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Feast of the Seven Fishes

By David Pilat, December 19, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by David Pilat
We hope you enjoy this encore blog post about a wonderful Christmas tradition. Christmas Eve means a lot of things to different people, but to those of us who celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes (festa dei sette pesci), it’s always meant fresh, delicious seafood (and maybe an early present or two). The Seven Fishes is an Italian tradition of serving seven courses (or more!) of fish and seafood on Christmas Eve. It is said to have begun in early Roman Catholic days when the tradition of abstinence from meat and milk products was strong. Also known as La Vigilia, or the vigil, the Seven Fishes is a celebration and a commemoration as we wait for midnight and Christmas Day. Originating in Southern Italy, Seven Fishes is now celebrated mainly in the U.S. and has been adopted by a variety of cultures. If you want to give it a try this year, our seafood departments really shine when it comes to the diverse dishes presented for the Seven Fishes celebration. It’s a lot of food, but spread over the whole night it keeps everyone happy and full. Growing up in East Boston, my family celebrated Seven Fishes every year. In the same brownstone my mom and uncle grew up in, we host a large group of aunts, uncles, in-laws and cousins. As a child, the first dish I always looked forward to was the zeppoles. These are similar to a savory fritter made of fried dough with an anchovy right in the middle. My grandmother would make them from scratch. Of course, the kids usually went for the plain version, no anchovies included! These days, we skip the fried food and start with crab-stuffed mushrooms. They’re easy to make and your local Whole Foods Market has some of the best crabmeat available. Here’s a recipe for Stuffed Mushrooms and you can easily add crabmeat to this filling. The Seven Fishes feast almost always has a dish with calamari and another with mussels. Stuffed calamari is a favorite of mine or you could get some nice greens on the menu with this Crispy Calamari Salad. For mussels, your local store stocks fresh, live mussels year round. (Look for mussels with closed and intact shells.) You’ll find local mussels from each coast. And don’t worry if you don’t live near the sea, we ship fresh mussels all over the country and December is a premier month for them. Try these Italian-inspired recipes for Campania-Style Mussels and Mediterranean Mussels. Staying with the shellfish theme, it’s popular to include a dish with clams for the Feast of Seven Fishes. My family likes Linguini with White Clam Sauce and that seems to be a favorite around the country. You can choose littleneck clams, topnecks or whatever size you prefer. Our fish counters are well stocked with clams and oysters for the holidays and we invite you to stop in and get some suggestions from your local fish monger. I prefer the dish with fresh littlenecks and lots of chopped clams – available in our frozen seafood section. Just be sure you don’t serve too much pasta – you’ll need room for the rest of the meal! Almost always the pasta is followed by something a bit lighter like baked or broiled cod, often prepared Puttanesca Style (just omit the pasta in this recipe and serve the sauce over the fish). It’s simply made with roasted tomatoes, olives, anchovies, capers and garlic. When available, try our fresh cod. Our local day boats work hard to bring this fish to you in December when the weather is less than friendly. And in some of our stores you may find previously frozen Marine Stewardship Certified Sustainable Cod, again a great choice for the family and for the oceans. My personal favorite is up next: Baked Stuffed Shrimp. Our seafood cases offer a variety of shrimp sizes in both wild-caught and farmed-raised using our strict Responsibly Farmed Standards. It’s traditional to only serve one or two shrimp to each guest at this point in the meal. Each family concludes their celebration in a different way. For mine, the final seafood course always has been lobster. We’ve been lucky in the last few years as Whole Foods Market now offers a great, fully cooked whole lobster – The Craigster, processed under our strict lobster standards. Available frozen, these lobsters are easy to thaw and boil, assuring you of great quality and no fuss. Ending the meal with a Classic Lobster with Lemon and Chive Drawn Butter is definitely a holiday treat. Whether you celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes or not, we’re here for you in December and beyond with the freshest and most varied seafood selection. All of our farm-raised fish and shrimp are Responsibly Farmed, indicating that the farms have been third-party verified to ensure that our strict aquaculture standards are being met. Our wild-caught seafood is from Marine Stewardship Council certified-sustainable fisheries or carry sustainability status rankings from partnering organizations like the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium. Sharing this seafood feast with my family is one of my holiday highlights and I invite you to give it a try. Wishing you and yours joyous holidays!
Category: Holidays 2011, Seafood




Lisa Santoro says ...
Shout out for Eastie! Now in CA, I'm adjusting to not having the entire family cramming into my small house with everyone commenting on how *their* recipe is so different from mine, "not that yours isn't good..." And the highlight of our entire family, Sicilian and Roman side are fried smelts right after midnight mass. Buona Natale!
12/19/2011 8:05:07 PM CST
Susan McMahon says ...
This brings back fond memories of my tradition on Christmas Eve. Our menu included baked eel and fried smelts.
12/19/2011 9:21:42 PM CST
Bobby says ...
