole along with a great wine. For dessert, enjoy a classic Italian Panettone, biscotti, or cannoli with an after dinner drink such as Sambuca or Anisette.

Seafood Market

Christmas Eve dinner at my house is a bit more simple.

Antipasto

Italian Cheese, Salami, Roasted Peppers, Olives, Sardines

Italian Bread

Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Pesto

Makes 8 crab cakes

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup red onion, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup red bell pepper, stem and seeds removed and diced into 1/4-inches pieces
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons low fat mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
  • 1 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Roasted Red Pepper Pesto, recipe below

Directions:

In a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Gently cook the onion and red peppers until soft, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat.

Pick through the crabmeat and remove any shell or cartilage you may find.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, Old Bay, and cayenne.

With a rubber spatula, fold in the sautéed vegetables, crabmeat, and Panko or cracker crumbs. Season with salt. Refrigerate mixture for 1/2 hour for flavors to meld and breadcrumbs to absorb some of the liquid.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Divide the crab mixture into 8 portions. Roll each portion into a ball with your hands and place onto a cookie sheet lightly coated with vegetable oil or covered with aluminum foil. Press down gently on each ball to form a cake.

Put cookie sheet into the oven and bake until crab cakes are golden brown on each side, about 20 minutes. Turn the crab cakes over half way through. (Alternatively, you may also fry the crab cakes in oil or butter. About 3 minutes each side.)

 

Red Pepper Pesto

Ingredients

  • 3 red bell peppers
  • 3  chili peppers or other medium-heat red chili peppers, seeded
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts or sliced almonds, toasted
  • A small handful basil leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh oregano leaves, 1 tablespoon or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese
  • 1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Roast peppers over a flame on stove top or under broiler to blacken the skins all over. Place peppers in bowl and cover with plastic wrap until cool. Peel skins and seed peppers.

Place roasted red peppers and chili peppers in a food processor and add the nuts, basil, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. Add cheese, turn processor on and slowly pour in the olive oil to form a thick sauce.

Pasta Alfredo

 Ingredients:

  • 12 oz fresh fettuccine or tagliatelle pasta
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup freshly grated Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, at room temperature, plus extra cheese to pass at the table
  • 1 ½ cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon Wondra (instant) flour
  • Salt and white ground pepper

Directions:

Boil the pasta cooking water. Add salt and pasta.

If you are using fresh fettuccine, it can cook in as little as 2 minutes (plus the time it takes the water to boil), so have all ingredients and cooking utensils ready.

Stir Wondra into milk

In a pan large enough to hold all the pasta , melt the butter over low heat.

Slowly add the milk and whisk or stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it is hot and slightly reduced. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cooked and drained pasta. Mix well. Add cheese and stir carefully.

Peas

Defrost a package of frozen peas. Saute in a little olive oil and season with black pepper.

Dessert

Christmas Cookies

See post: https://jovinacooksitalian.com/2012/12/14/my-childrens-favorite-christmas-cookies-part-2/



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