What, you may ask is this Feast of the Seven Fishes you speak of, Miss? It’s a tradition to serve a meal consisting of seven fishes on Christmas Eve, if you’re from an Italian family (specifically, it’s more of a Southern Italian tradition, and since Gran Fran’s family hailed from Naples, and Joe’s (our Dad) family came from Calabria, we fit the bill perfectly).
The basic premise is that Roman Catholics didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve, just as in years gone by, they wouldn’t eat meat on Good Friday, and every Friday. This all changed with Vatican II. But old traditions die hard and besides being tasty, fish is abundant in Southern Italy, San Francisco, and NYC.
So it remains the food to feast on before heading to Midnight Mass. There is no hard evidence on the “why” behind the number seven being chosen, some theorize it’s because of the Seven Sacraments, but others think it might have to do with seven of the of the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t really matter. For ours and most Italian-American families, Christmas Eve was and continues to be all about the fishes.
I have several fond, adult memories of recreating the Feast here in San Francisco, one great New York memory, and some odd childhood reluctance to eat many of the fishes presented to me.
Gran Fran’s menu usually includes: Calamari in Spicy Tomato Sauce, Brandade, Fried Whiting (converted to Fried Fish Salad on the following day), Breaded Shrimp and Scallops, Fillet of Sole, Anchovy Pasta, and Baccala (dried cod) in Tomato Sauce.
Let’s start with childhood. I was always in the kitchen with Gran Fran (and it should also be noted here that Joe is an excellent cook in his own right, with one of his recipes appearing below), hanging around to see what she was making and how. But, when Gran Fran was cooking, you were a guest, not a participant. In those sessions, I learned how to make Brandade (salt cod with potatoes), Anchovy Pasta, and many Fillet of Sole and Red Snapper recipes.
Once they hit the table, the Anchovy Pasta was pretty much the only thing I’d put on my plate, until Gran Fran would prompt me with something like “What’s the matter-you? Get some of everything on your plate, or I’ll smack you upside the head.” (Occasionally, she would also threaten to break my feet. But she never did me any physical harm, in case you were worried.)
Reluctantly, I’d get the plate loaded up and eat as little as I could get away with, except for the Anchovy Pasta, which I kept stocking up on.As I got older, all the fishes began to taste good to me, so it has been a pleasure re-creating the Feast here in SF. My sister and I have prepared at least two fishes each every year for the past 16 Christmas Eves, with this year culminating in the ultimate seven fishes.
But more on that in a minute. I want to talk about Christmas Eve 2006, which is the only one I’ve spent in NYC, between 1992 and 2008.On this particular occasion, Gran Fran and Joe had a houseful of guests from San Francisco, including me and my family and my sister and her family as sleepover guests. By the time we hit Christmas Eve day, it was clear that with the crowd of 23 (which consisted only of my 4 siblings’ families, my family, and my parents), Gran Fran would need some help making the fishes.
As it turned out, I ended up making the Steamed Mussels in Sauce and tending to the Breaded Fillet of Sole.Within a matter of moments, I became the Queen of Gran Fran’s kitchen. Which, was great not only because I knew I could live up to the legacy of her cooking but also because it would be the last Christmas Eve we would have in my childhood home. The tomato sauce bubbled, the sole sizzled, and I stayed right on top of it all. The results were awesome.
I used everything I learned over the years when I hosted Christmas Eve, 2008. We did make the Brandade, the Anchovy Pasta, and the Fillet of Sole just like Gran Fran. But the other four dishes were new twists, contributed by our West Coast friends and family. We had Chestnut Soup with Lump Crab Meat and Chanterelles, Smoked Trout with Salad Greens, Pecans and Grapefruit Slices, Steamed Clams and Chilean Sea Bass over Greens.
Yes, it’s about the fish, but it’s about family, holiday cheer, and tradition.The tradition lives on, even with my daughter, Iz, who is into fish; she made it her mission that we hit the magic number seven by keeping track of everyone’s contributions. I know that in the future she will continue the fishy-madness and make Gran Fran proud.
This is a link to Gran Fran’s blog, theitalianpantry.com with the original post regarding the Feast of the Seven Fishes: http://theitalianpantry.com/2006/12/12/the-christmas-eve-feast/
Pasta with Anchovies
You will need a heavy-bottomed non-reactive saucepan and a 5 to 8qt stock pot. Ingredients:
- 2 cans best anchovy fillets wrapped around capers
- 3 cloves of garlic quartered
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Red pepper flakes to taste
- 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs ground from good quality white bread
- 2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 pounds spaghettini
- Put salted water on to boil for pasta.
- While pasta is boiling, in a skillet heat olive oil until it shimmers.
- Add garlic and cook until it is golden.
- Add red pepper flakes and anchovies with their oil.
- Stir rapidly to break up anchovies. Reduce heat.
- Add bread crumbs and toss until crumbs are golden.
- Remove skillet from heat. Drain pasta. Stir in sauce.
Note: The recipe above specifies salt only in the pasta water because the recipe contains salty anchovies.
