20% off our favorite grill tools Shop the Sale |

Free shipping on all orders over $49. See terms

20% off our favorite grill toolsShop the Sale

Free shipping on all orders over $49. See terms

 
lobster and crab with seafood preparation tools

My Feast of the Seven Fishes

For many Italian Americans like me, Christmas Eve dinner is the most important—and best—meal of the year. Here’s a deep dive into this tradition that’s all about seafood and family.

12 min read

Most people go big for Christmas dinner. But in my family, we make the most important—and best—meal of the year the night before. That’s because, for me and many other Italian Americans, December 24th isn’t just the night before Christmas; it’s also the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This culinary event is exactly what it sounds like: a multi-course dinner consisting of seven (or at least seven) types of seafood.

The custom (also known as La Vigilia or Festa dei Sette Pesci) can be traced back to southern Italy’s Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Christmas Eve and other religious holidays. The significance of the number seven isn’t entirely evident: Some say it’s related to the number of sacraments of the Catholic Church, others favor the seven days of creation in the Bible or the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to reach Bethlehem before Jesus was born.

No matter its origin, it’s a staple in many families and a holiday unto its own. Whether your Feast contains seven fishes or more, the evening is a celebration of family, culture and tradition. The elaborate multi-course event often begins in the early evening and can last for hours (many households finish the meal just in time to attend Midnight Mass).

I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. And starting on December 22nd, you’d see a line of customers snaking out of every local fish store in preparation. While you waited, you’d exchange menu details with your linemates: Linguine or spaghetti? Red sauce or white? Lobster or monkfish?

The meal often includes a combination of fish and shellfish prepared in different ways (fried, baked, broiled, etc.), but the specific dishes served can vary widely depending on family traditions and preferences as well as regional influences.

Inspired to make this tradition part of your holiday? Here, all steps you’ll need to create a successful, seafood spread.

deveining shrimp

Seafood Cleaning & Preparation

Cooking seafood—especially shellfish—can be intimidating. But don’t be scared: Whether you’re responsible for the Feast (or even a weeknight shrimp dish), start with good ingredients (fresh, high-quality, sustainable choices), follow the recipes (and your instincts), and above all use the right equipment.

These tried-and-true seafood tips will make prepping your seven fishes a breeze:

Shrimp: Sure, you can pick up a bag of pre-cooked shrimp, but shrimp cocktail tastes so much better when you boil them yourself. And with a two-in-one shrimp deveiner, you can remove both the shell and the gritty dark vein (the intestinal tract) in one fluid motion. Plus the handle is non-slip and the plastic guard protects your hand. Take your shrimp (thawed if they were frozen) and place the tool just under the back of the shell by the head. Gently rock the tool forward following the curve of the body to slice open the shell. Next, remove the shell pieces (keeping the tail intact, if you wish); use the tip of the blade to lift out the exposed vein.

Crab: If you’re not taking the easy way out (i.e., buying lump crabmeat), you’re going to need some help. Wrap a cooked king crab leg or Dungeness crab in a dishtowel. Then place the towel on a cutting board and give it a few whacks with the flat end of a wooden seafood mallet (to crush the tough shell without bruising the tender meat inside). Another option is to use a seafood cracker to break the shell, then use a seafood pick to get into any tiny crevices. You’ll need to sift through the pile of crabmeat to find and discard any tiny pieces of shell.

Calamari: Ask your fishmonger for “cleaned” squid or calamari—which means the head, outer membrane, and ink sac have already been removed and the tentacles have been separated from the body. When you get home, reach into the body and pull out the piece of cartilage (it feels like plastic). Then with sharp, stainless-steel seafood scissors, cut the body into rings about ¼-inch wide and trim off the long, skinny pieces from the tentacles.

Scallops: Scallops at the seafood counter typically have already been shucked. All you’ll need to do is rinse them with cool water and then use your seafood scissors to snip off the little side muscle (an oblong flap of tissue). If you do buy them still in the shell, protect your hands with shucking gloves or secure the scallop (flat side up) on a kitchen towel. Insert the bent tip of a sturdy oyster knife to open the shell and pry the meat free. Then remove the frill and black stomach sack before rinsing the scallop.

Clams and Mussels: Place clams and mussels in a container lined with a damp paper towel, cover them loosely with another damp paper towel, and keep them in the fridge until about a half hour before you’re ready for them. Then under cool running water, discard any cracked or open ones and scrub the shells with a brush to remove any grit or barnacles. Put the cleaned clams and mussels in a container of cool water for about 30 minutes (to expel any sand they may have in their shells), changing the water every 10 minutes.

Cod: There’s nothing special to do in terms of prepping cod or other ready-to-cook fish, other than rinsing and patting the fillets dry before cooking. If you’re planning to pan fry, make sure you use a fish turner (opposed to a regular spatula) to lift the finished product from the pan. Its longer, thinner shape can help keep the delicate fish from falling apart.

breaking lobster claws with seafood mallet

The Recipes: My Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu

The menu for my family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes has morphed through the years depending on where and with whom we celebrate. My mom used to make a traditional baccalà salad with escarole, olives, and celery, but I have no patience for the process of soaking the salted, dried cod in water for four days. One year, my uncle prepared a whole red snapper, and I covered the fish’s eye with a napkin so it wouldn’t stare at me. These days, my niece and nephew fight over the octopus chunks in the seafood salad I buy at a local Italian market. All that to say, you can adapt the Feast of the Seven Fishes to your family’s preferences.

