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The Feast of the Seven Fishes: An Italian Christmas Eve Dinner

 

If you haven't already added the Feast of the Seven Fishes gift box to your cart, we suggest you do that first. Don't worry, we'll be right here when you return. 

Now that you've gotten that out of the way let's discuss the Feast of the Seven Fishes which is but one of countless Christmas Eve dinner traditions in Italy. If you’re an East Coast Italian-American, then you know that this Southern Italian tradition came to America through New York’s Little Italy in the late 1800s. Originally known as La Vigilia (The Vigil), this seven-course seafood feast is enjoyed on Christmas Eve to commemorate the late night birth of Christ.

Eating fish on Christmas Eve is a Catholic tradition connected to abstinence from meat on certain holidays. But, not all Catholics observe this abstinence on the same days, if at all. That’s why some northern and continental Italian Christmas Eve feasts may actually feature meat dishes.

The number seven is a particularly common number in Catholic symbology. There are seven days of Creation, seven deadly sins, and seven sacraments. Therefore, why not as well feature seven courses in a Christmas celebration? Some regions of Italy will prepare 12 courses to represent the 12 apostles. But in the southern fishing and seafaring regions, they stick to seven.

Because many of America’s original Italian immigrants were from southern regions, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the Italian Christmas Eve tradition that took hold most firmly here. But every family does it their own way, including dishes that have become standard family favorites. Some will insist that certain fish should always be included, and that some should be avoided. The debate between families over such details can become heated, to say the least. For this reason, most Italian-American families opt to stay home and prepare their own.

They all seem to agree that fish should be eaten as the Christmas Eve vigil supper, ideally with plenty of wine. That’s why we felt it was probably okay to take some liberties with our influences when we developed our own recipes for you.


The Feast of the Seven Fishes Made Easy

Our line-up of seven recipes is perfectly suited to a luxurious seafood meal for two to four people, depending on appetites. You’ll find that this rowdy little gang of small plates is more than filling, and easy to prepare. If you think these recipes are too easy, and you feel compelled to do more to elevate the tinned seafood, please be assured that they don’t require much elevation. There is very little that needs doing to these perfectly preserved specimens of aquatic protein, but still just enough to provide you with some festive kitchen activity on Christmas Eve.

And, preparing a seven-course Christmas dinner might sound like a little more than many of us care to attempt. But we put some thought and strategy into our collection of recipes so that you can execute much of the preparation in advance, leaving the simpler dishes for just before serving. We’ll look first at the starches.

The Bread and the Pasta

One common element throughout the feast will be bread. You’ll want a crusty bread to be warmed and sliced thickly for sopping up juices and oils, plus a flatbread. Unless you’re truly ambitious and wish to prepare each element of the meal from scratch, we think it’s perfectly acceptable to purchase the bread items. In fact, we recommend it.

There are also two pasta dishes, and one with farro. Cooked pasta holds for a few days in the refrigerator just fine with a light coating of oil to prevent clumping, so feel free to get the pasta out of the way as early as December 22nd. As for the farro, it can also be cooked and held. But, before you begin the final preparations, allow the pasta to come to room temperature.

Beyond that, we have some pointers for timing yourself based on the complexity of the recipes. The more involved dishes aren’t difficult at all, but they contain a greater number of ingredients with different processing needs. The three starch dishes should be served at the beginning, middle and end of the feast, and we’ve given recommendations for each. If you put easier courses between the starches, you’ll have completed service and be on the couch before you know it. 

 

The REALLY Quick and Easy Recipes

  • Basque Baby Eel Tapas de Angulas - This is served warm, but all you’ll need to do is season a little olive oil to add to the can’s own oil. You can even prepare the spice-infused oil a day ahead of time, so long as you keep it in an air-tight container to prevent rancidity. Beyond that, all you’ll need to do is open the tin of baby eels and quickly fry it in the spiced oil. 

  • Tuna Belly with Chicago Giardiniera - This is absolutely the easiest recipe of all of them. Warm some flatbread, plunk down a layer of marinated vegetables, and then gently lay the tuna belly across the top of it. This is quite literally a one-minute recipe. We might recommend saving it for some point in the middle of service if you’d like to take a break, or if you get hung up somewhere else and need to buy yourself a little extra time.


  • The Slightly More Involved Easy Recipes


  • Spanish Cockle Skewers - While the final steps of this recipe take only a few seconds, the assembly of the skewers requires some knife work, and a bit of focus and manual dexterity. Give yourself some time to assemble these, as it’s somewhat delicate work.

  • Smoked White King Salmon Bruschetta - As above, you have just a bit of knife work with bread and garnish, plus some air-drying time in the fridge for the salmon.
  • The Fairly Involved Easy Recipes


  • Smoked Octopus Salad with Farro - Though it includes a healthy number of ingredients, you can prepare it hours ahead of service because it needs to marinate and chill. We recommend serving this as a first course to get the party started, then moving picking a really fast, and easy recipe. You’ll have dazzled your guests with two courses before they know what’s happening. 

  • Smoked Herring Cavatelli - This one is good for around midway through your feast. It features a rich sauce, and so it will slow down your guests. This would probably even be a good time to take a load off, enjoy a few sips of wine and chat festively. You might even like to serve an espresso or palate-cleansing mineral water after this course.

  • Linguine with Smoked Geoduck and Fennel - The number of ingredients to be mindful of, and the amount of knife and processing work are your main concern. We recommend this as your final course, when your guests are slowing down even more, the chat becomes livelier, and appetites are mostly sated.

  • And there you have the Wildfish Cannery Feast of the Seven Fishes. You can find the curated kit here. Let us know how yours turned out in the comments, or on our Facebook page. Buon natale e buon appetito!