Serves 6 as a side dish
Order about 1 1/2 pounds of dried cod that has been soaked at the fish market. (You have to order this several days in advance to give the fishmonger time to soak it. The fish will expand to about 2 1/2 pounds after soaking. If you think this won't be enough to satisfy your guests, order more, and adjust the recipe accordingly. The dish can be served reheated. Don't worry about leftovers.)
You will need a non-reactive 5 to 8qt stock pot. Ingredients:
- Large white onion diced
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 T. anisette or pernod
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- Pinch of salt
- Sprinkle fennel seeds
- Freshly ground pepper
- Red pepper flakes to taste
- Bay leaf
- Package Pomi strained tomatoes
- As soon as you get the fish home, place it in a large bowl of cold water in the refrigerator.
- Change water about every two hours until you are ready to cook fish.
- In a heavy, nonreactive pot, sauté the onion in the oil.
- Add spices.
- Reduce heat and carefully add the wine and anisette.
- Over a medium flame, allow the alcohol to evaporate.
- Stir in tomatoes.
- Simmer sauce until thick and reduced by half--about 30 minutes.
- Drain fish. Rinse well. Dry on paper towels. Cut into serving pieces.
- Add fish to simmering sauce. Partially cover pot. Allow fish to simmer nicely about 40 minutes.
- It should be totally opaque and flaky when cooking is complete. (Again, not too much salt because the fish is salty.)
Serves 12 people (--but since it's a world-class favorite, you shouldn't cook less.)
You will need 2 large non-reactive frying pans; 2 jelly roll pans (baking sheets with a lip) Ingredients:
- 1 1/2 pounds well-soaked and well-dried baccala
- 3 pounds calamari thoroughly cleaned and skinned, including tentacles
- 1 1/2 lb. whiting (merluzzo) fillets with bones removed if possible
- 2 pounds large shrimp, deveined and washed
- 2 pounds scallops, well rinsed
- 2 pounds lemon sole or flounder fillets
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2-4 cups olive oil (NOT extra-virgin)
- 4 lemons sliced in quarters
Method: Preheat oven to 200 degrees (To make the best fried fish: Keep it refrigerated up to the moment of preparation. Then make sure the fish is absolutely positively clean. Wash, wash, wash until your hands turn red from the cold water.)
- Heat frying pans and add enough oil to completely cover the bottoms with a layer about 1/8-inch thick. You'll add more oil as you need it.
- Place the flour in a paper lunch bag. Before you add the salt to the flour, shake the baccala in the flour. Then remove the baccala and add salt to the flour.
- While pans are heating begin to flour fish. Flour only a few pieces at a time. Fry fish in hot oil, making sure there is enough room between pieces to ensure even browning. As fish is fried place it on baking sheets.
- Place sheets in oven to keep fish warm. Add more oil as needed to pans. If flour forms a heavy coating in pan, wipe out pan, add fresh oil, and start again.
Serve fish as soon as possible after frying. Pass lemon slices to accompany fish.
Fried Fish Salad
- Early in day, select one of the fishes above, not the seafood, fry according to recipe above.
- Arrange fish on platter.
- Sprinkle fish with:
- Red pepper flakes
- Thinly sliced onion rings
- Small quantity vinegar.Cover platter closely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate salad several hours before serving.
Serves 6 as a side dish
- 4 pounds cultivated mussels
- 6 cloves garlic quartered
- 1/2 c. olive oil
- Freshly grated pepper
- Pinch salt
- 3 tablespoons anisette
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf Italian Parsley
You will need a deep nonreactive skillet.
- Scrub and debeard mussels.
- Sauté garlic in olive oil, add salt and pepper, wine and anisette.
- Let alcohol evaporate. Return heat to high.
- Add parsley and mussels.
- Cover pan closely. Shake pan occasionally until mussels open. Discard any unopened mussels. Serve with crusty Italian bread.
Baked Red Snapper
(Neapolitan) Serves 6
- 1 whole red snapper, slit down one side, cleaned, gutted, head removed, well washed and dried
- 1 large onion
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup freshly made bread crumbs from good quality white bread
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 pound large shrimp, cleaned, deveined, washed, dried and diced
- 3 tablespoons white wine plus 3 additional tablespoons
You will need a non-reactive skillet and an ovenproof nonreactive baking dish.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees
- Rub fish all over with some of the oil.
- Add a tablespoon of the oil to a large nonreactive baking dish. Rub the dish with the oil.
- Heat the remaining oil in a skillet. Sauté the diced onion until it is slightly golden and translucent.
- Add salt pepper, bread crumbs. Stir until crumbs begin to turn pale gold.
- Increase heat, add shrimp. Saute shrimp until cooked through.
- Add the 3 tablespoons wine. Stir. Remove from heat.
- Mix shrimp, onion, and crumbs together to form stuffing for fish.
- Stuff cavity of red snapper with mixture. Hold fish closed with toothpicks if necessary.
- Sprinkle remaining 3 tablespoons of wine over and around fish.
- Bake 25-30 minutes or until fish flesh is opaque, and skin is golden.