Growing up I don’t exactly remember what we ate on Christmas Eve, but I do remember the glorious turkey dinner on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until I married a man, who was half Italian, that I discovered new food traditions and decided it was just fine having lasagna for Christmas dinner. My mother-in-law was the Italian half. She never claimed to be a good Italian cook, but I always thought otherwise. As the years went by, she shared food memories and recipes with me as did other Italian family members. Since I enjoy cooking, I consider these memories and recipes one of her dearest gifts.
However, my mother-in-law did not cook fish. That meant she didn’t celebrate the traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve meal, the Feast of Seven Fishes. Yes, seven fish dishes and in some families, more than seven. The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve evolved from the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from meat the day before Christmas. The feast, known as The Vigil (La Vigilia), celebrates waiting for the Christ Child’s birth.
Fish has always been part of Italian cuisine, especially in southern Italy so gloriously blessed with access to the sea.
For your own Christmas Eve dinner, think of borrowing from this old tradition- no Italian connection necessary. Preparing seven fishes might be daunting, but with planning and thinking simply, it can be done. Pick easy recipes and those that can be made ahead, served cold or reheated. Most Italian cooking is relatively simple. Serving sizes should be small, especially when serving seven fish courses. A recipe for four can easily be extended to serve eight. Invite guests to prepare some of the recipes. You have permission to serve fewer than seven fishes.
The most famous dish for southern Italians is baccalà or salted cod often prepared in a tomato sauce perhaps with olives, capers and pine nuts. Baccalà isn’t easy to find, but it does make your menu authentic.
Here’s a suggested menu that captures the fish and shell fish easily available. Recipes can be found on the Internet or simply made up.
Buon Appetito e Buon Natale
Smoked Salmon or Salmon Rillettes served with Toasted Baguette Slices.
Italian Shrimp Salad
Braised Scallops with Wilted Buttered Spinach
Tilapia Baked with Olive Oil and Lemon
Linguini and Clams
Fried Calamari with Aioli Sauce
Mussels in Broth with Diced Tomatoes
Italian Shrimp Salad
1 pound of uncooked large shrimp (peeled), 1/4 cup chopped green onion, 1/4 cup Good Seasons Italian Salad Dressing (made with balsamic vinegar), 1 pound of tomatoes cut in small chunks, 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh basil (cut in pieces), 3 to 4 cups romaine lettuce (bite size pieces), salt and pepper to taste, 4 thin slices fresh Mozzarella, 8 thin slices of lemon.
Marinate shrimp and green onion in salad dressing for 30 minutes. Cook shrimp with the dressing in a hot skillet just until shrimp is pink on each side. Toss shrimp with tomatoes and basil. Chill two hours. Taste for salt and pepper. Before serving, toss with romaine. Arrange salad on four plates. Garnish each plate with Mozzarella and 2 slices of lemon. Servings: 4
Written by: Mimi Cunningham, MA, RDN, CDCES
Mimi is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and diabetes care specialist helping people learn to manage their diabetes and achieve good health. She believes food definitely is good culinary medicine.