Three French hens; two turtle doves; and a cod fish in a soup bowl.
OK, that’s not how the carol ends, but it’s how this Christmas Eve begins. And yes, there’s a story behind it.
My niece, Alexandrea, her husband, Torri, and their sons, Rocco and Luca, live in a beautifully renovated home just off Park Street in St. Petersburg, Florida. Located close to Boca Ciega Bay, you can smell the salt air from their backyard, which is lush with thick St. Augustine grass and surrounded by climbing Bougainvillea vines and leaning palms. I’m green with envy.
Last Christmas Eve, Alexandrea posted an Insta-worthy pic of her backyard adorned with an extra-long, candlelit table set for a large gathering. She titled it, “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” Turns out Torri is quite the cook. He celebrates the eve before Christmas by putting on a seafood extravaganza that highlights his Italian-American roots, commemorating the vigil awaiting the midnight birth of Jesus.
I’m finding this custom more and more familiar as the previous year our close family friends here in Tennessee hosted a similar Christmas Eve dinner. In contrast, they had unpacked their Christmas china, crystal, silver, and linens, and set the oval mahogany table in their dining room with the fireplace aglow as a backdrop. Although different in approach, what each of these inspiring dinner parties had in common was a nod to tradition, a quest for mouth-watering food, and a reverence for the magnitude of Christmas to come.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, also known as La Vigilia di Natale, is an Italian-American celebration of Christmas Eve with dishes of fish and other seafood. Many Italian-American families have varying schools of thought as to what is included in this festive menu, with some choosing to serve seven courses in reference to the last seven days of Advent. There are also those who believe the feast should consist of 12 courses in humble respect for the 12 apostles.
The number of courses isn’t the only difference. Within the seven courses there’s the choice of seven unique seafood dishes, or one type of fish prepared seven different ways. What is consistent within the feast are the amazing recipes that embody the spirit of the holiday. From clams and mussels to calamari and cod, there’s a wonderful sense of adventure in every dish.
So, if you’re angling for a slight change this year, why not take the bait and try this Christmas Eve tradition on for size. I think you’ll be hooked!
Creamy Garlic Tuscan Shrimp Fettuccine | Makes 4 servings
2 Tbsp. butter
6 cloves garlic (minced)
16 oz. shrimp (peeled, deveined, tails on)
1 yellow onion (diced)
5 oz. jar sun-dried tomatoes in (drained)
2 tsp. dried oregano
1-3/4 c. heavy cream
3 c. baby spinach
1 c. parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley (chopped)
8 oz. fettuccine
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skillet over medium high heat, melt butter and add garlic, stirring slightly for one minute. Add the shrimp and cook for two minutes per side. Transfer shrimp to a bowl. Add onion, sun-dried tomatoes, and oregano to the skillet and cook for one to two minutes. Reduce heat to low and add the cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in spinach leaves, and then the parmesan cheese. Add shrimp back into the skillet. Sprinkle with parsley and stir through. Bring six quarts of water to a rolling boil, salt to taste. Add pasta and return to a boil uncovered, stirring occasionally for 12 minutes. Drain and add to the shrimp sauce. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water to add to the sauce, if needed. Serve immediately.
Tip from Laura: For a healthy side, purchase extra spinach that can be used in the main dish and for a side salad.
Cioppino Seafood Stew | Makes 4 servings
3 cloves garlic (minced)
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 onion (chopped)
1 c. fennel bulb (chopped)
1/2 c. celery (chopped)
1 tsp. kosher salt (divided)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (divided)
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 c. dry cooking wine
15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
3 bay leaves
8 oz. jar of clam juice
1-1/2 c. vegetable stock
16 oz. Littleneck clams (soaked in water for one hour prior to cooking)
8 oz. medium shrimp (peeled, deveined, tails on)
16 oz. mussels
8 oz. skinless cod (cut into one-inch pieces)
2 Tbsp. parsley (chopped)
In a large pot over medium high heat, add oil, then garlic, onion, fennel, celery, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook until vegetables are tender, about six to eight minutes. Add tomato paste, oregano, and wine. Turn heat up to medium high and cook for five to seven minutes, or until cooking liquid is reduced by half. Turn heat down to a simmer and add tomatoes and their juice, bay leaves, clam juice, and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook covered for 30 minutes. Add remaining salt and pepper, then clams. Cover and cook on medium for three minutes. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add shrimp, mussels, and cod on top, then cover and cook until the shellfish open and shrimp and fish are opaque, about five minutes. Discard bay leaves and stir in parsley. Serve immediately.
Herb Crusted Cod with Italian Garden Salsa | Makes 4 servings
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (divided)
4 cod fillets
1 pint cherry tomatoes (sliced)
1 Tbsp. fresh basil (chopped)
1 onion (chopped)
1 c. breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley
3/4 c. parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
2 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. With a paper towel, pat dry fish fillets. Salt and pepper generously on both sides. Place a non-stick pan on medium high heat, adding two tablespoons of olive oil. When the pan is hot, sear fish fillets on both sides, about one minute per side. Remove fillets, placing them onto a baking dish. Place non-stick skillet back on medium high heat. Add additional two tablespoons of olive oil, cherry tomatoes, and onion to the pan. Cook the tomatoes and onion for about five minutes, then toss in chopped basil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, parsley, and parmesan cheese. To each fillet, add a generous helping of tomato, onion, and basil salsa, then top each fillet with the breadcrumb mixture. Place the baking dish in the oven for six minutes. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on each plate.
Tip from Laura: For a thicker fish filet, you can use halibut instead.