Feast of the Seven Fishes A December Menu of Seafood


Feast of the Seven Fishes

For those who aren’t Italian or Catholic, Feast of the Seven Fishes almost sounds like a made-up occasion — a tongue-in-cheek poke at religious-naming traditions instead of the full-on banquet of seafood that marks the Christmas Eve meal. But the uninitiated should know: It is very real, very Maryland and very delicious.

The origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes date back to the Middle Ages, but the tradition first came to Baltimore in the late 19th century with the initial wave of Italian immigrants. Perhaps fittingly, the Feast of Seven Fishes is more Italian- American than strictly Italian. In Italy, the feast is known as Vigilia, an integral part of Christmas Eve, and is by no means limited to seven fish. The meal centers on seafood as part of the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on the eve of a religious holiday.

Of course, one need not be Italian or Catholic or a native Marylander to appreciate a decadent meal. Feast of the Seven Fishes lends itself perfectly to seafood lovers looking to bring a variation to holiday dinner. The availability of fresh, local seafood makes this meal a perfect option to share with family and friends coming into town and can be achieved either at home or out on the town. Here’s how.

Book a table
For those who would prefer a night out, Cinghiale has offered a dedicated Feast of the Seven Fishes menu for 13 years in a row. This year’s includes charred octopus, squid ink spaghetti with Maine lobster and a spicy tomato basil sauce and a grilled bigeye tuna, among other
menu items.

“We began with the Feast of the Seven Fishes in 2007, the year we opened,” owner Tony Foreman says. “It is a really marvelous Italian-American tradition. I first took part in it when I lived in Philadelphia near the Italian market. Prior to that, I had no idea this was a thing. Frankly, it’s also really functional for diners at this time of year — it’s never the heaviest meal, but it still is generous and decadent in a season when too much is never enough.”

The restaurant’s first foray into Feast of the Seven Fishes was straightforward, he says, but now the staff tries to “show all that we can do with the best of the season.” cinghiale.com

Cosima, another of the city’s Italian restaurants, offers a five-course prix fixe feast menu on Christmas Eve as well. This year, theirs includes roasted Sicilian swordfish rolls, among other delicacies.

“My mother and grandmothers designed their feasts around the traditional and their favorite dishes,” executive chef Donna Crivello says. “Very old recipes like baccala (salted cod), all kinds of shellfish and other fin fish are incorporated into salads, soups and pastas. At Cosima, I’m carrying on the tradition.” cosimamill1.com

However, in such a seafood-loving town, one doesn’t have to look for a dedicated menu or even an Italian restaurant to find a restaurant that can provide a Feast of Seven Fishes. Tapas Teatro has seven seafood dishes on this year’s regular winter menu, making it a charming option for families of seafood aficionados and those who would prefer a more land-based meal. tapateatro.com

Book a class
Anyone looking for a little guidance or just some inspiration for their own meal can find classes available around town for gourmands of various skill levels.

Baltimore Chef Shop (807 W. 36th St.) is hosting a class for intermediate home cooks, which teaches Southern Italian techniques for preparing seafood. Dec. 20 at 6:30 p.m. and Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. baltimorechefshop.com

Cosima (Mill No. 1, 3000 Falls Road) is hosting a demonstration of fresh, seasonal Italian seafood dishes, complete with dessert and wine pairings. Dec. 11, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. cosimamill1.com

Schola (916 N. Charles St.) is hosting a hands-on class built around chef Jerry Pellegrino’s traditional Italian feast, with some distinctly Baltimorean additions. Dec. 18, from 6 to 9 p.m. scholacooks.com

Get cooking
Crivello generously offers her zuppa di pesce (fish soup) recipe for at-home chefs. It is a dish that is part of Cosima’s Christmas Eve menu.

“This a variation on the traditional seafood soups found in many parts of Italy and is a favorite of mine for Christmas Eve gatherings,” she says. “The flavors will develop as the soup simmers. The selections of seafood can vary according to your tastes and availability, and you can add as many fish as you like, even making this one dish your Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Zuppa di pesce
4-6 servings
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 bulb fennel, diced (about 1 cup)
1 small red bell pepper, diced
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup white wine
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
4 anchovies or 1 tablespoon
anchovy paste
2 cups fish stock (homemade or store bought, or clam juice)
8-10 strands of saffron
4 cups chopped tomatoes with liquid (a quality canned)
1 pound shrimp, peeled and
deveined (12-16)
½ pound firm fish, cut into 1-inch chunks (swordfish)
½ pound scallops
½ pound clams (littleneck, soaked free of any sand first or use chopped/ canned)
½ pound calamari
1 pound mussels, washed,
any “beards” picked off
(option: top with fresh crab)
chopped fresh parsley

Heat oil in wide, deep medium saucepan. Sauté onions, peppers and fennel.

Add wine, garlic, anchovies and stock with saffron. Add tomatoes and liquid.

When ready to serve soup, begin adding seafood to hot liquid. Clams will take the longest to cook, so if using clams in shells, add those first.

When they begin to open, add the mussels, then the other fish. Seafood should cook for about 4-5 minutes depending upon the variety and thickness of fish. Simmer until all fish are cooked but be careful not to overcook.

Add more broth if needed. Taste.

Add fresh parsley or chopped fennel tops. Serve in bowls with crusty bread or ladle over with bucatini or
linguine pasta.

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