ShareThis Page

Seven fishes feast flavors Christmas Eve

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 3:41 a.m.

Whether you have Italian heritage or simply like the idea of eating fish instead of a ham on Christmas Eve, the Feast of the Seven Fishes might be worth adding to your Christmas traditions.

The feast has origins in southern Italy. but is celebrated, with some variations, throughout the country. As with many ancient ethnic traditions, it is hard to pinpoint the exact way the feast is celebrated and just what it historically stands for.

The southern region of Italy uses precisely seven types of fish, but the varieties are not consistent from year to year. They can be any mix of fresh catches, including smelt, oysters, clams and calamari. The important part is that there are seven different species.

The northern region often uses more than seven fish varieties, but favors salted cod, or baccala, because multiple types of fresh fish are not as readily available. Depending on the individual family, the fish dinner is either eaten before Christmas Eve Mass, afterward or both before and after, as a way of foregoing meat during the holy day.

So why seven fishes?

"The fish part is easy to identify because of the fast days and not eating meat around the holidays, but there is a lot of discussion about the meaning," says Josephine LaRussa-Impola, chaf and owner of River Moon Cafe in Lawrenceville. "Some say it represents the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. ...

Some say it represents the seven hills of Rome.

"But it started in southern Italy, not the northern part, because fish is more abundant in the Sicilian island culture," she says. "Each town and each family within the towns has their own way of celebrating, much like how people celebrate Christmas itself differently."

LaRussa-Impola, a native of southern Italy who moved to America at age 7, remembers many Italian families hosting the feast in New York City. When she later moved to Pittsburgh, she says hardly anyone knew about or celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes. As a result, she chose to host Seven Fishes dinners, which includes singing at her restaurant and a "Beat the Fear of Fish" cooking class.

"I'm not a traditionalist," she says, "I sub the salted cod with natural sea scallops and end with lobster. I've moved away from the 'peasant food' I grew up on."

Chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, a television personality, cookbook author and owner of several restaurants, including Lidia's Italy in the Strip District, also hosts a Seven Fishes dinner at her restaurants. A native of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northern Italy, she remembers dropping off fruit and fish to wish friends and neighbors well during the holiday.

"It was a very special time," Bastianich says. "There was a warmth and the smell of smoke and burning wood in the air, and I remember playing hide-and-seek with friends."

She remembers a "Christmas tree decorated with edibles -- fruit caramelized with sugar and nuts and candies" that she and the other children would sneak bites from before they were allowed to and artfully re-wrap so their parents wouldn't know. "Of course, they found out though," she says laughing.

For her, the Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrated the abundance of vegetables in addition to the fish itself.

"We didn't have exactly seven fishes in the north, so our amounts varied," she says. "We used what was available -- dried fish, cod, bass fish, eel."

Above all, she says, "For me as a child, it was a gathering of friends and family going to church ... humming carols until 1 or 2 o'clock, and enjoying the fish with special treats of cheese, fruit and honeycomb."

Seven Fishes planning advice

These tips are from Chef Josephine LaRussa-Impola of River Moon Cafe:

• It's important not to fuss with the fish -- the simpler, the better.

• Sauce should be made separately.

• Cook by the inch (thickness of each cut) to figure out cooking time.

• Remember the fish keeps cooking after you take it out. The worst people can do is overcook it.

• "If you overcook calamari, cook it for 50 minutes as a stew to soften it up again."

These tips are from Chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich of Lidia's restaurant:

• Don't think of it as a sequence of served meals -- it's more of a buffet.

• Serve at least three or four of the fishes cold.

• Choose things that are doable -- pick and choose.

Gamberoni Arrabbiata

This recipe for pan-fried jumbo shrimp with spicy plum tomato sauce is from Josephine La Russa-Impola of River Moon Cafe.

• 6 tablespoons pure olive oil (do not use extra virgin olive oil), divided

• 1 1/2 pounds of jumbo shrimp

• 2 heaping teaspoons chopped fresh garlic

• 1 1/2 cups dry white wine

• 2 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced, plus additional for garnish

• 3 tablespoons Italian (flatleaf) parsley, chopped fine, plus additional for garnish

• 3 Italian hot banana peppers, diced

• 2 sweet bell peppers, diced -- choose, red, yellow or orange or a combination.

• 1/4- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, more or less according to taste

• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 2 cups tomato-basil sauce (homemade is best or use a good quality store bought sauce)

• 1 pound imported dried angel-hair pasta, cooked al dente (do not use fresh pasta for this recipe)

• Salt and freshly ground blackpepper to taste

Saute the garlic in a small pan on low heat for 2-3 minuets, until the garlic until it just begins to lightly brown. Set aside.

Place a large nonstick pan on medium high heat, add 4 tablespoons of olive oil, add peppers and saute until they just begin to soften. Add the wine, and cook on high heat for 3-4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, tomatoes, parsley, pepper flakes, garlic salt, pepper and butter. Reduce the heat to medium, add the shrimp and cook until it is just cooked through, for 3-5 minutes. Add the pasta, and toss gently with sauce.

Turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow the dish to stand for a few minutes. Garnish with additional parsley and diced tomatoes.

Makes 4 servings.

Spicy Calamari

Today, squid frequently are sold already cleaned, which is a convenience for the home cook. If you are not a fan of squid, you could also prepare scallops, swordfish, or even a fillet of cod using this recipe.

This recipe is from "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy" (Knopf, $35), by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali.