All of my grandparents were from Southern Italy. We grew up all over the East Coast of the mainland, mostly RI & CT but some in NY, NJ, MA & ME. Every year we always had the debate as to how many dishes we were supposed to prepare. Some said 7 others said 13 or 15. No matter who won there were many more than 15! Our final dish was Bacala much like the Philippine dish of Bacalau here in Hawaii. The salted cod was soaked for a few days before Christmas Eve and cooked in tomato sauce served over pasta. I, too, have adapted my menu to serve all of our non-Italian friends. The first year I tried this on my own with no family to help, I had so much food we only made it through the first 4 courses! I've learned much since that first go-round. Coming up with a new menu each year is the challenge! Whole Foods has been a great source for us all since they have moved to Hawaii. I don't have to worry about sustainability or contamination. After all, the Slow Foods movement originated in ITALY!
12/19/2011 10:30:04 PM CST
Celeste Pagano says ...
You brought back wonderful memories of this Christmas feast my family always celebrated too. We love your store and the great food you provide so we're able to continue this tradition in healthy ways! Sincerely, Celeste Pagano
12/20/2011 8:46:53 AM CST
joanne says ...
This is really great my mother told me about it, she made the zeppoles and I would like the the receipe for those if you have it?
12/20/2011 10:39:44 AM CST
Pam Erickson says ...
I live in Indianpolis,Indiana and shop @ the 86th street store. I visited the store today to purchase the lobster & found out that it is not avalible in Indiana. I can't make a trip to Chicago. Maybe it would be wise not to tempt those of us who can't purchase? Thank you
12/20/2011 6:16:34 PM CST
Rita J says ...
As a second generation American-Italian we still celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. My mother and father passed on this tradition to me and my husband(also second generation) and we are passing it on to our children. We start around 12:00 pm basically for lunch with mussels, seafood salad, octopus, stuffed clams, escole pie and seared tuna. After "lunch" everyone takes a break and goes to church. After church shrimp cocktail is served as the pasta is prepared, one pasta just is oil and garlic, the other oil, garlic, anchoives, raisins and walnuts (my favorite). After pasta there is fried eel, tilapia with lemon and capers, stuffed calamari,fried calamari, shrimp scampi, crab legs, eggplant parm, and broccoli. Dessert consists of espresso, coffee, apple crisp, ice cream, homemade Christmas cookies, dried fruit, nuts, fennell, fresh fruit and candy. It is a wonderful meal together with our families and everyone just loves coming (especially the grandchildren)to our house for the Feast of the Seven (?) Fishes. So hopefully the tradition will continue for generations.
12/21/2011 11:22:30 AM CST
janejohnson says ...
@Pam We're so sorry to have let you down. Items we call out on our blog are usually available in all stores and we're sorry to have hyped the lobster when we were unable to provide you that product at your community store. I will send your comments on to your local store. Thank you for reaching out.
12/22/2011 11:42:40 AM CST
Pat says ...
FOr the first time, I am cooking feast of the seven fishes for my family--we are very excited--and plan to use two of your receipes along with our own family recipes.
12/22/2011 2:36:12 PM CST
Tony Albano says ...
My whole family was from eastie Chelsea St. and Bennington St. Now we are in CT but we still live for the old family tradition of the feast of the seven fishes. This was my fathers favorite meal and to this day is mine, I will never let it die. Even with the invasions of the inlaws they accept it the way it is without question.
12/22/2011 3:13:43 PM CST
Matt & Marion says ...
We enjoyed the article. My mom carried on the tradition from my grandmother who carried it on from her mother. To this day, my family gathers for Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
12/23/2011 5:50:47 AM CST
Anthoy Benenati says ...
AHHHH,I remember those days growing up in Boston with my family and unending meals at Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The tradition I continue with my family ( and some Jewish adopted friends) here in LA is Bacala! Not for everyone, but it sure brings it back for me...I remember BEGGING for a meatball, but my nonni wouldn't budge,,,I had to stay up for the Mass and then come home and have a meatball and some bread before bed... Happy Holidays to you and all who enjoy these foods!
12/23/2011 12:22:55 PM CST
Gail says ...
It has been my understanding that the 7 Fishes represented the 7 Sacraments in the Catholic faith.
12/25/2011 6:55:13 AM CST
John Notarianni says ...
This will be by 67 year celebrating Christmas Eve with the Seven Fishes tradition. My grown children and their family now enjoy participating. It is anticipated all year long. This year we will have the whole family together only on Sunday evening, not Christmas eve, We were struggling on whether to cook the Seven Fishes Sunday or Monday evening. My middle settled the debate --- "We're not breaking the family tradition -- Sunday is the night the familt will be toether, so that is when we have the Seven Fishes -- it's a family tradition." Period. Your definition explaining the origin of the tradition is yet another of many that I have heard over the years. Living in Indiana the past 29 years, it has not always been easy buying fresh fish for this celebration. It is now getting easier. I know of a whole foods store about a half hour from my home where I plan to shop.
12/18/2012 9:22:09 PM CST