The recipes that follow include dishes always on my Christmas Eve menu, plus some delicious recipes that have rotated in and out over the years.

Directions:

1.
Place cream cheese, scallion, milk, salt and cayenne (if using) in a bowl; using a mixer, beat until well combined. With a wooden spoon, gently fold in crabmeat.
2.
Put mixture into a baking dish; sprinkle with paprika.
3.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake crab dip for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. Let cool for a few minutes before serving with crackers or crudites

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: Assemble the dip and refrigerate it in the morning; bake 35 minutes before serving.

Directions:

1.
Fill a large bowl halfway with ice and add water to cover; set aside.
2.
Cut one of the lemons in half and add to a large pot of water along with the parsley, garlic, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp curl and turn pink, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain shrimp in a colander and then transfer to the ice bath. Let sit until chilled, about 15 minutes. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
3.
Zest then juice the remaining lemon. In a small bowl, combine ketchup, lemon zest and juice, horseradish, vinegar and hot sauce. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
4.
Serve the shrimp with the cocktail sauce and lemon wedges, if desired.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: Both the shrimp and the cocktail sauce can be prepared the day before; remove from the fridge about 30 minutes before serving.

seafood scissors with lobster shrimp and crab

Linguine with Clams & Mussels

Directions:

1.
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the sea!) to a boil. Add the pasta to the water and cook 1 minute less than package directions. Drain pasta, reserving about ¼ cup of pasta cooking water.
2.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic, anchovy paste and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is translucent (don’t burn it). Add the wine, clam juice and oregano; stir to combine. Add the clams and mussels, cover the pan with the lid, and steam, shaking the pan occasionally, until the clams and mussels open, 6 to 8 minutes. Discard any clams and mussels that remain closed.
3.
To the pan, add the cooked pasta, lemon juice, lemon zest, parsley and some reserved pasta cooking water if necessary, to loosen the sauce. With tongs, toss to combine and let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce for 1 minute. Serve immediately.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: For easier pasta-tossing, transfer all or some of the shellfish from the pan to a serving bowl before combining the cooked pasta with the sauce.

Fritto Misto with Spicy Marinara Sauce

Directions:

1.
Place calamari rings, tentacles, and milk in a zip-tight bag; let marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
2.
In a small bowl, combine the marinara and red pepper flakes; heat in the microwave.
3.
In a deep fryer or heavy pot, heat the oil to 350°F.
4.
In a bowl, combine flour, salt, and pepper. Working in batches, dredge the calamari, shrimp, and scallops in flour, shaking to remove excess, and fry until golden and cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and sprinkle with salt. Be sure to return the oil to 350°F between batches.
5.
Serve immediately with the spicy marinara sauce and lemon wedges, if desired.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: Fritto Misto translates to “mixed fry,” so feel free to include any seafood you like: sardines, smelts, flounder, clam bellies.

oyster knife near opened oyster

Directions:

1.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2.
In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, Romano, garlic, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper. Stir in the oil (the mixture should resemble wet sand); set aside.
3.
Coat a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Place the cod in a single layer on the sheet. Sprinkle the breadcrumb topping evenly over the fillets and pat gently to adhere. Spritz the top of each fillet with nonstick cooking spray.
4.
Bake the fish for about 10 minutes, or until barely cooked through. Turn on the broiler and place the baking sheet under the broiler for an additional 1 to 2 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the fish is cooked through (internal temperature should be 145°F). Using a fish spatula, transfer the fillets to a serving platter or individual dinner plates. Serve immediately with lemon wedges, if desired.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: Oregano is what gives this dish its name. The mixture can also be used with any other whitefish (flounder, haddock) or even atop a lobster tail (add a squeeze of tomato paste to the breadcrumb mixture for that one).

Coconut Shrimp with Hoisin-Garlic Sauce

Directions:

1.
Place shrimp and coconut milk in a zip-tight bag; let marinate in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
2.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and garlic (if sauce is too thick, add a little water); set aside.
3.
Set up a breading station: Place the cornstarch in a shallow bowl. Whisk the egg whites with 2 tablespoons of water in a second shallow bowl. In a third shallow bowl, combine coconut and panko.
4.
Working with 1 shrimp at a time, coat shrimp in the cornstarch. Dust off any excess, then dip it into the egg mixture. Let any excess egg drip off, then toss shrimp in the coconut mixture, pressing to adhere. Transfer to a plate.
5.
Preheat the air fryer to 350°F. When heated, coat the basket with cooking spray. Place shrimp in the air fryer in a single layer and spritz the tops of the shrimp with more cooking spray. Cook for about 10 minutes until the coating is golden, flipping halfway through. Serve immediately with hoisin-garlic sauce.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: Air-fry the coconut shrimp on Christmas Eve to free up stovetop space day of.

Directions:

1.
Place the broccoli in a microwave-safe container and add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water. Cover bowl and microwave on high for 3 to 4 minutes. Check, re-cover and put it back in if it’s not done yet—you want slightly crisp, not mushy broccoli. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
2.
In a small container, combine oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Shake well to emulsify.
3.
Place the cooled broccoli on a serving platter and scatter the garlic on top. Drizzle with the dressing and serve immediately.

 

My Feast of the Seven Fishes Tip: This is the lone vegetable that graces our Feast, so it’s a must! You can also choose to steam the broccoli the day before.
 

For seasonal gift ideas, festive cocktails, Christmas cookies and tips for hosting the perfect holiday party, head to the OXO blog.

#OXOBetter

Commit every single day with @OXO