The Feast of the Seven Fishes is celebrated on Christmas Eve by Italians-Americans and Italians everywhere by abstaining from eating meat as they wait for the birth of Jesus, know as The Vigil.
It’s primarily a Southern Italian tradition and no one knows for sure what the number symbolizes or even if the number is seven for the 7 sacraments of the church or 12 for the 12 apostles or 13 when Jesus is included. Regardless of the number, this is a night when Italian families gather together to feast on course after course of seafood.
My family has been celebrating Christmas Eve with lots of fish ever since I can remember. It’s my favorite meal of the year, not only for all the amazing food (some of which, like baccala (dried, salted cod) is only served on Christmas Eve, but for the honored tradition of gathering together to prepare, share and linger over a meal that takes days to prepare and hours to eat.
Built into this culinary extravaganza is time to share memories, reconnect to our love and appreciation for each other in a meaningful way that serves to nourish and strengthen the bond that stays with us the rest of the year.
The recipe below is a dish I created as a way to include at least 4 types of fish in one dish so we could honor the tradition without having to each 7 or 13 courses! Of course more types of fish can be added and at various times I’ve also added calamari and sometimes lobster. It was on my restaurant menu for years because after serving it as a special, I had to keep it in due to popular demand even after the feast was over
The trickiest thing is cooking each of the various fish until done but not overcooked. I give you a simple template to do this but keep in mind that if making this for a large number of people, you’ll want to cook each type of fish separately, and setting it aside before moving on to the next. Then bring them all back to a large stockpot to warm just before serving.
Seafood risotto is usually made with the seafood cooked right into the risotto, as you stir. Although it makes a wonderful dish, I find that the seafood can easily become overcooked and get lost in the risotto, or that some diners can get lots while others get cheated. I find that flavoring the risotto with a seafood broth and then topping it with sautéed seafood is the way to go.
Ingredients – Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound risotto, made from Arborio rice prepared according to package directions and kept warm (see note)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Red pepper flakes to taste
2 dozen small clams, rinsed
2 dozen small mussels, cleaned and debearded
12 large sea scallops
12 medium to large shrimp, shelled, cleaned, and deveined
1/2 medium clove garlic, minced
3 plum tomatoes, diced
2 to 3 tablespoons dry white wine
1/2 cup White Wine Sauce (see below)
1/4 cup clam juice or fish broth
2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
1 tablespoon Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, stems removed and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 to 6 lemon wedges, for garnish
Prepare the risotto according to package directions. Either keep the finished risotto warm in a 200ºF. oven or cook it while you prepare the rest of this recipe.
Put the olive oil and red pepper flakes in a large sautépan over high heat for about 30 seconds, or until the oil is hot but not smoking. Cook the clams, mussels, and scallops (on both sides) for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the clams begin to open and the scallops begin to turn opaque. Add the shrimp and cook everything for 1 minute more, until the shrimp turn pink on one side. Turn the shrimp, add the garlic, and cook for a few seconds, until the garlic begins to turn golden.
Cook the tomatoes for another 30 seconds. Add the wine, White Wine Sauce, and clam juice or fish broth, and cook for about 1 minute more, just until the sauce begins to boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the butter and cream if desired, simmer for about a minute until the sauce thickens, remove from the heat, and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, stir some of the liquid part of the sauce into the risotto, then spoon the risotto onto individual serving plates. Top each serving with the remainder of the sauce and the seafood. If desired, arrange the mussels all along the rim of the platter or plate, then add the seafood in the center. Sprinkle with the parsley, salt and pepper, and garnish each serving plate with a lemon wedge.
Note: Arborio rice, for making risotto, is sold in 1-kilogram boxes (2.2 pounds) and comes in two packages. The cooking time is about 25 minutes, but it’s best prepared slightly underdone because it will continue cooking after it’s removed from the heat.
White Wine Sauce
I devised this sauce when I got frustrated with the fact that there was never enough sauce in the pan for 1 pound of pasta. And it was too thin and runny to coat the pasta. So in the restaurant I always had a big batch of this sauce on the back burner that I would add to almost everything (The sauce itself is bland so it doesn’t interfere with the taste of the dish.)I was sautéing on the front burners. At home I usually have a bunch in deli containers or in ice cube trays in the freezer that I can use when needed, or I can easily whip up a batch on the fly before I start a new dish. It really easy.
1/4 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of flour
1/2 cup of white wine
1 cup of chicken broth
Place a medium saucepan over med/high heat. Add flour and stir to incorporate. This makes a roux which will thicken the sauce. Cook for about a minute and add the wine. It will get very thick at this point. Slowly add the broth and stir to incorporate. Reduce heat and cook on low for about 20 minutes or until the strong taste of wine has mellowed.
Chef Silvia is a restaurateur, writer and cooking coach from Connecticut. For her, living “la dolce vita” is really a state of mind because any meal lovingly prepared and shared in community is invoking a Mediterranean spirit, and this is what she brings to the table. Don’t forget to check out her wonderful blog http://chefsilvia.com/
“If it were possible to have a communal table big enough to seat everyone on the planet – in some limitless virtual piazza where we could all share a delicious, lovingly-prepared meal, a bit of heart-to-heart with our neighbor, and a whole lotta laughter – I think we would have world peace by the time we got to dessert.”