Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Family.  Friends.  Food.  Fun.  What the holidays mean to me.  And the four words chosen to "represent" today's round of Alphabe-Thursday's Letter F.                           

La Virgilia.  Italian for "the Eve" of Christ's birth. My favorite night of the entire year.  For Italian-Americans with roots south of Rome, it is all about the fish.  Not just one fish, but seven, and sometimes more than seven.  The Feast of the Seven Fishes - there are different stories as to why this particular number, some say it represents the week before the big day, others say it represents the seven Sacraments (Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Extreme Unction).  

Meat on the Eve was a no-no in my home growing up.  I still follow that tradition.  I haven't hosted a Christmas Eve dinner in years, but the home I am invited to upholds all the traditions. I am lucky to be a part of it.  

For a lot of Italians (my family definitely), the Eve is more important than the actual day, which would become almost a blur as we  liked to party into the wee hours, with an open house policy for friends and neighbors to wander in, attending the extra-lengthy Midnight Mass and then start opening gifts, well, you get the picture.

The cast of fish characters always included clams, either baked or on the half shell, or in a sauce over a bed of steaming linguine.  

Frutta di mare (fruit of the sea).  A cold seafood salad which usually contains shrimp,  squid, scungilli (conch), sometimes octopus, sometimes crab meat, sometimes lobster (depends on the cook and her pocketbook).  Mussels and clams are shown in this Google photo, not in my version, though.

The dressing is always olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, garlic, fresh chopped parsley, salt & pepper.  I like to add chopped red onion and sliced black olives.  No specific amount, use your eyes and have a few tasting forks handy.  

Now we get a little exotic with our tastes.  We have the pulpo salad.  Octopus.  Can be very chewy and not for all tastes but I enjoy it when made the right way.  You can buy it cleaned and ready to cut up.  Same dressing as frutta di mare but without onion or olives.

Well, if you are still reading this post, that's great, you are not a squeamish type.  

Another fish sure to make an appearance was baccala (salt cod).  It would be made into fritters with cut lemons for garnish or baked in a tomato sauce with olives and capers.  I have tried this recipe from Epicurious and it is very good.  

Click here to see it.

My favorite and my mother's specialty was lobster fra diavolo.  Served over vermicelli (a type of spaghetti).  

I am so sorry that I do not have photos of these dishes.  I tried to find decent ones on Google but nothing that really does these dishes the justice they deserve.  My mom would cook a dozen lobsters, baked in the oven with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, pinches of crushed red pepper to taste and drizzled with olive oil.  Spoon that sauce richly flavored with the lobster juices over your spaghetti, oh boy.   Yum.

Of course we had to have a vegetable.  Usually broccoli rabe.

There would be lots of loaves of Italian bread and a few bottles of vino.  For the non-fish eaters there would be spaghetti or ravioli with plain red sauce and eggplant parmigiana.  

And then desserts, usually a procession led by my mother and various aunts carrying out trays  and trays of cookies, pastries, cream puffs, cheesecake, fresh fruit, and my favorite

Struffoli!  This was last year's batch.  I add them to my cookie trays.  Struffoli are little balls of dough fried and coated with honey.  I find them addictive.  If I make them this year I will try to write down the recipe to share.  

These are some of my Christmas Eve memories.  In addition to Jenny Matlock's Alphabe-Thursday, I will be sharing with Designs by Gollum for Foodie Friday and The Tablescaper for Seasonal Sundays.    Thanks, ladies, for hosting each week.  



  1. Barbara, this all sounds so good. We make something very close to struffoli for Passover. It's called taiglach and it's served in a pyramid shape. Very delicious!

  2. Interesting food posts for the letter F! I am kind of one of those squeamish people, but managed to make it down to the baked goods at the end!

  3. I hadn't heard of the Feast of Seven Fishes. What a lovely tradition! It was so nice hearing of your traditions. I love seafood too and we always have King Crab for Christmas Eve. We have had to add steak for the younger ones but the crab is the hit.

