Traditionally in Catholic countries like Italy, Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence, like Fridays. That meant no meat, thus convincing a lot of believers who still got hungry it was the perfect day to eat boats full of seafood. So The Feast of the Seven Fishes was born.
In Sicily especially, but also across southern Italy and in the America to which so many from there immigrated, Christmas Eve became more than a matter of a baby in a manger. It became an opportunity to thank the Almighty, while possibly showing off all the good things life had provided.
Of course, meatless Fridays were meant for contemplation and moderation, but really… what would be the harm (these folks wondered) of eating lots and LOTS of fish. The theme over time became abbondanza, abundance. And with some Italian-American families dishing up not seven seafood dishes but nine, eleven or more, Christmas Eve became half boast and half red-gravy Thanksgiving.
One of the nicer touches is that no single seafood menu or even recipe attached itself to The Feast of the Seven Fishes. One theory is that Italian cuisine varies so much from region to region that unleashing a kitchen full of nonnas (grandmothers) will never produce the same flavors twice. Nor will unleashing any two regions, no matter how geographically close they might be.
There is a tip of the hat to the typical Italian meal progression – antipasti (hors d’oeuvres), primi (appetizer but usually one or more pasta dishes), secondi e contorni (main course like grilled whole fish and vegetable side dishes), and dolci (desserts and other sweets). Still, that’s “only” four courses, not seven. Most menus start but hardly stop there, adding a seafood soup and/or a seafood-kissed salad, or simply having two or three very different seafood pastas to try.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a cooking marathon with few rules (other than everything being Italian, of course), and almost any seafood is fair game. In fact, the more the merrier – fish from haddock to salmon to swordfish, plus the salted and dried cod known in the Mediterranean world as bacala. Shrimp, mussels, clams, crabs and scallops are also quite typical. Lobster shows up in certain households, but that really WOULD be abbondanza.
SICILIAN SWORDFISH STEAKS
Many Sicilian themes run through this “meat and two sides,” starting with the swordfish that swim through the Straits of Messina separating the island from the Italian mainland. It’s also easy to spot that the dish is more Greek than Italian, and probably more Arab as well. The chickpeas should be a dead giveaway. The flavors are as bright as the meaty swordfish is satisfying.
1 cup Castelvetrano green olives, pitted
½ cup shelled and roasted pistachios
½ cup fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic, peeled
Zest of ½ lemon
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 (1-inch-thick) swordfish steaks
Salt and black pepper
Combine the olives, pistachios, basil, garlic and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse briefly, then stream in the olive oil and pulse just long enough to combine. Season the swordfish with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and cook to about medium in a preheated very hot pan, gently turning a couple times, 8-10 minutes total. The fish should flake easily with a fork. Served with Roasted Potatoes and Sauteed Baby Kale with Chickpeas (recipes below). Serves about 6.
2 ½ pounds multi-colored potatoes, cut in half
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes in a single layer in a 13 x 9 baking dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish with foil and set in the oven until tender, about 25 minutes. Then remove foil and set under the broiler to brown and crisp for 10 minutes.
SAUTEED BABY KALE WITH CHICKPEAS
1 small onion, sliced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound baby kale (or baby kale-spinach mix)
1 cup drained chickpeas
1 teaspoon salt
Red pepper flakes
Caramelize the onion in the olive oil, then stir in the garlic for 1 minute more. Add the baby kale and toss it with the onion, cooking briefly just until starting to wilt. Add the chickpeas long enough to heat through. Season with salt and red pepper flakes.