Holidays are about traditions – both making them and breaking them. Given my wide splay of ethnic background, it tends to be the case that I manage to do both of these things each and every year with a slightly different celebration that meets one of our many traditions. I feel like this is the way it is with most of us – over time we build up a collection of various customs that are an amalgamation of all of our traditions put together.
This year, we decided to give a shout out to Sicily (both my husband and I are of Sicilian decent) with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. A custom with origins in Southern Italy, a series of fish dishes (and no meat) are prepared for Christmas Eve. The number of dishes varies – some say it’s seven for the seven sacraments, or 10 for the commandments. It’s at the point now where people come up with a number of dishes between 7 and 15 and assign a biblical association for that number. At the heart of the celebration is a gathering of family and friends for a delicious meal and (hopefully) fine company.
One of the must-haves for the Feast of the Seven Fishes is baccalà or salt cod. In another cultural twist, our Feast of the Seven Fishes contained two preparations of baccalà in the traditional Brazilian manner (called bacalhau), fried into small balls and baked with garlic, onions, potatoes and hard boiled eggs. There’s something about the blended traditions that truly makes it a holiday for me.
If you’d like to get on a little fish action yourself and create a new family tradition of your own, here is the road map for our Feast of the Seven Fishes. Have fun with it, add as many or as few fish as you’d like, and chow down Sicilian style.
Cold Seafood Salad
One of my husbands early memories was of his father making a special seafood salad at Christmastime. He did a little research and found a close version online, that we adapted to make it like the one he knew as a child. I’m lazy and I don’t like to spend my entire life cleaning seafood, so we purchased the squid pre-cleaned and the octopus pre-cleaned and cooked at Whole Foods (the octopus was in the Seafood Salad area of the store). The rest of the goodies are poached in a flavorful liquid of herbs and vegetables and then tossed with a light vinaigrette and crisp veggies. Despite the sheer number of ingredients, this is one of the most beautiful things you can put on your table.
Bolihnos de Bacalhau
These croquettes of salt cod are crispy and light on the outside, and tender and moist on the inside. Soaking the cod for a goodly while gets rid of the fishiness and elevates the taste of this festive, bite-sized treat.
Crab Stuffed Mushrooms
Growing up so close to the Chesapeake Bay, blue crab is more of a right than a privilege for me, and what seafood feast would be complete without it. These dainty suckers leverage lump crab for sweetness and claw meat for cost efficiency. The seasoning is traditional, eastern shore, crab cake style, as yet another shout out to the land of my ancestors.
Recipe for Crab Stuffed Mushrooms
Fettucine al Langostra
Who doesn’t love lobster? Strangely, my sister doesn’t. But this incredibly simple and delicious preparation of fettucine with tender lobster meat was gobbled down by her and won her praises. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, then I don’t know what is. Use good egg fettucine for the pasta and fresh basil to brighten things up. To save time during the feast (since you are cooking most everything at once), I used a jar of Rao’s Arrabiata sauce, which is delicious, but way too expensive at $9 a jar. I found a bottle of White Linen Gourmet Marinara at Costco for $4 that actually tasted BETTER than the Rao’s – no joke. If you go that route, just make sure to add a heavy dose of crushed red pepper for kick.
Linguine alle Vongole
Linguine with white clam sauce, for me, is comfort food at its best – it doesn’t take a hell of a long time to prepare, it’s got a healthy dose of garlic and red pepper for kick, and at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to tuck into a mound of tender pasta. I use my Poorman’s Linguine with Clam Sauce for this one, but add fresh clams to the mix. Simply heat some olive oil and garlic in a saute pan and when hot, pour in a cup of white wine. Add a pound of small clams (I use manila clams) and pop a lid on the pan. Let steam in the wine garlic mix for a short 5 minutes and then scoop out the open clams and put them on top of the pasta. Discard any clams that haven’t opened after cooking.
Recipe for Linguine alle Vongole
Bacalhau Gomes de Sá
Though this dish is Portuguese in origin (Porto to be exact), it’s a favorite among Brazilians as well. The dish was supposedly created by a wealthy cod distributor’s son, who after being disowned, was forced to work in a restaurant. His legacy was this dish, a delicious combination of cod, tender potatoes, sautéed garlic and onions, and topped with hard boiled eggs, olives and parsley. This recipe reminds me of whenever my great grandmother would come into town with heaps of bacalhau ready for the cooking. Upon her arrival, it was a sure thing that Gomes de Sá was going to be prepared shortly thereafter.
Tuna (or Swordfish) with Gremolata
Nothing says majesty like fresh fish with a lovely topping of lemon, garlic and herbs. Simplicity is the focus, so the freshest of fish is necessary in this one – get sushi grade (or Grade #1) tuna, or the brightest, firmest fillets of whatever you’d like. While you can spread the fish with the gremolata and then broil them, with the tuna I like to sear them in a pan to control the doneness (I like the steaks rare) and then slather the hot fish with the lemon mixture so that it melts into the fish. Gremolata is traditionally a combination of lemon, parsley and garlic, but here, I add rosemary instead of the parsley as it is hardier and holds up to the many other bold flavors at this feast.
Recipe for Swordfish with Gremolata
Sauteed Cavolo Nero
Called black kale or dinosaur kale, this leafy green is a fabulous taste sensation for anyone that loves bitter greens. Plus, it matches up with the sweetness of the seafood and sauces with outstanding strength. This recipe comes straight from one of my favorite foodie websites, Chow.com, and utilizes orange juice, garlic and onion to create the most perfectly rounded flavors in this dish. A major keeper, I didn’t even have to tweak this recipe one bit, which absolutely NEVER happens when I’m in the kitchen. If you have any leftovers, you can fold them into a delicious soup, like a Caldo Verde (Portuguese Sausage and Kale Soup) or a Ribollita (Italian Kale and White Bean Soup with Croutons).
Recipe for Cavolo Nero at Chow.com