Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sicilian Festival of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve

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I learned early on that when you get married you also marry your husband’s sports teams (at least with my guy… go reds!). This also extends to cultural traditions, especially if he comes from a strong cultural background. It’s there that one of our favorite Christmas traditions called “Feast of the Seven Pisces” finds its roots.

If you’re wondering what food to cook for Christmas Eve dinner, give it a try! And yes… there are really seven fish!

One way to keep the tradition alive

My husband came from a large family of Italian origin on one side. He and all of his siblings identify as Italians, even though that is only part of their cultural history. Of course, we want to pass on the best of the culture, traditions and heritage from each side of our family. On the Italian side, this often means passing on the dishes and recipes.

Trying to have a healthy lifestyle isn’t about throwing food-centric traditions out the window. Far from there! Instead, I modified meatball recipes, pasta recipes and even biscotti recipes to meet our allergies and dietary needs.

A Sicilian-American tradition in particular was easy and fun to continue with our family. It is called “The Feast of the Seven Pisces” in the United States but simply “Standby, ”(The vigil) in southern Italy. As the name suggests, this tradition literally involves making seven (or more) types of fish on Christmas Eve.

Feast of the Seven Fishes: This is what’s for Christmas Eve dinner!

There is a lot of debate about the historical origin of this tradition, although we continue it simply because of its connection to family. Eating fish on Christmas Eve dates back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays as well as some holy days. Refraining from eating meat on Christmas Eve would have meant the expectation and anticipation of the arrival of the Christ Child on Christmas morning.

Number seven is also up for debate, as many families serve fewer types of fish (and some serve up to 13 different fish varieties!). Seven is probably the most common number due to its strong historical and cultural significance in many parts of Europe, including Italy. In the biblical story, the number seven represents completeness and perfection.

NOTE: You don’t have to prepare all the dishes at the same time to try this tradition! I certainly didn’t start doing the seven at the start. Pick one or two and you’ve got a festive, meaningful, and delicious Christmas Eve meal.

Our family’s version of “Standby

It took me almost a decade to finally put together a good routine for that special Christmas Eve meal. As you can imagine, there is a lot of prep and cooking work involved! I added one dish every year until I hit the count of seven in the past few years. Here are our favorite dishes and the ones I’ll be making this year for our Christmas Eve dinner:

Crab and clam arancini (appetizer)

Sicilian Crab Cake Arancini Recipe

Arancini are traditional Italian cuisine, but I added two types of seafood to make it suitable for this meal. The name means “little orange” and they are small fried rice balls that look like an orange when cooked. They’re traditionally filled with mozzarella cheese and meat, but I use seafood, herbs, and peppers for a tasty alternative.

Mussels in wine sauce

A dish that looks really chic but couldn’t be easier to make. As this meal has so many dishes, we only make 2-3 per person. Children think they are fun and enjoy participating in their creation. i use this recipe and mix the herbs and spices a little each year.

Bisque shrimp

salty seafood bisque recipe

A family favorite recreated from a soup we had at a restaurant. This simple shrimp bisque is really easy to make and has an amazing flavor. Making this one at Christmas always reminds me of how good it is and to put it back into the family meal rotation.

Baccalaureate – salted cod in butter and wine reduction

The baccalaureate is a traditional main course for the feast of the seven fish. Traditionally, this is made with real Baccalà cod which has been preserved in salt and dried. As it can be hard to find in our area, I made my own version using fresh cod and salt in a butter and wine sauce. I’ll share my recipe soon, but here is a classic Baccalaureate recipe If you are interested.

Brown butter scallops

I love scallops and they are an integral part of a vacation meal. Our favorite way to prepare them is with a little browned butter, olive oil, and fresh herbs. Since there are so many other dishes at this meal, we only make one per person. My recipe is very similar to this one (I’ll leave the capers aside) and I’ll share my version soon.

Pan Seared Bang Bang Shrimp with Sriracha Dip

All the flavors of the famous bang-bang shrimp without the frying! I sauté the shrimp in butter until cooked through and serve them with sweet chili and sriracha sauce. I’ll share my recipe soon, but this one looks good too.

Service tips and accompaniments

Pasta dishes often accompany this seafood spread, but since the meal is more complex, we keep it as a side dish and a super simple dessert that night. I do a fresh salad, roast some broccoli and serve fresh fruit with a little whipped cream for dessert.

These are quite a few meals to cook at a time, so I usually cook everything except the scallops ahead of time. I gently heat the dishes, sauté the scallops, toss the salad, and we’re good to go!

Another way to make the meal more festive is to have special wines on hand. Since I discovered Dry farm wines, I also make sure that we have several bottles of their white wine to serve for a perfect pairing, with sparkling wine fruit infused water in fancy glasses for children!

Do you have any special traditions for Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner? I would love to hear what your family is doing!

On Christmas Eve, I cook the traditional Sicilian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes with crab arancini, shrimp bisque, salt cod and more!


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