The first time Ian Cox’s family attempted the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes — a beloved Italian holiday tradition — they prepared seven full-sized entrees and attempted to consume them one after the other.
“We couldn’t eat them all, we got so full,” said Cox, a manager at the Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Atlanta. “So over the years we fine-tuned it. Now it’s more like seven tapas dishes spanning the globe. We always do raw oysters, and there’s usually a tuna tartare in there.”
Beth Hamilton, a stay-at-home mom in Atlanta, gets around the seafood surfeit by constructing her annual Feast of the Seven Fishes out of seven varieties of seafood rather than seven distinct dishes.
“So if we have a seafood gumbo or soup with several different kinds of fish in it, then we count them all. Someone even suggested we do cupcakes decorated with Swedish Fish for dessert.”
Hamilton’s family began preparing the feast with good friends to create a tradition for their kids growing up. “We love the symbolism of it,” she says. “The seven fishes represent the seven sacraments of the Church, and the number seven is revered in the Bible.”
The funny thing is that neither Hamilton nor Cox is Italian. The even funnier thing is that many Italians have no idea what you’re talking about when you bring up this tradition.
“I don’t know any Italians who prepare it,” says Riccardo Ullio, the Atlanta restaurateur who owns Sotto Sotto and Fritti in Inman Park. For good measure, he polled some Italian friends in Atlanta and couldn’t find a one who has made the meal.
However, the tradition, which originated in Southern Italy as a way of observing Lenten-style abstinence from meat, is very widely observed among Italian-Americans in the Northeast and freely adopted by seafood lovers throughout the country.
It makes perfect sense, too.
A carefully prepared fish dinner on a cold winter night has a special kind of opulence. It is hearty without being overbearing — an indulgence that won’t try to outdo the eggnog. I like to make a seafood dinner on Christmas Eve because I know the next day will involve a full turkey dinner, a plum pudding and far too much wine.
Oftentimes I prepare this seafood stew, which borrows a little from cioppino and a little from bouillabaisse, but it is really just something I’ve developed over the years to work with fresh Gulf and Atlantic seafood. It is incredibly easy to throw together and has a finished flavor that’s grand beyond its ingredients. It makes clean, simple white wines come alive. Inexpensive Southern French or Italian wines (Picpoul de Pinet, Garganega, Gavi di Gavi) are what you want with the tomatoes and saffron in this stew.
It only contains five fishes, however. You could start, as we like to, with some oysters on the half shell or smoked salmon with crackers. That gets you up to six fishes. I suppose a Caesar salad, with its all-important anchovy, pulls you over the finish line.
Or you’ve always got those Swedish Fish cupcakes.
HOLIDAY SEAFOOD STEW
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium leek, white part only, diced and rinsed
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup dry white wine
1 bottle (8 ounces) clam juice
1 large pinch saffron, seeped in 1/4 cup hot water
14 ounces (1 can) best-quality roma tomatoes, crushed with their juice
1 dozen farmed littleneck clams, well rinsed
2 pounds farmed mussels, debearded if necessary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 ounces red snapper, skin on, cut into four pieces
4 squid tubes, cut into 1/4-inch ringlets, and 4 sets of tentacles
1/2 pound medium-large (21-25 count) shrimp, completely peeled, deveined and partially butterflied
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Step one: Buy the best ingredients you can. Canned Italian San Marzano tomatoes market “DOP” (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) are the best (sweetest and fleshiest) variety of plum tomato grown in a specific region in southern Italy. It’s a bit more expensive, but so worth it. Make sure to get very clean farmed shellfish so you won’t get any grit in the bottom of the pot.
Step two: Pretend like you’ve got your own cooking show and get all the ingredients prepared. The onions and leeks should be diced and placed together in a small bowl. The garlic should be minced, placed in a small dish and covered with just enough olive oil to keep it from drying out. If the tomatoes are whole, place them with their juices into a mixing bowl and squish them into bits with your fingers. Soak the saffron in a small glass.
Pull the beards off the mussels. Soak the mussels and clams in cold tap water for 30 minutes then drain. Peel and half butterfly the shrimp. Cut the squid, and poke your finger in its cavity to make sure the clear cartilage is gone. Chop your herbs and place them in a small bowl. Put all this in the fridge. You’ve set yourself up like Rachael Ray with 30 minutes to spare.
Step three: Assemble the stew. Heat a large, table-worthy Dutch oven or cocotte over a medium flame. Add the oil, then the leeks and onions. Cook two minutes, just until the vegetables are translucent. Add the garlic and stir until just fragrant. Turn heat to high. Add the wine and bring to a boil; let reduce by half. Add the clam juice, the saffron and the crushed tomato and stir. Add the clams and mussels and cover the pot. Check in 4 minutes. If the mussels are open and the clams are opening, you’re good to go. Season with salt and pepper.
Reduce heat to medium; the liquid should be at an active simmer. Push the mussels and clams to the side and add the fish fillets to the center of the pot. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Open and carefully push the fish fillets to the side. Add the shrimp and squid and give them a stir just until they start to turn opaque. Turn off heat and cover pot.
The stew can sit like this for 15-20 minutes. When ready to serve, taste for seasoning and sprinkle with herbs.
Note: The recipe serves four. If you wish to double it, make it in two pots.