• 2 pounds cleaned calamari, whole bodies (skin on or off ) and tentacles

• 3/4 cup extra- virgin olive oil

• 6 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

• 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

• 1/2 teaspoon peperoncino (red pepper) flakes, or to taste

• 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian (flatleaf) parsley

Dry the calamari well, and put them into a large bowl. Pour over them 1/2 cup of the olive oil, and add the garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and the peperoncino. Toss to coat and let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

When you are ready to cook the calamari, make the dressing. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, the lemon juice, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the chopped parsley until emulsified.

Set a heavy-bottomed skillet or saute pan, 12-inch diameter or wider, over high heat, and when it is very hot, lift the calamari out of the marinade with tongs, let it drain briefly, and then lay a batch of them flat in the dry skillet. Sear the calamari, turning several times, until the edges of the bodies and the tentacles are caramelized and crispy, about 2 minutes per batch. If you are using unskinned calamari, the skin will darken to a deep- reddish hue.

As the calamari come out of the skillet, arrange them on a warmed platter. When all of the calamari are done, drizzle the dressing over them, and serve right away.

Makes 6 servings.

Fish Soup with Vegetables

Served with grilled bread or a slab of grilled polenta, this Molisano dish is a complete meal. Relish it with a glass of crispy white wine from the region's distinctive Falanghina grape varietal, and you can taste Molise beckoning you.

This recipe is from "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy."

• 12 ounces monkfish fillet (silver skin removed)

• 8 ounces sea scallops, preferably "dry" (not soaked in preservatives)

• 1 pound large shrimp

• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

• 2 medium onions, chopped (about 2 cups)

• 5 plump garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

• 1/4 teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste

• 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

• 4 Anaheim peppers, seeded and diced (about 2 cups)

• 1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand

• 6 quarts cold water

• 1 pound Swiss chard, sliced in 1/2-inch shreds

Slice the monkfish into 1/2-inch chunks. Pull off the side muscle or "foot" from the scallops, and discard. Remove the shells, tails, and digestive vein from the shrimp; rinse them and pat dry.

Pour the olive oil into a heavy-bottomed, 7- to 8-quart soup pot and set it over medium heat. Scatter in the onions, sliced garlic, and peperoncino, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and slightly caramelized, about 8 to 10 minutes, then stir in the diced peppers, and cook for another 3 minutes or so, until the peppers are tender.

Pour in the crushed tomatoes, raise the heat a bit, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes have dried out, about 3 to 4 minutes. Pour in the water and the remaining tablespoon salt, stir well; cover the pot, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil, and cook covered for an hour; then stir in the Swiss chard shreds. Return the broth to a steady simmer, and cook uncovered for 45 minutes, or until the chard is very tender and the broth has reduced to 4 quarts.

To finish the soup: Add the chunks of monkfish to the simmering broth, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Drop in the scallops, stir, and simmer for 7 minutes more. Add the shrimp, return the broth to a bubbling simmer, and cook for a minute or two, just until the shrimp are cooked through. Serve immediately in warm shallow soup bowls.

Makes about 4 quarts or 8 to 10 servings.

Steamed Swordfish Bagnara-style

The fishermen of Bagnara, a beautiful port on the Calabrian coast, are renowned for their skill in catching the swordfish that migrate to this corner of the Tyrrhenian Sea every year. The cooks of Bagnara are equally skilled when it comes to cooking the fish.

This recipe -- from "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy" -- is among the simplest and best. Of course, as always in seafood cookery, the freshness of the fish is the key to success.

• 2 pounds swordfish steak, 1 1/4 inches thick, with skin

• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 lemon, thinly sliced

• 5 tablespoons small capers, drained

• 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

• 1 teaspoon kosher salt

• 1 tablespoon dried oregano

• 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian (flatleaf) parsley

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut the swordfish steak into 6 serving pieces. Pour the olive oil into a 4-quart baking dish, and scatter in the lemon slices, capers and garlic. Turn the lemon slices over to coat them with oil, and gather them on one side of the dish. Season the swordfish pieces on both sides with salt, lay them in the dish in one layer, and turn each one over several times to coat it with oil on all the surfaces. Distribute the lemon slices on top.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to the boil. Set a baking rack in a big roasting pan, and pour in boiling water to the depth of an inch. Put the dish of swordfish on the rack in the roasting pan, and tent the big pan with a large sheet (or two) of aluminum foil. Arch the sheet over the fish, and press it against the sides of the roasting pan.

Carefully set the covered pan in the oven, and bake just until the swordfish is cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the foil, and lift the baking dish from the pan and out of the oven. Immediately crumble the oregano over the hot swordfish and into the pan juices, then sprinkle the parsley over all. Serve right away, placing each piece of swordfish in a warm shallow bowl and spooning over it some of the cooking juices.

Makes 6 servings.

Additional Information:

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Lidia's: Daily through Dec. 24. The meal, including dessert and coffee, is $35. 1400 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-552-0150

Rico's: 7 p.m. Tuesday. The fish feast is $49.50. Reservations required. 1 Rico Lane, Ross. 412-931-1989

River Moon Cafe: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday and 6:30 p.m. Dec 24, with sufficient interest. $57. BYOB. A cooking class -- Beat the Fear of Fish -- will be offered 2 and 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday $35, which includes food sampling. Reservations required for all events. 108 43rd St., Lawrenceville. 412-683-4004

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.