Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Feast of the Seven (Sustainable) Fishes

Photo by Megan Saynisch.

"The Feast of the Seven Fishes." The very name conjures up images of medieval ladies and gents dressed in their finest, sitting at a comically long table laid out with ornate seafood dishes on gilded serving platters. Or at least that’s what I thought of when I first heard about "the Feast" (or "La Vigilia" in Italian). Growing up, our Christmas Eve dinner leaned toward the WASP-y (even though we’re not — I’m a quarter Italian), with roast beef and turkey making frequent appearances over the years. (The only seafood that might be present was shrimp cocktail.) It wasn't until I married my husband — whose mother is from Modena, Italy and whose father’s Italian-American family originally hails from the coastal Southern Italian town of Bari — that I learned about the cultural importance of the Christmas Eve feast. In fact, just this week we received a letter from my father-in-law, a physician-turned-artist, with a drawing and a recipe for stewed baccalà (salted codfish), which, he noted, is a must for the Christmas Eve meal.

This year, I can’t spend Christmas with my parents on the West Coast, so I made the (possibly crazy, with a two-year-old underfoot) decision to cook the Feast and invite over other friends orphaned on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, the Community Supported Fishery (CSF) that I belong to, Mermaid’s GardenErin profiled them earlier this year — is run by a couple that doesn’t fool around with La Vigilia. They’ve even catalogued each Feast meal they’ve cooked since moving to Brooklyn!  Bianca Piccillo has a background as an ichthyologist (fish biologist), and Mark Usewicz is a chef — and both are Italian (well, Mark is half Polish, but Poles celebrate the feast, too). You couldn't ask for two better people to curate a sustainable seafood holiday store, from which I’ve ordered most of the seafood for my very own Vigilia.

A Brief History

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration, during which a large seafood-based, meatless meal is eaten, usually before attendance of Christmas Eve Catholic mass. La Vigilia ("the vigil," in Italian) most certainly has its roots in European traditions, where it is common in many Catholic countries to eat a meatless meal on Christmas Eve as a form of religious abstinence or penance. Most Italian-Americans have ancestors who immigrated from Southern Italy – from places like Naples and Sicily and Bari — all of which have strong fishing traditions and observe the custom of eating a large seafood meal on Christmas Eve (la Vigilia di Natale). All over Italy, however, it is common to have a meatless meal on Christmas Eve, with each region having a distinct specialty (although eel seems to be especially common all over the country). For example, my husband’s family in Italy traditionally eats a type of tuna "meatloaf" formed in a special fish-shaped tin, with mayonnaise, capers and potatoes.

The fish itself is a powerful symbol of Christianity, and one of the oldest, while the number seven is particularly important in the Catholic faith, representing God, the (seven) deadly sins, the (seven) Sacraments and the (seven) Joys of the Virgin Mary — although absolutely no one seems to agree on which of these representations the “seven fish” of the Feast represent. (And for some, the number of fish served at the Feast is not even seven — twelve courses, symbolizing the twelve apostles or the twelve days of Christmas, is also common.)

The Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes typically begins with an assortment of vegetarian and seafood antipasto (appetizers), followed by a succession of fish and shellfish dishes and usually at least one vegetarian or seafood pasta, accompanied by vegetables common to the Southern Italian table (such as broccoli rabe and escarole). An informal (and highly unscientific) survey of the Italian-Americans I know showed the diversity of the meal in terms of seafood preferences — but also striking parallels. Many said that squid or octopus and baccalà are absolute requirements of a Vigilia meal. Others noted that eel used to be served, before the passing of the older generation.

Factual Nibbles

  • Poles and Lithuanians also celebrate a version of La Vigilia (called Wigilia and Kûèios, respectively). My grandmother, who is Lithuanian, recalled that hay is spread on the dining table – to signify the manger — before being topped with a tablecloth (the Poles do the same thing). Herring and other fish are commonly eaten. 
  • Scungilli, another seafood common to the Italian-American Vigilia, is conch (or whelk, depending on who you ask, more info is below) — a large sea snail. Typically, canned scungilli is used in the US. The word “scungilli” is an Italian-American version of the Neapolitan word scuncigli (conch), which, according to (possibly dubious) Internet research, is also Neapolitan slang for “penis.”
  • Baccalà (salt cod), traditionally one of the mainstays of the Feast, is also common in Caribbean cuisine. It is even a chief component of one of Jamaica’s national dishes, Ackee and Saltfish.

Environmental Impact

The popularity of seafood, along with habitat loss and rising ocean temperatures, has lead to a decline in many populations of fish and shellfish. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch notes that we have "removed as much as 90 percent of the large predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and cod from the world's oceans." In addition, many fish and shellfish farming operations cause environmental damage — and damage to human health, too. Sadly, some of the fish and shellfish common to a traditional Feast of the Seven fishes is unsustainable, including Atlantic cod (for baccalà) and eel. Some shrimp is also problematic, including some farmed shrimp and imported wild-caught shrimp. 

Octopus, also common on the Italian Christmas Eve table in the US and in Italy, is tricky as well. Bianca Piccillo says: "Strictly speaking, octopus is not sustainable. There are a few exceptions — pot-caught octopus and octopus caught as by-catch. Both are going to be almost, if not totally impossible, for people to find in a retail market (they are pretty hard for us to find)." Squid is an excellent, sustainable, alternative. Scungilli is also a knotty choice — after talking with Bianca, I learned that, though labeled as conch, the canned scungilli we commonly see are probably actually whelk (which are cheaper and more plentiful). Some canned scungilli is even labeled “conch” and then in smaller letters as "abalone"!  In general, conch is unsustainable (although Bianca mentioned at least one well-managed farm in the Caribbean), while whelk and abalone fisheries are well managed. You may be able to find fresh, live whelk at your local farmers’ market or though your CSF. 

