It’s not a tradition I grew up with, but I’ve made the Feast of the Seven Fishes my big holiday celebration for the last several years. Also known as La Vigilia (“the vigil” in Italian), the feast has its roots in the Roman Catholic abstinence from meat on Christmas Eve. Although it hails from Southern Italy, today it’s celebrated mostly in the U.S. by those of Italian heritage but has been adopted by food lovers from many backgrounds. It’s a delicious tribute to the variety of seafood and a very festive meal to share with friends and family.
My own spin on this celebration keeps the Italian cuisine theme loosely in place, but I choose a Sunday in mid December rather than Christmas Eve so that I can open my house to a big group of friends and family without getting too close to the holiday madness. And while some interpret the meal as consisting of seven seafood courses — which would be wonderfully luxurious for a sit-down dinner! — I opt for a buffet that offers seven different types of fish and seafood.
Interested in giving the feast a try? Here are some quick tips on planning a meal, plus great recipes for seven seafood standards that you can peruse in making up a menu that suits your own party.
Raw seafood will not keep optimally fresh for only a day or two in your fridge, so schedule shopping and prepping with that in mind. If you feel you’ll need to store anything longer, fill a tray or bowl with ice, cover the ice with a towel, place the seafood on top, cover it and store in the coldest part of your fridge; this will give you an extra day of storage.
Put a few make-ahead dishes on your menu so you’re not overwhelmed on the day of your feast. Cold seafood salads, dishes that can be reheated in a warm oven, and store-bought precooked or cured foods like smoked fish or seafood dips are ideal.
Have at least one or two vegetarian dishes on hand for those who don’t eat seafood. Children are famously picky, and since I have a lot of them at my feast I always make up a batch of plain marinara to serve over penne.
Outsource some parts of your meal to friends or family to keep your load manageable. For my feast I let guests provide all of the desserts−it makes for a sweet potluck ending to the meal and I’m always intrigued to see what people bring!
Not up for the full seven? Keep it simple with one mixed seafood entrée, like a bouillabaisse, seafood stew, or mixed seafood pasta or risotto.
It’s an economical and simple to cook, so shrimp is an ideal for feasting. For a make-ahead appetizer you can’t beat this Quick and Easy Shrimp Dip. Surround it with vegetable dippers and sliced Italian bread and crackers.
For a main course that mixes shrimp with two other kinds of seafood, this Holiday Cioppino is an aromatic winner featuring wine, herbs and flavorful mix of vegetables.
Clams and pasta are an Italian classic and always a crowd pleaser. You can try this recipe for Linguine with White Clam Sauce if you prefer using fresh clams, or this Linguine with Red Clam Sauce that relies on canned clams. Both recipes are easy to double or triple.
If you’re looking for a prepared dish to buy to round out your menu, a number of high-quality stuffed clams are available from the seafood freezer. A short bake in the oven and they’re ready to serve; add a sprinkle of chopped parsley and lemon wedges for a fresh touch.
Mussels are delicious, make their own broth and are down-right cheap compared to a lot of shellfish, so they always feature in my feast. A terrific appetizer is Mussels Vinaigrette, a superb chilled nibble you can make up to 8 hours ahead.
For a main course to serve either with bread or over pasta, try Campania-Style Mussels, full of the southern Italian flavors of garlic, capers, olives and fresh tomatoes.
Calamari is as beautiful as it is tasty in seafood salads so don’t overlook it as part of your menu. This recipe for Seafood Salad with Shrimp and Calamari is vintage Italian, and you can also add other cooked and chilled seafood to it: bay scallops, octopus, or mussels out of the shell would be fantastic.
Calamari is also great in hot pasta dishes where its sweet flavor and toothsome texture really shine. This Calamari Pasta is done in just about the amount of time it takes to boil pasta, making it a terrific choice for a multi-course meal.
I find lump crabmeat super-convenient seafood to cook with: it’s already shelled and processed, so it’s ready to add to recipes with just a quick pick-through to tease out any pieces of shell or cartilage. It’s the star in two of my favorite festive appetizers: Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip and delectable Mini Crab Cakes with Spicy Red Pepper Sauce.
Other kinds of crabs can also add a luxurious note to your meal. Alaskan and king crab legs are both absolutely sweet and delicious, as are the local specialties Dungeness crab and stone crab claws. I love this recipe for King Crab Legs with Spicy Garlic Oil for fabulous flavor and four-ingredient simplicity.
Cod is the classic Christmas fish the world over, so I always include it as one of my seven. You can use preserved salt cod for a seafood spread like brandade, or try cod fritters that can be fried ahead and reheated in a warm oven just before serving.
For fresh cod dishes, Italian Chowder with Cod and Kale is a good choice if your crowd can’t get enough kale. Or try Cod Poached in Tomato-Tarragon Sauce, a dish you can serve with bread, rice or pasta.
Other Fin Fish
A great appetizer are these popular Seafood Cucumber Stacks with Lemon Cream and Chives. They’re super-easy to put together with your favorite smoked fish − salmon, trout, mackerel or even white fish − and very festive.
I always find that a roast fish fillet dish that I can assemble ahead and just pop in the oven is fabulous. Choose a fillet holds up well to heat like monkfish, halibut (one of my favorites!), cod or salmon. You could use any of these in this delicious Italian-inspired recipe for Roasted Monkfish with Tomatoes. Or go for Roasted Salmon Stuffed with Spinach, Feta and Ricotta, a showstopper that can prep several hours ahead and roast at the last minute.
These are just some of my favorites that I hope will give you inspiration to put on a feast of your own. For more ideas, visit our Feast of the Seven Fishes recipe collection. Enjoy!