  4. Lovely tradition. One of our DIL's family has fish on Christmas Eve, I'm sure it must be related to this tradition is some way.
    I love hearing about everyone's family traditions!

  5. Christmas Eve is my favorite time to cook, Barbara, as I prepare all the dishes you mention in this post..even the octopus! I make baccala two different ways for my husband, as he likes them both. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a wonderful tradition. If I can I will share my fish salad recipe this week for FF.

  6. I just learned something! This was so interesting, and I would love to come to your home or any home celebrating this on Christmas Eve. I do hope you make and share the recipe for the struffoli because it looks delicious.

  7. Love your Christmas memories, the open house sounds like fun! It's been ages since I've had Clams Casino... sounds good:@)

  8. I am now wishing I was Italian! How wonderful. PLEASE share the recipe if you have the time. I know we would love them.

  9. Now this is AWESOME, Barb - wow neat traditions. I love me some lobster that is for sure!

  10. Oh my, wouldn't I love to come to your Christmas Eve dinner! I know I would enjoy every one of those scrumptious dishes. We are holding our breath waiting for local Dungeness crab to come in for Christmas Eve. The season is opening late this year. Happy Holidays.

  11. Being from the Midwest, I have not had a lot of experience with exotic things like octopus! But other than that, everything looks amazing. What a wonderful tradition. Thanks for this interesting post! ~ Diane

  12. That looks amazing! Seven fish. Why 7? In Hebrew, the number 7 means perfection. And this feast and what it represents would both be perfection in my mind! :)

  13. Loved the peek into your Christmas Eve traditions........

  14. Oh my goodness! Truly a bounty of seafood! And the little balls of fried dough -- the Struffoli -- looked like such fun! Yum! :)

  15. Ah, those clams look so good. I remember having struffoli every Christmas and Easter at my aunt's house in Astoria, NYC.

  16. Would love if you shared struffoli recipe! My godmother was Italian and her cooking was a-mazing!
    xo Cathy

  17. Hi Barbara,

    My mom use to cook like that when I was growing up. I would shudder when I had to eat fish for Christmas Eve. Now I love it. lol


  18. Hi Barbara, I was very interested to read about your traditions. I had never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I loved reading this post. Very interesting, and certainly featuring a lot of delicious dishes! Merry Christmas to you!
    Hugs, Beth

  19. Hi!, Dearest Barbara.
    It was really interesting to read about your explanation of "The Feast of the Seven Fishes". Especially, the seven Sacraments (Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Extreme Unction). Thank you for letting me know!!! I will look into the unfamiliar ones for me when finding time. (Haha,Baptis,Matrimony are the only two I know)
    Oh, what a tradition you have and an open house policy is SO wonderful♬♬♬
    You made me hungry again, my friend p;) Love all these delectable, scrumptious looking dishes. I was kind of surprised to know you eat octopus as I understand how it is considered in western country. I love it and looks yummy.
    Blessing to you, xoxo Miyako*

  20. What a nice post. I hope your La Vingilia is wonderful. Pat

  21. Hi Pat! Oh, this all sounds so good. It's so nice to learn of different traditions! All the seafood looks so delicious! Now you must be one terrific cook! ;)
    Be a sweetie,
    shelia ;)

  22. My husband is drooling as I tell him about your traditional dishes! He's an exceptional cook and would love to try his hand at making these.

  23. I know Italians always have a big celebration Christmas Eve. Growing up, we put our tree up on Cmas Eve, then went to Midnight Mass. No company till Cmas Day.
    When I first started going out with dh, one of his friends invited us to his house for Cmas Eve. I was amazed that people had company, it was always such a hectic night at out house, getting ready for the next day!

  24. What a Fun tradition to Follow with Family and Friends...

    A little to Fish-Filled For my taste buds but Mr. Jenny would definitely approve!

    Fantastic job.

    Fond wishes For a Fabulous 2012!



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