Unfortunately, fish and shellfish are also magnets for contaminants, including mercury, organophosphates and other pesticides (from industrial agriculture runoff and from their use in farmed fish), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and even antibiotic residues. (Pregnant women, babies and young children are generally those most susceptible to these contaminants, so check with your doctor.) Choosing wild-caught fish can help reduce the risk of pesticide and antibiotic contamination.

It's not all bad news, though. There is a vast selection of delicious sustainable seafood available for your Vigilia, and many fish and shellfish populations have recovered with excellent fishery management. Find a Community Supported Fishery (like a CSA, but with seafood!) near you to support local fisheries committed to sustainability. Check out Local Catch for a handy map of local CSFs. Many farmers' markets (in coastal locations, of course) also have local seafood stalls. Consult guides like Food & Water Watch's Smart Seafood Guide (including their "Dirty Dozen") and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch (they even have an app) to help you make more informed choices in your Vigilia menu planning — and read our "Guide to the Guides" for a comprehensive overview of all the seafood guides out there.  

Read more about sustainable seafood on GRACE's Seafood issue page.

Characteristics

Nutrition

In general, fish and shellfish are low in fat and calories and high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish (and squid and shrimp in particular) are high in cholesterol, so those trying to reduce their cholesterol levels should probably eat in moderation. Shellfish and many types of fish are also high in iron, zinc, copper, calcium and vitamin B-12.

What to Look for

Look for fish with bright, clear eyes, shiny, vibrant skin and bright red gills. Shellfish, such as oysters and clams, should only be purchased alive. All seafood should smell like the sea: if you’re confronted with a fishy or ammonia-like odor, take a pass. (Here are some other tips for selecting the freshest seafood.) Of course, if you’re purchasing your seafood from a farmer’s market or CSF, chances are it will be very, very fresh — maybe even fished that morning!

What to Do with It

Storage

It goes without saying that most fish and shellfish should be consumed as close to harvest as possible, although you can store live shellfish for a day or two in the fridge, and fish for a couple of days.

Cooking

There are lots of options for cooking fish and shellfish — but favorites for the Feast of the Seven Fishes include: fried calamari (this recipe with Meyer lemons looks amazing) and fish; stuffed squid; linguini or spaghetti with clams (my favorite is Marcella Hazan’s recipe), mussels or other seafood; baccalà fritters or stewed baccalà; zuppa di pesce (fish soup); insalata di pesce (cold seafood salad); baked whole fish; and fish fillets. (Lots more sustainable seafood recipes perfect for the Feast here, courtesy of Mermaid’s Garden.)  

And just for the record, here are the seven seafood dishes I plan (fingers crossed) to make for this year’s Feast of the Seven Fishes:

Montauk Pearls (Oysters) on the Half Shell with Shallot Mignonette

Smoked Wild Salmon

Poached Florida Pink Shrimp with Olive Oil and Lemon Juice

Mermaid’s Garden Smoked Bluefish Rillettes on Toasts

Calamari Salad with Home Grown Celery

Homemade Baccalà (see recipe below) with Potatoes
Blue Crab Linguini with Chiles and Mint

Pro Tips

Here is a great guide to prepping squid (with video!). Here is an awesome primer on cooking baccalà from Lidia Bastianich. And check out this super informative video on how to shuck an oyster. 

Recipe

Usually, this section includes both a recipe and a note about how best to "stretch your food dollar through preservation," but this week, the recipe is in fact a preservation method, in and of itself. Enjoy!

Homemade Baccalà

The history of baccalà — or salt cod — is a long one. (Check out Mark Kurlansky’s Cod for a fascinating in-depth history of the fish.) To make it, cod is salted, and then partially dried; this allows for long-term storage. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, salt cod (and its cousin, dried cod, sans salt) became an important commodity beginning in medieval times, as Catholics were (and still are) required to go meatless on Fridays. Large cod supplies off the coast of Newfoundland began to be exploited around the 15th Century, and a way to transport vast quantities of the fish back to Europe was needed — so salting and drying became the preferred preservation method. Salt cod is made in much the same way today, but Bianca Piccillo, co-founder of the Mermaid’s Garden community supported fishery (CSF), says: “We make our own salt fish, as the quality is better. We don't recommend eating Atlantic cod, even line caught, as there are many, many problems with the fishery." (Read more about Atlantic cod fishery here.) All baccalà must be soaked to remove the salt and to rehydrate the fish.

This recipe is adapted from Mark Usewicz (chef and co-founder of the Mermaid’s Garden CSF) — the original is here.  (He also has a recipe for a quick baccalà here.)

Ingredients:

1 large hake filet, skin off or on
Kosher Salt 

Special equipment: Cheesecloth, a wire rack and a tray the rack fits in. 

Method:

  1. Spread out a piece of cheesecloth large enough to wrap the fish in. Liberally coat the fish with salt — put a bit more on the thicker parts of the fish. Wrap the salted fish in the cheesecloth and place on the rack in the tray. Place in the refrigerator for 36 hours. 
  2. After 24-36 hours, remove the fish and unwrap. Rinse off the salt and pat dry. Wrap the fish in fresh cheesecloth and place it on the rack and tray in the refrigerator for 7 days. 
  3. Unwrap the fish and place in a zip top bag in the freezer until ready to use. 

When you're ready to cook the fish, soak it in water in the refrigerator overnight to remove some of the salt and to rehydrate it.

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