Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston

~~~

~~~

.

.
.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Feast of the Seven Fishes -- A Southern Italian Christmas Eve Tradition



Growing up in a southern Italian family, I participated each Christmas Eve (La Vigilia di Natale) in the tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  I've never been able to find definitively where the tradition started or why seven fishes.  Here are some suggestions:



The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church -- baptism, penance, Holy Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and the sacrament of Extreme Unction.



The seven sins of the world -- pride, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust and greed.


The seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.


Some say it's the seven hills of Rome, some say it's the seven winds of Italy, or the Seven Wonders of the World.

Another theory is that seven is a number representing perfection: the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ.

I have no idea why seven fishes were used, but it doesn't matter, since the idea of the feast was to carry on a tradition that was started somewhere in the obscure past and to celebrate a holiday in a manner that Italians know best--with lots of incredibly delicious food. 


My childhood memories are of my mother, grandmother (nonna) and aunts all working in the kitchen while the men smoked cigars, talked politics, and played cards in the parlor. [Beh!] 

One aunt made her famous ricotta filled ravioli.  Nonna made the dolci:  biscotti di regina, struffoli, pizzelle, pizza dolce, casatelli.   My mother, aunts and older cousins cracked steamed lobsters, picked the succulent meat from the knuckles, claws, 
and tails and put it into a marinara sauce that was ladled over piping hot bowls of linguini or fettucini. [We kids got to suck the little juicy bits of lobster meat from the legs, which were discarded because there wasn't enough meat in them to bother with.] I remember sweet, tender razor clams, stuffed with anchovy, parsley, and garlic flavored bread crumbs;  baccala--salted cod--made into a heavenly dish with hard-boiled eggs, floating in a savory sauce along with little salty green capers and bright red pimentoes.  The table was loaded with platters of lightly fried smelts, delicate sweet slender fish dredged in flour, sauted in olive oil, and served with cold lemon wedges; spicy, plump mussels in marinara sauce; scungilli salad; and my favorite, delicately battered and fried calamari.  One Christmas Eve, my mother prepared eel, which was surprisingly delicious--it tasted like chicken.

After everyone's bellies were filled, the uncles took out their musical instruments--violins, guitars, the older sisters and cousins played the piano, and we sang traditional Italian Christmas songs. [One of my childhood favorites was "Tu scendi dalle stelle." I just called it "Bambino."]  Finally, it was time for midnight Mass.  We all left the house and walked to church.  When we returned, we opened our gifts, played more music, ate more dolci and fell into bed by 2 am, exhausted, full, and happy.  Christmas day we all gathered again for our Christmas dinner--lasagna (in those days lasagna was made only for special occasions), followed by a meat course--roast beef or turkey, verdure (vegetables), salad, fruit, nuts, roasted chestnuts.  And later in the day, dolci--cannoli, pizza dolce, baba rum, and for the adults, caffe correcto (espresso coffee with a shot of sambuca in it).

I continued the tradition of cooking the seven fishes on December 24 when my children were at home, but now that they're living all over the country, it isn't as easy to do so with all of them so far away and on their own schedules.  But here is a feast of seven fishes meal I've made since then and am happy to share with everyone:


Feast of the Seven Fishes



Mussels with orzo (serves two)


2 lbs. mussels, cleaned and scrubbed
4 Tablespoons good fruity olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium stalk of celery, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
4 plum tomatoes, diced with skin and seeds
1 cup good burgundy wine
2 Tablespoons of minced fresh herbs (basil, mint, oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon)
12 pitted black olives, sliced in half
1 tspn. anise seeds, crushed
salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
3 Tablespoons minced parsley
1/4 pound of orzo


Boil water for orzo. Put orzo in water and cook until just tender (al dente).


Wash and scrub mussels and set aside. In a large, deep saute pan, saute the next 4 ingredients in olive oil until golden and tender, add plum tomatoes, and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Add wine and simmer until alcohol evaporates. Place mussels in pan, turn up heat and cook just till the shells open. Remove from heat. Stir in herbs, olives, anise seeds, salt and pepper. Add orzo to pan and stir so that the little rice-shaped pasta gets into the opened mussel shells. Place in deep pasta bowls and sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve immediately






Smelts with lemon (serves 2)


1/2 dozen smelts
3/4 cup flour
salt, pepper
4 Tablespoons olive oil
lemon wedges
1 Tablespoon minced parsley


Go to your local fishmonger and select the freshest smelts. Their eyes must glisten like the newly fallen snow. No cloudiness in the eyes. Ever.


Take the smelts home. Take a pair of scissors and snip off their heads, then run the scissors down the front of the fish and degut them. Very easy.


Wash and dry the smelts. Put the flour on a platter and generously season with salt and pepper. Roll the smelts into the seasoned flour and set aside. Place olive oil in saute pan and heat. Saute the smelts over gentle heat until they take on a golden color. Do not overcook. Place on a platter and squeeze some lemon on them. Serve with more lemon wedges and garnish with minced parsley.






