The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian American tradition which takes place on Christmas Eve. Since its origins are based in Southern Italy, the feast typically consists of classic Southern Italian dishes (think: tomato-based sauces, and seafood like squid, shrimp, and anchovies). The Feast consists of seven courses with seven different types of seafood dishes; not all of them necessarily fish. As one intrepid diner stated during the meal, “It’s more like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, Crustaceans, and Bivalves”. The number seven is important due to its religious association, and the heavy reliance on fish has not only a geographical significance, but also ties to the Roman Catholic practice of avoiding meat on certain days.
Why Embrace This Tradition?
While I’m neither religious nor culturally Italian, the Feast of the Seven Fishes has always fascinated me. It seems like grand and unique way to celebrate the holiday, and a far cry from the typical American meal served on Christmas Eve or day.
A few months ago, I became primarily pescatarian. It’s been an opportunity to hone my knowledge and appreciation for vegetable-based meals and the amazing variety of seafood you can get anywhere in the world (a big deal when you’ve grown up in the landlocked state of Kansas). This year, instead of imposing my dietary preferences on my meat-loving but adventurous family’s big holiday meal, I decided to make dinner for them.
What To Make
I wanted to create this meal with modern considerations for feasting; meaning each course is quite small, and follows a certain pattern that will *ahem* diminish a degree of gastrointestinal distress. Small bites, salads, and lighter options building up to the heavier main courses. Additionally, while my family is crazy for a good tomato sauce and fried calamari, I tend to prefer seafood cooked in a more “French” style … and this time, no one seemed to object.
Getting good seafood in Kansas isn’t impossible, but it certainly limited the courses I could make. Many fish varieties are available frozen, as are shrimp. Preserved fish liked smoked salmon and anchovies in oil are also abundant. So I worked up a list of seven dishes that I thought my family would enjoy.
Course One of the night was Smoked Salmon Crostini. My recipe for this quick and easy appetizer, which is welcomed and quickly devoured at parties any time of the year, is as follows:
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer, cooking time 15 minutes
- 6-8 ounces of smoked salmon
- Thick crackers, or mini-toasts
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon of chopped dill fronds, plus additional for garnish
- 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tablespoon of sugar
- 3 tablespoons of canola or grapeseed oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Mix the vinegar, chopped dill, mustard, sugar, and oil in a food processor. Season with salt and pepper.
- Lay a thin slice of salmon (1/2 ounce maximum) on each cracker or piece of toast, then top with a dallop of sauce and a sprig of dill.
- You’ll have leftover sauce for dipping or saving!
Course Two was a delicious salad of romaine hearts with avocado and an anchovy vinaigrette. Of course, some diners may opt for an alternative dressing if they aren’t willing to try the fishy dressing. So be it; many other dressings taste great on the simple salad. Those diners, in fact, participate in a Feast of Six Fishes.
Course Three of the feast was an impressive array of steamed snow crab legs. You can find the recipe I used below:
Cooking time 15 minutes
- 1-2 lbs of snow or king crab legs per person
- 1/4 cup of butter per two people
- Optional: Old Bay, garlic salt, white vinegar
- Fill a large pot about one third of the way with water and bring to a boil.
- You can add as many clusters as space will allow into the pot, but a lid will need to fit over the top. Cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Once melted, pour it into a small bowl for dipping.
- Serve crab legs with proper utensils for cracking and retrieving the meat. Dip the meat in butter as desired with garlic salt or Old Bay for extra flavor; consider white vinegar for dipping as well.
By this point in the meal, diners and their appetites were slowing down, but we pressed on. With only 3 courses behind us, the fourth dish was shrimp scampi. Here is my tried and true recipe:
Serves 6, cooking time 30 minutes
- 1 1/2 pounds shrimp, medium or large, peeled and deveined
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 lbs of linguine, spaghetti, or angel hair pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 minced cloves of garlic
- Red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup dry vermouth
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 tablespoon of juice and 1 teaspoon of zest from a fresh lemon
- ¼ cup chopped parsley, plus more for serving
- Toss the shrimp with the baking soda and pinch of salt, and let sit for about 30 minutes. This will create a more bouncy and pleasant texture to the cooked shrimp.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook Add the pasta and cook al dente. Drain, reserving 1/3 of a cup of water.
- Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat, and add the shrimp. After about two minutes, turn the shrimp and add the vermouth, garlic, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Cook until the shrimp are pink and the vermouth is reduced by half, about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Remove the skillet from heat and stir in the butter, whisking until it’s melted and emulsified. Add the parsley and lemon juice.
- Once the shrimp is coated in its sauce, add the contents of the skillet to the pot of pasta. Stir and thoroughly combine, adding a few tablespoons of pasta water at a time to bind the shrimp and sauce to the pasta. Serve immediately, garnishing with more parsley if desired.
Course Five was a Spanish fish chowder garnished with chorizo, and the sixth was Moules Marinières. Although we had seven diners, and each course was made in small proportions, there was a good deal of surprise the meal had not ended! Course Seven was tilapia topped with a rudimentary olive tapenade and a side of blanched green beans tossed in a vinaigrette. The most leftovers of Course Seven remained, though it made for a delicious for lunch the next day.
Only a few diners around my family table cleaned their plates, but everyone had a full belly and a new favorite seafood dish after the experience!
How It Came Together
The Feast of the Seven Fishes requires a lot of planning and ingredient prep, depending on what types of dishes you’ll be preparing. Space for multiple chopping and assembly stations is a must, and a sous chef or two is never a bad idea. In total, the meal took about 4 hours and 30 minutes to prepare, and ended up utilizing about three dishwasher-loads of dishes to make and serve.
The simplest dishes (like the smoked salmon toasts and the crab legs) tended to be everyone’s favorites. When I attempt this again, I would prefer to make at least 2 courses of frozen appetizers that are merely heated in the oven, so I won’t have to cook while others are eating! Preparing dishes ahead of time, and leaving them to simmer in a crockpot or on low upon the stovetop, is absolutely key to timing the feast appropriately. And, if you have a sense of humor and run out of ideas, I’d recommend adding a course of Goldfish crackers, or a dessert course of Swedish Fish at the end!