Feast of the Seven Fishes
An Italian-American holiday celebration for seafood-lovers.
You know you want to be Italian. Seriously, when has Italian food not been hot? It's okay to admit, I mean, I envy the culinary traditions of Japan, India, and the South. One Italian-American tradition you could adopt is my favorite holiday meal: Feast of the Seven Fishes. Sacrilegious as it may sound, it may be better than Thanksgiving. Why? The annual Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner at the Bovino's means we give up the dining room and hang out in the kitchen around food and drink. Mom, Dad, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, extended family together until we're full, loud and ready for presents.
What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
The feast is supposedly a tradition started in Southern Italy — a meat-fast and commemoration of the midnight birth of Jesus. Why seven? Some say for the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. As my family says after a point, let's leave religion and politics out of it and enjoy the company and the food.
How Do You Have a Feast of the Seven Fishes?
The basic tenet is to serve seven different seafoods. The way restaurants often do this is seven seafood courses starting with hors d'oeuvres, stretching through antipasti to entrées. You can do all kinds of things — oysters, clams, octopus, fish — a million ways (pastas, soups, and fried delights). And it's tough to argue with a menu like one conjured by über-chef, Mario Batali.
But after many years we've found the best Feast of the Seven Fishes is seven seafood hors d'oeuvres (or more!). Why? We like to pick, on each other and at the food. Seriously though, you experience more flavor if you don't do heavy dishes. We do one entrée (soup or pasta) to rely on just in case we're still hungry.
One thing, when it comes to cuisine, don't be held hostage to fish and 'tradition.' Anything seafood-related is game. And sure, we do fried calamari and scungili salad, but there's nothing wrong with spicy tuna, and mini lobster rolls. There's no pretense to authenticity. It's an Italian-American tradition anyway. It's about good seafood, and friends or family.
A Menu to Start With and Adapt:
Oysters: How many? Depends on how many people, and who likes them. Three to four per person is a good start. What kind? Rowan Jacobsen's The Oyster Guide is helpful. I like Malpeques with jalapeño mignonette à la Swan Oyster Depot, with lemon juice, horseradish and Tabasco at the ready. Other options include an oyster pan roast and grilled oysters.
Clams: Raw, baked, or both. Does it count as two courses if you do both? However you need to get to seven! We usually do both raw (with homemade cocktail sauce, the one in "Lobster Rolls & Blueberry Pie" rocks), and baked with breadcrumbs and lemon juice. Other recommendations include: Boston clam chowder, linguini con vongole, and baked clam dip.
Shrimp: Nothing wrong with boiled shrimp cooked in a little wine-laced water and served with homemade cocktail sauce.
Fish: Nova, whitefish and sable — prepared fish like these almost always make it to our feast. So too, sashimi and tartare (like the one at Swan below with red onions, capers, olive oil and lemon juice). But for several years running, so has my homemade 'Spicy Margarita Cured Salmon." Check back for the recipe.
Octopus: Grill it, it's actually not that difficult. Just remember: cook it first in water!
For that one entrée to rely on, you can do the linguini, or the clam chowder noted above, or even a cioppino. We usually open up a bottle of homemade wine from Grandma and Grandpa Bovino, or mix martinis, and gin or vodka tonics. Whatever you do, make sure there's lots of wine.