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