How to Host a Traditional Italian-American "Feast of the Seven Fishes" on Christmas Eve
If you grew up in an Italian-American family, you've probably indulged in the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve at some point in your life. For everyone else, it's likely that you've never even heard about the traditional feast. Executive Chef Ethan McKee at Urbana in Washington, D.C. knows a thing or two about it though, which is why we consulted him for advice on how you can prepare your own Feast of Seven Fishes at home. And for more classic holiday dishes you need to try out, check out 24 Vintage Christmas Dinner Recipes.
What exactly is the Feast of the Seven Fishes?
"The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition that originated in the early 1900s," says McKee. "The meal has roots in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on Christmas Eve, and the number seven has major significance in the Bible."
This is not an authentic Italian tradition. Last year, Saveur interviewed chefs from Naples and Milan, neither of which had ever heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The story of how the stromboli came to be is similar—while in the U.S. we think of it as an Italian dish, it actually originated in southern Philadelphia by Italian-Americans.
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It is true, however, that Romans, as well as most Italians, eat fish before major holidays because they can't eat meat on those days.
"Seven types of fish or seafood are typically represented throughout the seven courses. Eel and salted cod are really traditional items that you would see prepared for this meal, along with other seafood," says McKee.
According to Eataly, the Feast of the Seven Fishes could also incorporate just two types of fish that are prepared in seven different ways.
Are there any particular cooking tips one should know about?
"When putting together a menu for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, it's important to go to your local fish market and pick out the best and freshest seafood available," says McKee. "If there is a local product available, that's even better."
He suggests combining a few different seafood selections into one large dish such as a seafood stew or in a pasta. This is one way to decrease the number of courses, while still incorporating seven types of fish into the meal. There aren't strict guidelines you need to follow, and McKee encourages you to get creative with the menu.
McKee will be serving a pre-fixe tasting menu at his restaurant this Christmas Eve. Here's a sneak peek at what he will be serving should you need some inspiration for your own dinner party. His menu only serves six types of fish—the seventh course is a traditional Italian dessert.
- Baccala Fritter with salted cod, potatoes, pomodoro, and crispy capers
- Salmon Carpaccio with Ligurian olive oil, lemon, chives, radishes, and crostini
- Lobster Brodetto with littleneck clams, shrimp, mussels, and fregola
- Squid Ink Gemelli with calamari, chili, herb breadcrumbs, and bagna cauda butter
- Diver Scallops with farrotto, cauliflower, and black truffle
- Black Sea Bass with roasted fennel, baby carrots, blood orange, and hazelnut butter
- Affogato with chilled espresso, Nutella ice cream, and assorted Italian cookies
And if you're wanting to add some more sweet treats to your holiday party this year, be sure to check out these 25 Easy Christmas Cookie Recipes.