The Feast of Seven Fishes is a popular Italian-American way of celebrating Christmas Eve. It isn’t entirely clear how the number seven was arrived at, or what it means. Many families celebrate with more or fewer fishes, and originally it was likely to have been just one.
The tradition’s origins are in
la Vigilia, or the Vigil, a southern Italian fasting day that was observed on Christmas Eve as people awaited the midnight birth of baby Jesus. The celebrants couldn’t eat meat because they were fasting, which at the time meant they couldn’t eat mammal meat. So they often ate baccalà, or salted cod, a peasant dish that was a nod to the regions humble roots. The Feast of Seven Fishes, in other words, is a fancy way of saying “fish for dinner” on Christmas Eve.
Today, typical fish dishes for the event include cod cakes, oyster shooters, clam linguini, fried calamari, stuffed lobster, and many other popular Italian-American dishes. Seems like a lot of trouble to me, considering I only need about 20 minutes to whip up a batch of my signature seafood stew, which I call Soup of Seven Fishes.
It’s based on cioppino, the classic Italian-American seafood stew from San Francisco but rooted in Italy.
My recipe comes from Genoa where the San Francisco dish is thought to originate and where I had one great bowl of fish soup. As far as I could tell, the seasonings and general ingredient profile similar to many cioppinos I’ve known: chunky seafood in a tomato and wine broth and butter with garlic, onions and herbs.
“Catch of the day” principles apply, as well as catch-what-catch-can in the freezer. I shoot for seven fishes, including shellfish. Start with a mix of olive oil and butter, on medium heat. I add my frozen flaky fish and let it gently sizzle, and hope it forms a light crust that might hold the fish together later on.
While that sputters, I add minced onion and garlic to the oil around the fish. For a seasonal twist, I also add sliced celery root, carrot slices and cauliflower florets.
Then I add other seafood that might be frozen, like shrimp or crab or scallops. Somewhere in there, I add a bay leaf and some thyme or Italian seasonings or Herbs de Provence, in addition to tomatoes, either fresh or, ideally, some well-preserved tomato product from summer. I add a tablespoon or two of paprika or red chile flakes. I also like to toss in a handful of olives and a tablespoon or two of capers.
At this point you will not have stirred it once.
If at any time you smell browning, deglaze with white wine or sherry. Squeeze in a lemon or lime, if you’ve got one. Other seafood could be added. The more the merrier, as diversity adds complexity to the broth.
As it simmers, wash a bunch of parsley, chop off the stems, and mince, in preparation to garnish.
Stir it one time, really well, and serve. Imagine yourself in some weathered seafood stall near the Mediterranean shore, watching the sailors, whores, poets, cargo and seagulls. Imagine yourself drinking wine and sucking the meat out of bivalve shells, spitting shrimp peels onto the street, and sopping every drop of buttery broth with a hunk of ciabatta.
You know, fasting.