For a very long time, I dreamed of seven fishes. In the center of my mind's flat-screen there was a long table dressed in Christmas Eve finery, overflowing with platters of fried smelts, spaghetti with anchovies, grilled sardines, steamed mussels, baked stuffed clams, golden calamari rings, and perhaps a whole fish stuffed with lemon and herbs.
Because this fantasy was set in Philly, a lovable Italian American matron lorded over the meal, Isgro's cannolis were served, and strings of twinkling lights were suspended above a block of rowhouses.
But there was one catch: I am Jewish, of Eastern European origin. In my tradition, fish is a gelatinized carp patty with a slice of carrot on top and a dab of horseradish on the side. Not to diss my people, but even the most abundant smoked-fish platter would net you four or five fishes, max. So I kept dreaming.
Then five years ago, I met my future husband, Jesse Pires, and he took me to his Italian/Portuguese family's Christmas Eve. I was thrilled. There were seven different fishes! Pasta. Grilled octopus. Actual smelts! And they were all delicious. I already knew this was the right man for me - but now I knew he came with the right cod cakes.
Ever since then, we have tried to re-create the holiday seafood spectacular in our own home. But we kept cheating - making a bouillabaisse with six fishes plus a smoked whitefish appetizer (a shout-out to my own traditions) - or talking ourselves out of it, because the idea of standing by the stove for hours on end and actually churning out seven unique fish dishes seemed, well, a little too old-school.
There just wasn't time in our hectic lives to bone sardines. We didn't have a good local fishmonger, either. Of course that excuse went out the window when Jesse's father, Anthony, told us that his grandfather once spent a Christmas Eve afternoon chasing live eels down the aisle of a train after they squirmed through a wet paper bag.
The seven-fish tradition that still lives on in Italian American households can be traced to Catholics in southern Italy, where families would eat a "lighter" meal before attending midnight Mass. The fish repast, a.k.a. La Vigilia, came out of the tradition of abstaining from meat or butter on holy days.
The symbolism of seven is connected to the seven sacraments, or possibly the seven days of creation. The fish feasts still abound on Christmas Eve - but many Italians scoff at the number.
"Seven?" asks David Faenza, the chef-owner of local restaurants Salento and L'Angolo and a native of Puglia. "We always had 10 or 15, and it would go from 7 p.m. to just before midnight."
At the Faenza home in Philly, the 2009 Christmas Eve menu will include a stew with red mullet and shrimp; raw oysters; swordfish carpaccio; sauteed cuttlefish; stuffed mussels; octopus meatballs; lobster with tomato sauce; fried dough with shrimp and calamari; salt-baked branzino; linguine with sea urchin; grilled langoustines; fried eel; and pasta with sardines. In a word: hard-core.
As inspiring as this sounded, in our own, nonprofessional kitchen, seven was still the magic number - feastlike, but doable. And this year we came up with a plan to make it somewhat easier.
We'd serve the feast cocktail-party style: seven platters of hot and cold small bites, plus a few extras for vegetarians. Though we knew we'd lose something of the traditional charm of sitting down and attending each course, the little snacks would be more in tune with the way our family and friends like to eat.
To make it more manageable still, we decided to make tuna bites (bocconcini di tonno) with ricotta and capers and a salmon pate with black olives from The Silver Spoon cookbook. The smoked fish and canned tuna could be purchased in advance, and both dishes could be made a few days ahead.
My father-in-law's famous Portuguese salt cod cakes could also be made two days out (starting a day earlier than that to soak the cod), then reheated during the party.
Small "flans" - actually frittatas of anchovy and potato - could be cooked in mini-muffin tins one day ahead and served at room temperature.
We took on another three recipes from local Italian chefs: seafood-stuffed deep-fried olives from Le Virtù's Luciana Spurio; a fresh lemon-dressed seafood salad from Faenza; and cozze ripiene (stuffed mussels) from Mamma Maria's.
