Chefs Share Their Favorite Dishes To Cook for the Feast of the Seven Fishes
This annual Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition sure sounds yummy.
If you think the holidays call for an extravagant meal to be shared with loved ones, the Feast of the Seven Fishes will not disappoint. This Italian-American culinary celebration occurs every Christmas Eve and involves cooking seven different types of fish and seafood. In the early 1900s, the feast was created as a way for families to partake in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on the eve of certain holidays. “Most people don’t realize that the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American food tradition and practice not heard of in Italy itself,” Jessica Botta, chef-instructor of Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, explains to First for Women. “[However], many Italians do, of course, eat fish on Christmas Eve (known as the Vigilia), because of the Catholic tradition of fasting and avoiding meat.”
This feast traditionally includes seven seafood courses — representing the number of sacraments and deadly sins in Catholicism. Botta notes, though, that the religious and cultural significance of this feast doesn’t have to hinder home cooks from getting creative with how they prepare their fish dishes. “Among Italian-Americans, this practice is far from austere. In fact, it can be downright decadent and deliciously fun,” she says. Since a Feast of the Seven Fishes spread will vary for every cook, we spoke to Botta and three other Italian chefs about their favorite seafood dishes to prepare for the big day.
Francesca Montillo, Owner and Founder, Lazy Italian Culinary Adventures
A dish that’s always on my table on Christmas Eve is Cod with Potatoes, which is a recipe from my cookbook The 5 Ingredient Italian Cookbook (Buy from Amazon, $19.99). In southern Italy, where I come from, it’s traditionally served with salted cod. But here, I adapt and use the more widely accessible fresh cod — which any supermarket will carry. A new dish I’ll be adding to this year’s menu is swordfish involtini (or swordfish roll-ups). These are very thin slices of swordfish stuffed with breadcrumbs, grated Parmigiano cheese, herbs, oil, and lemon zest that are held together with a toothpick. The roll-ups are baked in the oven with a drizzle of oil, a tab of butter, and more herbs. I’m excited to be adding this dish to my menu for this year!
Vito Racanelli, Chef Operator at Tempus
My absolute favorite dish is stuffed lobster oreganata. The lobster is loaded with crab, parmesan, fresh herbs, and lemon. Then, it’s topped with seasoned bread crumbs and melted butter before being finished in the broiler. I love the simplicity of the dish — and it’s just so delicious. It’d be hard for me to add something new because I’ve been preparing this special and traditional dinner for as long as I can remember. However, if I decided to add something new, it’d be a whole grilled fish and Spanish sardines marinated with garlic, herbs, and olive oil grilled over lump coal.
Francesco Bonsinetto, CEO of Farm to Fork Culinary Experiences at Cucina Migrante
My favorite seafood dish is calamari Sicilian-style. Just cut the squid in strips and cook for 45 minutes in fresh garlic, capers, black olives, cherry tomatoes, and dried oregano. It’s very delicious and a sort of comfort food during the holidays. A new dish I’m looking forward to cooking at this year’s feast is fresh prawns with grapes. Grapes are a traditional fruit to eat before the end of the year in Italy for good luck! So all Italians eat a lot of grapes, especially on New Year’s Eve.
Jessica Botta, Chef-Instructor of Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education
My grandmother — who was a Philadelphia native but whose family was Calabrese — always said that the seafood dinner on Christmas Eve didn’t have to include seven fishes: just as long as it was an odd number. Most of the time we had three dishes, and those usually included pan-fried smelts along with the spaghetti and clams. I’m now a vegetarian, so I don’t practice this particular food tradition personally. But, when I cook for others, I love to make a seafood stew called brodetto; you can get seven or more different kinds of seafood in one dish. Paired with some crusty bread, it’s more than a soup — it’s truly a feast.
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