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Celebrating Feast of the Seven Fishes

By David Pilat, December 16, 2012  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by David Pilat

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, many of our stores stock 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. Many of 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 many Whole Foods Market stores 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.

Responsibly FarmedWhether 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. How will you celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes?

Category: Holidays 2012, Seafood




Ashli Molinero says ...
My favorite meal of the year!
12/17/2012 12:54:03 PM CST
Mike Mancuso says ...
I am a former resident of NY and of Italian heritage. One of our fishes during the Christmas Eve celebration was always pan fried eel. Unfortunatly now that I live in Wilmington,NC I can't find them anywhere and have been searching for an on-line store to ship them to me. Any suggestions?
12/18/2012 11:12:50 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@MIKE - Our products vary between store locations so I would suggest you reach out to your local store to see if this is something they normally carry. For example at my local store, the Seafood dept. does not normally get in eel, however, the sushi area carries a smoked eel. My other suggestion would be to reach out to a sushi grade fish market if you have one in your area as they might carry eel. Good luck!
12/19/2012 10:32:37 AM CST
Lisa Ruth says ...
For those who are now eating plant-based diets, try Sophie's Kitchen Vegan Seafood. Many Whole Foods have it in the freezer section. They have breaded vegan shrimp & calamari, and the vegan crab cakes and vegan scallops are amazing!
12/19/2012 7:54:41 PM CST
Virginia says ...
Mike Mancuso...the Big Y has eel...they have stores in No. Carolina. Check for locations. Buon Natale !
12/19/2012 7:59:58 PM CST
Linda Giorgio says ...
This reminds me of days gone by. I'm Italian and I've had only one Christmas Eve dinner celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This sounds like a wonderful tradition. I'm saving your recipes. They sound heavenly.
12/19/2012 9:35:42 PM CST
Marie Passi says ...
David, thank you. Your article brought back many fond memories of our family Christmas Eve traditions. Merry Christmas
12/20/2012 5:07:00 AM CST
susanna eiseman says ...
Would love to embrace this tradition... Other family members do ... However , times are very tough and there are four of us !!! We can't swing shrimp with all the trimmings , let alone delicious LOBSTER !!!
12/20/2012 5:41:35 AM CST
Pat says ...
Many years ag I started a tradition on Christmas Eve of having family, friends and co-workers come by to visit and share gifts. Family children were allowed to open one gift. I kept a supply of generic gifts in case someone brought extra children. We served seafood of all kinds - appetizer style.
12/21/2012 3:11:07 PM CST
Virginia says ...
susanna eiseman,you don't have to use the expensive fish...Pollock is good and priced well below other white fish...you could cook,smelts ...flour and pan fry....make a clam chowder,and fritters.We stuff squid then add to a sauce to use over linguini.... Look around for least expensive fish...you will enjoy the tradition.
12/21/2012 4:43:26 PM CST
J. Ferro-Magistro says ...
Our family has celebrated the night of the 7 fishes on Christmas Eve since before I was born! I have continued the tradition after my mother passed. I make, calamari salad with lemon, garlic, olive oil, salt and parsley and serve cold! Octopus, Baccala (Salt cod) made 2 ways, mussels marinara with dipping bread, shrimp cocktail, fresh raw oysters and clams. We also include homemade pizza, sausage and peppers a side of pasta and homemade sphinge for dessert. Which are a yeasty dough that is dropped by tablespoon in fryer until they are puffy and airy then rolled in sugar or doused with honey goodness!! Delish!! Of course we wouldn't be Sicilian if we didn't serve vino and galiano liquor all night long! The hard work is well worth the wait when I watch my family enjoy the feast set before them! BUON NATALE!!!!
12/22/2012 8:22:44 AM CST
Veronica says ...
I enjoyed learning about the Italian custom of fish for the holidays and description of Whole Foods responsible fishing standards - which has health benefits (illustrated in The Happiness Diet book) as well as being the right thing to do.
12/29/2012 11:54:10 PM CST
jp says ...
The Feast of the Seven Fishes concept ,is an Italian-American Christmas celebration not originated in Italy
12/06/2013 5:27:55 PM CST
Cosimo and Jeannette Ubaldino says ...
This sounds similar to what my husband's family celebration was like. My mother in law always made the zeppoles with and without anchovies. She also made baccala or stocco (also dried salted cod) stew. Very delicious! Our good friends also had stuffed baked shrimp Yum! Love Christmas and all the delicious fish dishes! Merry Christmas to all the foodies and all the wonderful people who work for Whole Foods. Buon Natalie!
12/23/2014 11:40:38 AM CST
Wholesome says ...
We non-observers are having it at home for the first time. The cook says it will be better than the restaurant offerings we've had in the past. Can't wait!
12/23/2014 4:49:48 PM CST
Do you have any cooking classes for this feast of seven fishes in Palm Beach or Broward County this month?
12/10/2015 10:02:59 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@DAN - Our cooking classes will differ between stores. I would suggest checking with the store at 561.691.8550 to find out what they have planned.
12/16/2015 4:09:44 PM CST