Chefs' Picks: Feast of the Seven Fishes
Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.
Wander into an Italian-American household on Dec. 24 and there’s a good chance you will be dazzled by platter upon platter of delectable fishcentric dishes. This stunning array of seafood is served as part of a holiday vigil when many abstain from eating meat.
Known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, this tradition-steeped meal draws family members together to enjoy a multitude of courses while they await the impending arrival of Christmas. The meal typically entails quite a few different kinds of fish prepared in a variety of ways: alone, in pasta, as an appetizer or even as a stew.
The tradition has now stretched beyond the confines of the home, with many chefs — especially those of Italian descent — hosting these festive meals in their restaurants. Some of them shared with us their must-have menu items for a memorable Feast of the Seven Fishes.
When it comes time for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, you can be certain that Chef-Owner Michael Schwartz of Miami restaurants Michael’s Genuine and Fi’lia will be serving comfort by the ladleful. "This dish is inspired by our family's summers in Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, but it couldn't be more holiday-table friendly," says Chef Schwartz. “It's a big pot of comfort and flavor you can dig into and eat together — just what this time of year is all about.” Read on to get the advanced recipe, which serves six to eight.
2 fennel bulbs (about 1 1/2 pounds), tops removed, and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
Put the parsley, capers, anchovies, garlic, pepper and oil in a blender. Puree until the mixture is completely smooth and bright green. The sauce should be wet and slightly soupy in consistency.
Combine the saffron with 2 tablespoons warm water in a small bowl, stir and let steep for 5 minutes to release the saffron color and flavor.
In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, lemon juice and garlic. Gradually whisk in the saffron water until well-blended. Cover and store in refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Place a 16-quart stockpot over medium-high heat and coat with the oil. When the oil starts shimmering, add the fennel, spreading it out evenly in a single layer on the bottom of the pot.
Brown the fennel for about 2 minutes, rotating the pieces with tongs. Add the garlic and onion, and cook, stirring, until soft and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Toss in the clams and give them a stir to coat in the vegetables. Pour in the Pernod, wine and tomatoes. Cover and cook until the clams open, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or spider strainer, transfer the clams to a bowl (discard any that don’t open) and set aside. Bring the liquid to a boil, turn down heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes cook down, 15 to 20 minutes.
While the tomatoes reduce, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Cut bread into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Spread the bread liberally with parsley sauce. Lay the bread slices side by side on a baking pan. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the bread just starts to toast.
Meanwhile, pour 2 cups water and the clam juice in the pot; season with the salt and pepper; bring to a rapid boil over medium-high heat. Carefully ease the lobsters into the boiling liquid, cover the pot, and steam for 8 minutes, flipping them over with tongs halfway through cooking; the shells should be bright red. Using tongs, carefully remove the lobsters from the pot and put them on a large platter.
Now, add the mussels, shrimp, scallops and swordfish to the pot. Toss in the tarragon and parsley, cover and simmer for 4 minutes. With 2 large chef’s knives, split the lobsters in half down the body. Place the knuckles and claws on the work surface and give them a whack to crack them open. Put the calamari and reserved clams into the pot and set the lobsters on top. Cover the pot for a minute so everything gets nice and hot. Do not stir because you’ll break up the fish.
Take the whole pot to the table and serve it in front of guests to add a dramatic flair to the presentation. Divide among large pasta bowls and be sure to ladle plenty of broth into each. Put a large dollop of aioli, if using, on a pesto crouton and float on top of the stew. Serve the remaining croutons on the side.
At RingSide Fish House in Portland, Oregon, Executive Chef Jonathan Gill turns out a traditional branzino that is served with a side of symbolism. The sea bass is served whole atop braised greens and ringed by a bounty of beans; both of these add-ins symbolize money and prosperity. Also included in the dish is Speck, which is said to bring good fortune in the new year.
For the Feast of the Seven Fishes at Chicago’s Osteria Via Stato, Chef David DiGregorio taps into the memories of his childhood and then tweaks the traditional recipes with a few modern twists. One iconic dish that the chef includes on the menu is baccala, which he makes with salted cod, potatoes, garlic and lots of olive oil before serving with crostini. “It is a classic but also a reference to the poverty the people went through in southern Italy — the salt cod was a way of preserving the current food supply to eat later,” Chef DiGregorio explains. Another of the chef’s feast staples is a tomato-based seafood stew that features seasonal fish, scallops and shrimp. “I serve it with crispy ciabatta to dip in the rich, spicy broth.”
Few meals embody the familycentric spirit of Christmas quite like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, as Chef DiGregorio explains. “My favorite thing about preparing the Feast of [the] Seven Fishes is that it brings people together; it’s a holiday of eating and family,” he says. “People have memories tied to their childhood, which brings them joy, and I love that. It is also all about the food — there are so many variations, and everyone has their favorites.”
At Piccolo Sogno in Chicago, Chef Tony Priolo prepares a variety of traditional and more modern dishes to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. One pasta plate that’s craveable beyond this special dinner is the crab-studded fettuccine. For this dish, Chef Priolo takes fresh-made fettuccini and tosses it with sea urchin butter, toasted garlic and blue crab.
Known as a late-night dish (hence the name), this pasta traditionally brings together spaghetti with anchovies, red sauce, capers, garlic and chiles. Chef Justin Wills of Sorella in Newport, Oregon, put his own spin on the standard recipe. He amps up the fish factor by adding fresh cockles, and he tweaks the texture by incorporating the Italian breadcrumbs known as pangrattato. The restaurant has served variations of this dish for a couple of years now, including at last year’s Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Add the olive oil to a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add chopped anchovies until they have “melted.” Add the garlic cloves and let them sweat. Add capers, chile flakes and a pinch of salt. Add red sauce and bring to a simmer. Add clams to the simmering sauce. Once shells open, remove them. Then remove the clam meat and place back in the sauce. (Optional: Leave the whole cockles in the sauce.) Reduce heat and season sauce.
Cook fresh spaghetti for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in salted boiling water or until your desired texture is achieved. Drain pasta, add to sauce and toss all together with the freshly chopped parsley. Portion out into four bowls or plates and top with the pangrattato and Pecorino Romano. Eat!
Photography courtesy of Michael's Genuine, Ringside Fish House, Osteria Via Stato, Piccolo Sogno and Sorella