The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition, a multi-course meal enjoyed on Christmas Eve, when the holiday table sings with fresh seafood, quality ingredients, and tasty wine.
Italy is a biodiverse nation, and because much of this tradition is influenced by the intercontinental culture of families who moved from Italy to the United States, there are no rules in its preparation. So have fun with it! Some families stick to seven dishes, while many make more or less. Other families put seven types of seafood into one stew, and others just honor any seafood on Christmas Eve.
The feast is traditionally served at home, shared with family and friends. Fresh ingredients are essential, so if you plan on making this meal, now is the time to call or stop by your favorite shops and merchants. Order the seafood in advance to ensure you have the best for your table.
“Quality, quality, quality,“ says Chef Ryan Epp, of the restaurant at Verve Wine Chicago. “Pick the freshest and most in-season seafood and produce.” He says that the beauty of Italian cuisine lies in its simplicity, and in order for something simple to shine you must highlight the quality of its ingredients.
Recipes and course suggestions vary, so spend some time browsing options in cookbooks and online. This style of cooking is based around the products that families have at their disposal during the season. Every region in Italy is slightly different, so don't be afraid to use something similar from your local shop or market, even if that isn't exactly what’s specified in the recipe.
Chef Ryan says that the phrase "if it grows together, it goes together," accurately describes how Italians combine the flavors of their region with seafood. “Many of the most classic Italian seafood dishes revolve around a light yet hearty broth spiked with garlic, tomato, olive oil, and white wine,” he says. “Using both fish and shellfish helps to meld flavors together and add unique voices to a dish.”
For example, Chef Ryan created a mussels dish with Calabrian chili and artichoke pistou for the menu in Chicago. The inspiration for this dish actually came from an Alsatian meal he enjoyed at a restaurant. Alsace is actually quite landlocked, but there is direct access to the Italian coast only a few hours drive south. You can imagine a French family making that special trip to get the freshest ingredients.
“That is the beauty of Europe, there are so many regions and variations of terroir within arms reach,” says Chef Ryan. “I love the combination of richness from the mussels, balanced out with acidity, and a hint of spice.” He suggests that this flavor combination tends to work well with many types of seafood.
You can choose several different bottles of wine, or one or two versatile options that will harmonize with each dish. Italy is one of the world’s most diverse growing regions, so consider choosing an ancient or indigenous variety such as Langhe Freisa for tomato-based dishes or Greco di Tufo or Fruilano for seafood redolent of olive oil and citrus. No matter what you choose to serve, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a magical way to bring good taste and Italian culture into your Christmas Eve traditions — delicious and abundant. Enjoy!