The Feast of the Seven Fishes is, in a word, mysterious.
Revered by some and unknown to many, even the origins of the traditional Christmas Eve celebration are murky at best. Most point to a tradition called La Vigilia, which translates to the vigil that began in southern Italy and recalls the wait for the birth of Jesus as the foundation for the meal. This is a “fast" of sorts; meat was (and is) reserved for Christmas Day, with a select few omitting dairy from the evening, as well. Mention the Feast of the Seven Fishes in Italy, however, and you’ll be met with perplexed faces and blank stares; the Feast – as Italian-Americans know it, at least – isn’t known by the same name in Italy.
Traditions always have their roots, no matter how they translate across time or geography: These roots run deep, even though the sacred tradition bears a new name and rules that vary from family to family. Some hold to the seven fish-centric dishes the name suggests – perhaps originating in the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments or God’s seventh day of rest as described in the Old Testament – while others claim nine, for the Holy Trinity of three times three, or 10 for the Stations of the Cross. Many people number their dishes based on apostolic head counts: 12 dishes for the whole group, 11 to recognize the apostles excluding Judas or 13, which forgives Judas and adds Jesus to the tally.
Whatever the number of dishes or the individual family tradition, the feeling is steadfastly the same. It’s a coming together, a moment in time celebrated annually with people you love, and that specific brand of joy is mirrored in the meal. Each course is vibrant, full of life, a spectacle. Individually perfect on their own, these recipes are at their best together, much like the people who will partake in their goodness. But this isn’t all show and no substance: Indeed, substance abounds in the care taken during preparation, in the mindfulness of tradition and in the bounty you bring to the table.
This holiday season, feast. Feast with family and friends. Mark time, make note, take a moment with those around you to recognize and celebrate the year as it draws to a close.
Editor’s note: When prepared as a whole, the following feast serves six to eight guests, averaging smaller portions of each dish per person. The serving sizes listed with each dish refer to individual preparations of each dish.
For Dessert: Honey-Glazed Struffoli
Preparing this much fresh fish is an impressive feat and might seem overwhelming, but therein lies the secret: These dishes are built for maximum enjoyment by guests and hosts alike.
When preparing a menu such as this, strategy is everything.
Three days ahead: Buy frozen fish and baccalà. Branzino, prepared smelt, calamari, and even shrimp and bay scallops might be easier to obtain frozen than fresh, depending on where you’re shopping. Baccalà needs to leach out salt in a water bath for around 48 hours, so begin the process this evening.
One to two days ahead: Gather remaining ingredients (save any fresh fish or fragile greens and vegetables). Transfer frozen fish to refrigerator to thaw, according to size and time needed for each.
One day ahead: Begin your prep. Make pestos, sauces, dressings and broth; cook quinoa and toast nuts. If it will hold up well, make it. Anything you can do ahead, you should do ahead.
Morning of: Purchase fresh fish and remaining produce and continue prep on things that can hold through the day. Chill wine, ready platters, gather fresh flowers and plan your table arrangement. Bring sauces back up to temperature, portion herbs, grate cheese and chop what can be chopped.
The rest is up to you: Organize your dishes based on the space, setup and size of your kitchen. Determine which pots, pans and cookware will be used for which recipes and in what order things will come to your table (or if they’ll arrive all at once). Guests love to help, so set them to work washing greens, chopping herbs and rolling struffoli balls for later; they’ll enjoy the time spent in the kitchen with you, and it makes the time together all the more special.