Though we chose to make our seven dishes, some could easily be swapped out for store-bought items for even greater convenience. Think smoked fish spread, canned sardines on crackers, shrimp cocktail, clams casino, crab cakes, and/or lobster ravioli. Ippolito's in South Philadelphia, which is a great source for the more obscure fishes on your list, will also prepare any of the traditional dishes by special order.
By 11 a.m. the day of the party we had five fishes down, two to go. The final two involved mussels, which required a last-minute purchase. Once procured, scrubbed and debearded, half the mussels were quickly steamed for Faenza's seafood salad, which we spooned onto endive spears. We threw the rest into a pot for Mamma's dish and sauteed them in garlic, tomato, and white wine, then sprinkled them with marinara and bread crumbs and baked them in the oven on the half-shell.
Later, we mixed a pitcher of Negronis and prepared some prosecco cocktails with rosemary syrup. And then, we were actually able to enjoy it all with our guests - the feast went (ahem) swimmingly.
Though truth be told, even with our simplifications, the seven fishes was still a culinary challenge, one that should only be attempted on an annual basis for reasons of sanity and kitchen stinkiness. At some point - it must have been when I had a shmatte tied around my head and an apron around my waist, dutifully spooning crab and shrimp filling into a series of olive cavities - Jesse looked over at me and said, "You look like a little old Italian lady." I took that as a compliment.
Anthony's Codfish Cakes
Makes 35-40 cakes or 10-12 servings
1 pound salt cod
3 to 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
Dash of hot pepper sauce
2 to 3 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
Oil for deep frying
1. Soak the salt cod in water for 18 to 36 hours, stored in the refrigerator. Change the water several times, and check the cod by tasting a bit. You want it to be rehydrated and still salty, but not inedibly so.
2. Drain the fish from the soaking water and rinse it. Put fish in a 5-quart pot with the potatoes. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes. Remove fish with a slotted spoon and let cool a little. Leave potatoes to cook until you can pierce them with a fork.
3. Mince the cod. Peel and mash the potatoes. Combine cod and potatoes in a bowl with onion and parsley, hot pepper sauce to taste and eggs. Season with salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that the fish is salty already, and mix thoroughly. Make sure the mix is not too dry; if it is, add an extra egg.
4. Heat a 2½-quart pot with about 5-6 inches of oil to about 350 degrees. Shape cod mixture into flattened egg-shaped cakes. Lower a few in the pan and fry them in batches until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. If not serving right away, they can be stored on a rimmed baking sheet and reheated in the oven before serving. Transfer hot cakes to a platter. (They're also great at room temperature.) Garnish with parsley.
Per serving (based on 12): 214 calories, 27 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 2,672 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Olive Ripieni di Pesce (Seafood-Stuffed Olives)
Makes about 12 servings
1/2 pound steamed mild white fish
1/2 pound steamed shrimp
2 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, finely diced
1 teaspoon grated Pecorino cheese
2 pounds pitted green olives
Peanut oil for deep-frying
1 cup flour for dredging
2 eggs, beaten with 4 teaspoons milk
1 cup bread crumbs
1. Flake fish with a fork and finely chop shrimp. Combine and add the parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix well.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan and saute shallot. When shallot is translucent, add the fish-shrimp mixture and saute just until the seafood liquid is reduced.
3. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and combine with the grated Pecorino. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. When the mixture has cooled, use your hands to pack into the cavity of each olive.
5. Heat peanut oil to about 350 degrees.
6. Dust olives lightly in flour, then roll in the egg, then coat with bread crumbs. Fry in batches until golden. Drain on paper towels. They can be stored on a rimmed baking sheet and reheated in the oven before serving.
Per serving: 242 calories, 11 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 15 grams fat, 72 milligrams cholesterol, 1,934 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Insalata di Mare (Seafood Salad)
Makes about 16 servings
1 pound shrimp (31 to 40 size), cleaned, with tails removed
1 pound cut calamari rings
2 pounds mussels, preferably Prince Edward Island, scrubbed and debearded if necessary
1 celery stalk, cut into a very fine dice
1 medium carrot, cut into a very fine dice
1/2 cup high-quality extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of dried oregano
Salt and pepper
4 heads of endive, leaves separated
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the shrimp in the boiling water for 1 minute. Remove from the water (do not discard the water), and set shrimp aside to cool.
