Ready for a fish tale of sorts?
The origin of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is as murky as the water surrounding New York City. The practice of eating seven different types of fish on Christmas Eve may have started in Southern Italy, or with Italian Americans. Also unclear: what the number seven represents. Perhaps, it's the seven sacraments of the Catholic church. Maybe it's that, according to Catholicism, creation happened in seven days.
What we do know is that the Feast itself, which often includes some type of salt cod, oily fish such as sardines and a seafood-studded pasta or two, is a delicious tradition.
My family has celebrated Christmas Eve with seven courses of seafood for as long as I can remember, as both of my parents have since childhood (my last name may be Palmer, but I'm mostly Italian, in case you were wondering).
Every year, my father and I get up at the crack of dawn on December 24 and stand in line in the freezing cold outside Denville Seafood in Northern Jersey. Every year, we debate whether to get the littleneck clams or the steamers. And every year, my dad and I come home with the exact same haul: shrimp to boil with white wine, bay leaves and peppercorns; steamers to dip into drawn butter; a little container of baccalà (salt cod) salad; and big old scallops and fillets of flounder to bread and bake. (That's only five courses; the last two are some sort of lobster bisque and a dish I dream about regularly: spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, chile flakes, black olives and anchovies.)
Our Christmas Eve dinner is always my favorite meal of the year—not just because I could eat that pasta on a daily basis. It's about chatting with my dad at the market, hanging out in the kitchen, watching my brother devour at least 20 steamers. It's just what we do.
Because I love the meal so much, I insisted Tasting Table feature a Feast of the Seven Fishes menu this year—and luckily our food editor, Andy Baraghani, fell hook, line and sinker for the idea and came up with a splashy, creative seven-course dinner.
His menu is definitely more refined than anything my family has ever done, pulling from some classic Southern Italian flavors and the fish you'd find at a traditional feast: There's no baccalà to speak of, but cod shows up in creamy fritters served with simple but spicy tomato sauce (see the recipe). Anchovies are whisked into a vinaigrette dressing for a crunchy fennel salad interlaced with walnuts and bread crumbs (see the recipe), and a cheekily named sardine tartine (see the recipe) is a loose interpretation of a sweet-and-sour pasta dish, pasta con le sarde, topped with currants, quick-pickled onions and lemon zest.
Of course, there's a pasta, too, a twist on the classic linguine and clams, made here with spaghetti and the addition of briny green olives (see the recipe). Flash-cooked calamari is tossed with a splash of fish sauce (a Thai ingredient, gasp!) and served atop luxuriously soupy chickpeas with just-tender celery (see the recipe). Even roasted shrimp get a subtle tweak with preserved lemon and cilantro (see the recipe).
And the showstopper? A whole-roasted snapper dressed with winter's most beautiful citrus—kumquats, Meyer lemons, oranges—and chopped pistachios (see the recipe). It's a little bit Sardinian, a little bit Cali Italian and all marvelously flaky and moist.
One night, seven fishes—it's quite a feat for the cook and the diner, for sure. But what's so wonderful about each of these dishes is that, no matter what holidays you celebrate, they're a fresh, cozy taste of the sea-son.
Get the recipes:
• Spaghetti with Clams and Green Olives
• Cod Fritters with Spicy Tomato Sauce
• Squid with Chickpeas and Celery
• Roasted Shrimp with Preserved Lemon
• Sardine Tartine with Currants, Pine Nuts and Sweet-and-Sour Onions
• Roasted Red Snapper with Citrus and Pistachios
• Fennel Salad with Bread Crumbs, Walnuts and Anchovy Vinaigrette
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