Ever celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes? The team at Bon Appétit has an in-depth look—with recipes—at how to incorporate this incredible dinner into your own holiday traditions swimmingly.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the preparation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But there is plenty of debate over its origin and how to celebrate this Italian and Italian-American tradition. What fish should be included and how they should be prepared can vary. Some people cook seven courses; some choose to make 12 (in deference to the 12 apostles). Some just put a bunch of seafood in a stew and call it good. Many families keep their own traditions, but everyone who celebrates can agree: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve. Preferably with wine.
Says Carla Lalli Music, BA food director, “What counts as a must-have for this night at your house, would be unthinkable at someone else’s. For example, we never serve lobster, but for a lot of italians, it’s not Christmas Eve without lobster fra diavolo or stuffed tails. That said, once a menu is set and your relatives are attached to it, you can probably never change anything—or else the people revolt!”
If you’re planning on cooking the feast for the first time, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. We spoke with Lauren Fougere, sous chef at New York City’s Hearth, where the restaurant serves an annual seafood feast. Fougere talked us through a typical feast at Hearth, and we gleaned out some tips for creating your own menu. Hearth serves five fish courses with one palate cleansing dish and a dessert. We based this menu off of that model, but feel free to riff if you want more fish and less cannoli.
But first! Before you read any further, order your fish the weekend before Christmas Eve. It’s a big day for fish markets and fishmongers, and the seafood moves fast. We repeat: Do not show up to the store on the morning of Christmas Eve and expect to acquire every clam, shrimp, whole lobster, and salmon fillet you’ve planned on. Order ahead. Now, onto the business at hand:
1. First Course: Something Snacky
You’ve got six more courses to go, so it’s in your and your guests’ best interest to pace yourselves. Don’t go too heavy or rich. Hearth serves whipped bacalao, or salt cod, with grilled bread. You can make your own, says Fougere, by burying cod in salt for nine days. But if time is of the essence, you can purchase bacalao at many specialty stores—most Whole Foods also sell it. Or, you can forgo the cod all together and make these easy salmon rillettes. Whatever creamy dip you choose to serve, crunchy toasted bread drizzled with quality olive oil is a must. Crisp, lip-smacking Vermentino would be an ideal pairing, according to Fougere.
2. Second Course: A Bracing, Light Salad
Now we’re cooking. A cold seafood salad for the second course is an ideal way to move into the more substantial courses. Hearth serves grilled squid with greens, and we think that’s just grand. This recipe for Pan-Seared Squid and Lemony Aioli will do the trick. For the wine? Stay the course with something light, bright, or even bubbly.
3. Third Course: Something Hearty, Grilled, Seared, and ‘Meaty’
This is your chance to wow ‘em with a stunner of a plate. Choose center-cut fillets of fish like cod, salmon, or bass, or else go with dramatic presentation: Hearth serves grilled head-on prawns over a smoky soup. To really play up the flavors, make it a composed dish with vegetables, beans, or legumes. The prawns at Hearth are accompanied with smoked chickpeas and caramelized onions. These Grilled Shrimp with Chile, Cilantro, and Lime are prepared with the shells on for maximum crunch. A Riesling with crackling acidity can do wonders for a gently spiced dish—it’s one of Hearth’s picks for this course.
4. Fourth Course: Pasta!
“We serve a really traditional spaghetti with clams,” says Fougere. “This is an Italian menu, after all.” Whatever seafood you pair with your noodles, add a pinch (or more) of pepper. Hearth uses peperoncino, and coaxes out maximum flavor by toasting it in a hot pan with olive oil and garlic. The heat will build slowly, balancing out the richness of the pasta and the salinity of the seafood. A hearty white with a good, viscous body, like Gewürztraminer, is great here.
5. Fifth Course: A Hearty Seafood Stew
“Even the ‘heaviest’ course is pretty light,” explains Fougere. That’s the virtue of an all-seafood menu. Hearth is serving cazciuco, a tomato-based cioppino-like stew. The sky—err, the sea—is the limit when it comes to what fish is allowed in the stew, but Fougere mentions that octopus and the usual bivalves (clams, mussels) are especially tasty. She’s also fond of bass, cod, and squid. To create your own stew, use a flavorful broth or fish stock. This cioppino recipe is also flavored with clam juice and white wine. Finish with fresh herbs to lighten and brighten the dish. Want to go red with your wine? Keep it light and low acidity—Pinot Noir is a nice choice.
6. Sixth Course: The Palate Cleanser
Palate cleansers aren’t just for fancy tasting menus. Hearth serves a bracing, citrusy course to separate the savory and sweet. We think this limoncello gelato is perfectly refreshing. If you’re planning to make your own, be sure to plan ahead—it will need at least 4 hours to firm up.
7. Seventh Course: Cookies, Cannoli, or a Light(ish) Dessert
As the cap on a seven-course meal, the crew at Hearth likes to keep things light with simple Italian cookies (granted, the restaurant has also served cannoli, a.k.a. pastry shells filled with ricotta cheese. But, you know. Light-ish.) The best desserts are ones that can be lingered over, like these chocolate-dipped cake-like rainbow cookies.
See what else the Bon Appétit team is cooking up this season right here.