2. Repeat with calamari, put aside to cool.
3. Repeat with the mussels, cooking them until they open, which should take approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside mussels to cool.
4. Once the seafood is cool, remove the mussels from their shells and combine all seafood in a large bowl. Add the celery, carrot and oil, then the lemon juice. Add the oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Spoon salad into endive spears and serve at room temperature.
Per serving: 170 calories, 17 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 9 grams fat, 125 milligrams cholesterol, 225 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Tortino di Patate e Acciughe (Potato and Anchovy Flan)
Makes about 28 mini-flans EndTextStartText
1 pound boiling potatoes
2 small onions
6 to 8 anchovies
7 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Rinse and peel the potatoes; then slice them thinly and cut the slices in thin strips about 1/2 inch long. Trim and thinly slice the onions. Rinse and mince the anchovies.
2. Preheat the oven to 315 degrees. Brush 4 mini-muffin tins with 4 tablespoons of olive oil.
3. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. Crush the garlic and add it to the oil; let the garlic flavor the oil. Add the onion and potato and saute until golden brown, turning them over periodically with a spatula. Add the anchovies and cook for 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture into a bowl.
4. In a smaller bowl, whisk eggs together with a pinch of salt and pour them over the potatoes. Stir evenly and spoon mixture into muffin tins. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for approximately 20 minutes or until eggs are set. Set aside to cool.
5. Use a knife to unmold flans. Serve at room temperature.
Per flan: 68 calories, 3 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 5 grams fat, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 20 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Pâté di Salmone
Makes 6-8 servings
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
7 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
3 tablespoons pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
2 canned anchovy fillets in oil, drained and chopped
Salt and pepper
Cornichons or small dill pickles, drained, for garnish
1. Grease a mold with butter. Cook the potatoes in lightly salted boiling water for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain, peel, and mash with a potato masher.
2. Put the salmon, olives, melted butter, and anchovies in a food processor, season with salt and pepper, and process to a puree. Stir the puree into the mashed potatoes.
3. Spoon the mixture into the prepared mold, smooth the surface and chill in the refrigerator for 6 hours. Turn out and garnish with cornichons or dill pickles.
Per serving (based on 8): 157 calories, 9 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 688 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Bocconcini di Tonno (Tuna Bites)
Makes 4 servings
2 eggs, hard-cooked
7 ounces canned tuna in oil, drained and flaked
Scant ½ cup ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons capers, drained
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
Rind of 1 lemon, grated
2 tablespoons lemon juice, strained
2 tablespoons butter, softened
Salt and pepper
Arugula, to serve
1. Shell and chop the eggs. Push the eggs, tuna and ricotta through a food mill into a bowl. Stir in the capers, basil, lemon rind, lemon juice and butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.
2. Shape the mixture into balls and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Just before serving, arrange a bed of arugula on a platter and place the tuna bites on top.
Per serving: 249 calories, 21 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 17 grams fat, 146 milligrams cholesterol, 486 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Mamma's Cozze Ripieni (Stuffed Mussels)
Makes about 12 servings
3 pounds medium-size uncooked mussels
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups marinara sauce
1 cup bread crumbs
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scrub and debeard mussels.
2. Heat a large saucepan big enough to accommodate mussels once they've opened. Add olive oil, garlic, parsley, mussels and salt and pepper to taste. Saute the mussels, stirring frequently. When mussels are hot, pour in white wine and marinara sauce. Continue to stir. Cover saucepan and let mussels steam for about 10 minutes (or until mussels have opened).
3. When mussels have opened, remove from heat, reserving sauce. Pull off the empty half of each shell and discard. Set the mussels in their shell halves on rimmed baking sheets.
4. Spoon a small amount of the sauce over each mussel. Sprinkle mussels with bread crumbs. Place tray in oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until bread crumbs are golden. Garnish with more parsley, and serve.
Per serving: 249 calories, 15 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 584 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.