Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston
Thursday, December 23, 2010
CHRISTMAS EVE--FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES
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 dolci, 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 dolci, baba rum, and for the adults, caffe correcto (espresso coffee with a shot of sambuca in it).
I continued the tradition when my children were at home, but now that one lives in California and one in New York, it isn't as easy to keep the tradition. But here is a feast of seven fishes meal I've made 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, s&pps. 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
4 Tablespoons olive oil
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 of 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 s&p. 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.
s&p 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
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 peppers, 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.
Buon Natale e Buon Anno!
Posted by Shaw Kenawe at 9:09 AM
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Oh. Oh. Oh. A food orgy. You can almost have a you-know-what from reading this! Lovely and am definately saving these recipes.
And what sweet memories. Wow, I would have loved to grow up in that environment, cigar smoke and all. Of course, like most oldies, I have my own memories as well. But there's a sadness to it all these days. Families are so split up and people just seem too busy to even try to carry on these beautiful traditions and so they are getting lost. Maybe we should re-evaluate our priorities.
Lovely story and to-die-for recipes.
Shaw: I’ve participated in the 7 Fishes. It’s a tradition that I thoroughly enjoy (I think I might be part Italian. lol.)
Thank you for sharing your childhood memories. That’s one thing we have, our memories, which are nice to reflect upon, or talk/write about. I really enjoy getting together with my dad and hearing him tell “his stories”. I wish my pap were still alive; he was a real story teller and my kids would’ve enjoyed him.
Leslie: I have to sadly agree that many people don’t have traditions or don’t even get together. It all seems so rushed, and even superficial, and the whole “meaning” is missed. Sure the “gifts” are fun, but it’s really about family and friends and belonging—about creating memories and maintaining traditions and sometimes making new ones.
You said it: re-evaluate our priorities.
Maybe we could start a movement called Christmas Without Gifts. Think the retailers would support us?
I don't know if your recipes came from the Book of Numbers or a version of the Seven Wonders of the Seafood World but my God that stuff lookd good. And I don't even like fish.
You have reminded us that at the center of all those childhood memories of big family get-togethers were the culinary delights. The two best cooks in our family were my mother and my brother-in-law Paul. Growing up in Mississipi, we had tradional Southern fare (usually the result of a hog killing or a neck wringing). My mother never used a recipe for anything, and now none of us can reproduce her biscuits or tomato pie (a cobbler with sweet spices), which was my favorite.
Thanks for a lovely feast which I could almost taste! And for your memories. Merry Christmas, y’all!
another source of the tradition may have started as a reenactment of the feeding of the thousands of persons from the seven loaves of bread and fish.
anyway, like everyone in here, i enjoyed the post very much, shaw.
Yumm! You know how partial I am to all things of the sea. Just stopping by to wish you are Happy and Healthy Halibut and Best Fishes for the New Year. May Manta Claus bring you lots of munchies.
I hope Manta Claus is more kindly than Santa Jaws.
What a beautiful childhood memory. Sounds fun, and delicious!
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