Today is the Feast of the Seven Fishes in some parts of the Italian-American community. It is a Christmas Eve celebration, although it’s not called by this name in Italy and is not a “feast” in the strict sense of “church holy day” but, rather, a blowout meal. Strictly speaking, Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the Catholic tradition of abstinence from red meat until the actual feast of Christmas Day itself. Today in the Italian-American community Seven Fishes is a meal that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. It originates from (mostly) Southern Italy, where it is known simply as La Vigilia (short for Vigilia di Natale).
The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence from meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. The thing is that this supposed fast often transformed into an absolute feast of fish – especially in the Middle Ages, and beyond. Nowadays Christmas Eve dinner in Catholic countries in general can be an extremely lavish meal. In Argentina, for example, it is the main Christmas meal sprawling from about 10 pm to 4 am or longer. In Italy in general it is the time to (sometimes) go to Midnight mass, but always involves a special meal without meat. In Mantua, where I am now, the highlight is tortelli di zucca (with butter and sage) and maybe fish.
It is unclear when the term “Feast of the Seven Fishes” was popularized. The meal may actually include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. “Seven” fishes as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself. In some of the oldest Italian-American families there was no count of the number of fish dishes. Dinner began with whiting in lemon, followed by some version of clams or mussels in spaghetti, baccalà, and onward to any number of other fish dishes without number. Seven is a nice lucky number, though.
The most famous dish for Southern Italians is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
Salt cod goes on sale in Italy well before Christmas. It keeps forever, so you can buy it well in advance. You also need to begin preparation at least 3 days in advance. It must be soaked for 3 days or more to remove the salt and soften the flesh. This recipe is for baked baccalà which is less common than the normal method of simmering, but I prefer it.
1 ¼ lb dried salt cod
2 large potatoes, sliced in thin rounds
1 yellow onion, sliced thinly
3 tbsp butter, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
crushed hot pepper (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
Soak the baccalà in cold water for at least 3 days prior to cooking.
Preheat your oven to 375˚F.
Rinse the cod for a last time; dry it well and cut it into small pieces. In a shallow casserole dish, toss the potato rounds and onion slices with the butter and olive oil. Add the baccalà and gently toss. Season with crushed red and black peppers. Cover the casserole with foil and place into the oven.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add a bit of water, about 2 tablespoons, if needed, during cooking; continue to stir while cooking, but gently to avoid breaking the fish. Season with salt, if needed.
Serve drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.