Lobster meat with fresh tomatoes and linguini (serves 2)


1/2 lb. lobster meat (buy shelled at fishmonger or cook your own)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 cup torn basil leaves
1 Tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
3 plum tomatoes, diced, with skin and seeds.
salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon minced parsley


In a medium saute pan, saute the onion and garlic until soft and golden in the combination butter and olive oil. Add the diced plum tomatoes. Simmer for 2/3 minutes. Stir in basil and thyme leaves, salt and pepper to taste. Stir in lobster meat and heat through. Serve over linguini. Sprinkle with minced parsley.






Shrimp Scampi (serves 2)


3/4 lb. shrimp, shelled and deveined
3 Tablespoons olive oil
5 oz. of shitake mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, minced
1/2 dozen cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 oz. good quality feta or goat cheese
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 Tablespoons combination minced fresh herbs (basil, thyme, mint, tarragon, parsley)


In a medium saute pan, saute the garlic and onion in olive oil until tender, add the mushrooms and simmer for 1-2 minutes, add the white wine and simmer until alcohol burns off. Add the tomatoes, lemon juice and lemon zest. Add shrimp and saute just until they turn pink, do not over cook. Remove from heat. Serve in shallow bowls. Sprinkle cheese and parsley just before serving.






Crabmeat and scallop stuffed filet of sole (serves 2)

2 good sized filets of sole pieces (approx. 1/2 lb. in total weight
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup crab meat
3 large scallops, cut in pieces
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
salt and pepper, red pepper flakes to taste
1 teaspoon crushed cumin seeds
2 Tablespoons minced fresh herb combination (basil, thyme, parsley, tarragon, cilantro)
1 Tablespoon toasted pignole nuts
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Lemon wedges


Place the olive oil and butter in saute pan. Add the scallops and cook to tender, add crab meat and heat through. Remove from heat. Stir in breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, cumin seeds, pignole nuts and herbs. Take the two sole filets and spoon mixture evenly on each filet. Carefully roll up the filets and place in glass baking pan. Dot with butter and squeeze lemon on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with minced herbs and serve with lemon wedges.



Pass the Alka-Seltzer and have a Happy Holiday, however you celebrate!

10 comments:

Ahab said...

That sounds positively decadent. Merry Christmas!

(O)CT(O)PUS said...

Many thanks for the scrumptious recipes; this post wins the Mandatory Bookmark award for 2015. BTW, I left a card for you at the other place.

Vinny said...

If you're Italian you know damn well that today is Christmas -- the Feast of the Seven Fishes!

From your Cousin Vinny.

Anonymous Reader of TeaPublican Blogs said...



"Why everyone can’t embrace what they enjoy and just ignore what bugs them is beyond me," said Miss Prissy Pants. "And why does it bug them?" Said Miss Prissy Pants who doesn't follow her own advise when it comes to marriage equality.

Why can't people like her just mind their own business when people who love each other want to marry. It doesn't affect other people's marriages so why do so many Christians have fits over it. "Why don't people just ignore what bugs them?"


Miss Prissy Pants: "I honestly CAN see when Christian objects are on public property; I get that. But our country was founded on this faith and it did us well until we started insulting it and removing things… correlation? I think so.

Miss Prissy Pants doesn't know squat about what this country was "founded" on. But then they are the Stupid Party aren't they?

The early colonists BANNED the celebration of Christmas. That's what our country was founded on.

The original people who waged a WAR ON CHRISTMAS were devout Christians! Our country was founded on banning even saying "Merry Christmas" by Christians.

"All Christmas activities, including dancing, seasonal plays, games, singing carols, cheerful celebration and especially drinking were banned by the Puritan-dominated Parliament of England in 1644, with the Puritans of New England following suit. Christmas was outlawed in Boston, and the Plymouth colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense, according to "Once Upon a Gospel" (Twenty-Third Publications, 2008).

Christmas trees and decorations were considered to be unholy pagan rituals, and the Puritans also banned traditional Christmas foods such as mince pies and pudding. Puritan laws required that stores and businesses remain open all day on Christmas, and town criers walked through the streets on Christmas Eve calling out "No Christmas, no Christmas!"

In England, the ban on the holiday was lifted in 1660, when Charles II took over the throne. However, the Puritan presence remained in New England and Christmas did not become a legal holiday there until 1856. Even then, some schools continued to hold classes on December 25 until 1870."



Christians waged the original WAR on Christmas, not atheists, non-believers, or other religious sects.

Titan you're famous! said...

On my way to a Christmas Eve seven fishes feast as well here in Philly.

Best wishes to you and your family.

Ducky's here said...

Oh, that looks terrific, Shaw.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Free Twinkies said...

Happy Holidays and may all your Twinkies be filled with the sweetest cream!

The Wank Files said...

Hey! Happy Festivus to you and yours from us at the Wank Files!

Dave Miller said...

I'll be having a little of that espresso/sambuca drink manana...

Merry Christmas Shaw...

And thanks for the 2 person recipes...

dave

okjimm said...

Ha! Sambuca! The Book Club at Oblio's meets every monday after Christmas....and we all do a shot of Sambuca in celebration that the whole goddam thing is over! I prefer it over ouzo.