For generations, the Italian celebration of the Feast of the Seven Fishes has taken place on Christmas Eve, where several meatless dishes are prepared as a lighter precursor to the larger Christmas Day feast served the following day. Few would consider a meal of seven different fish dishes 'light,' but more home chefs are finding ways to inject creativity and versatility into the foodie holiday with more modern and simplified interpretations of the ambitious tradition.
When curating the menu, many Italian-Americans and proud gastronomes debate if seven fishes are really needed to create an authentic dinner. Many home chefs look to several religious theories used to explain the tradition, with the most popular being that '7' is the most frequently referenced number in the Bible (e.g. seven deadly sins, seven days to create Earth). Regardless of the name, it is not mandatory to observe the tradition with exactly seven fishes or even seven courses. Some home chefs have even managed to boil the ambitious feast down to a deliciously simple one-course low-key seafood affair.
Legal Sea Foods Executive Chef Rich Vellante has always celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes traditionally. His Italian-American family now enjoys the holiday meal by hosting a potluck-style dinner, where each person is asked to bring a course. This way, everyone gets involved in the meal and the burden of creating the entire menu doesn't fall on just one person.
"Obviously there has to be some coordination of who is doing what so that you have a great variety of dishes and seafood to enjoy, says Vellante. You want to have a menu that not only features different fish, but different preparation techniques. The best feasts have something fried, something baked, something broiled, something seared. Feast of the Seven Fishes is a labor of love and sharing in the preparation as well as the enjoyment of the meal really brings everyone together."
Potluck-style dinners are just one of many several creative ways to approach a seemingly ambitious meal. To add a modern take on the feast, Vellante suggests preparing a three-course meal, consisting of dishes which each contain multiple species. And a simple seafood salad consisting of greens and cold seafood - such as calamari or squid with a citrus-based vinaigrette - can serve as a great appetizer before moving on to heartier dishes, such as a seafood casserole and cod imperial.
"Hosts can also offer a simplified interpretation of the age-old tradition by considering any kind of fish stew, such as our cioppinio consisting of squid, scallops, mussels, clams, cod, shrimp and lobster, suggests Vellante. Fish stews are a great way to fit all seven fishes in one entrée."
Legal Sea Foods' Vellante says that seafood's diversity make it so much easier to create everything from stews to finger-food.
Of course, the quintessential Feast of Seven Fishes usually includes copious amounts of flowing wine. Ideally, a host should offer a variety of wines to toast such a festive occasion comprising multiple flavor profiles. Light crisp citrusy wines such as Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are the best accompaniments for briny, savory seafood dishes. Fresh, cherry-scented, low tannin reds, such as Pinot Noir complement grilled seafood and tart tomato-influenced dishes.
And regardless of the approach, most people would agree that the focal point of the meal is to gather with family and friends over delicious food and wine to toast the advent of Christmas Day.
Photo credit: Legal Sea Foods