One fish.. two fish... seven fish??

Don't be fooled by the Irish name; my mother's side of the family is Italian.  Extremely Italian.  Italian enough that I wish I remembered my grandparents, because I'm sure I would have loved them. 

Periodically I try to get in touch with my Italian roots.  I took an Italian class at HCC, but one evening a week after work is a really difficult way to learn a language.  I sometimes cook Italian - not just pasta and sauce, but regional favorites that usually end up just... amazing.  

And my family has some Italian traditions.

One of those is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, on Christmas Eve.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes stems, in part, from the fact that Catholics abstain from meat at certain points in the calendar.  Christmas Eve is one of those days.  Couple this with regional access to fresh seafood (Sicily!) and the desire to celebrate the birth of Christ the best way possible (Food!), the Feast of the Seven Fishes seems perfectly natural.

There's no clear answer as to why the fish number seven, but I feel confident that it's at least in part due to the significance of the number seven in the Church.  

The number of dishes is not always seven - we've done less, on years when few people were interested in seafood, and you could easily do more.

We were unable to join Matt's family for Christmas Eve this year - Elaine has enough on her plate right now, and I'm looking forward to a shared dinner in January - so my mother and I decided to do Seven Fishes, but scaled back.  

We have a habit of overdoing things.  To prevent that, we planned tapas-style portions, so people could try many different things without bursting.

Of course, it's a holiday meal.  That means a beautiful plate of antipasto and a hefty tray of lasagna as well.  My mother is a fabulous cook.  

So there will probably be some bursting.

The most traditional of dishes is Baccala - many variations exist for preparing salt cod for this dish; however.... we didn't do that. In fact, most of the dishes we chose were not very Italian.

Mussels. Mmm.
The menu:

  • Pickled Herring (my mother grew up in Long Island; this is way better than it sounds)
  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Bacon-wrapped Scallops
  • Mini Crab cakes (um... yeah!)
  • Anchovies (with and separate from the antipasto)
  • Smoked salmon pinwheels
  • Mock ceviche with shrimp and scallops (my mother is not a calamari person)
  • Mussels - Provençal style with white wine, garlic, tomato, and herbs 
  • Deep-fried smelt

The first six items were either very easy or premade.  The mussels and ceviche were my responsibility.  

Shrimp and Scallop Ceviche
My usual go-to place is Frank's Seafood - reliably fresh and good. However... they're also reliably mobbed this time of year. Last Christmas Eve, I waited in a line that was out the door.  

I decided to go on Thursday.  The line was nearly out the door.

Mo: 0  Crowds: 1.

I had a little time and had just read an excellent post on HowChow about Today's Catch - a place I've walked past thousands of times, but never once visited.  So I zipped across town.  There were exactly two people in the store and I was quickly helped.  By the time I had the goods, the line was ten deep.
The Feast of the Seven Nine Fishes.
Christmas Eve, 2010.

Mo: 1  Crowds: 1.

I can live with that.

As an aside, the service there was awesome.  The fish was incredibly fresh.

Oh, and... they had a bucket of cute little smelts (as cute as something can be without its head or guts) on ice.  They're also Italian/traditional. So I picked up a half a pound - they were cheap, and half a pound gave me a lot. We opted to coat them in flour and deep fry them.

That brought our total dishes to nine.

Dinner will last about three or four hours. But this, my mom assures me, is another aspect of my Italian roots.

And I can totally be on board with that.

What are you traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?  Tell me in the comments below!

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