When the twinkling lights of the holiday season illuminate our homes and hearts, many embrace the time-honored tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This cherished Italian-American celebration occurs on Christmas Eve, bringing families together to enjoy a grand meal of seafood that typically includes seven different types of fish, symbolizing the seven sacraments.
The Tradition’s Roots:
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, known in Italy as “La Vigilia,” traces back to Southern Italy and has flourished in Italian-American households. It originates from the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on the eve of a feast day. As Italy is surrounded by bountiful seas, fish became the natural centerpiece for Christmas Eve’s dinner, turning this abstention into a sumptuous celebration.
Why Cioppino Fits Perfectly:
Cioppino, although not originally from Italy, fits splendidly into this tradition. Originating from the Italian fishermen of San Francisco, this stew is a melting pot of various seafood, which can easily include seven types of fish and shellfish, making it a perfect dish for the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Gather around the hearth, and let’s create a Cioppino that will be the highlight of your Feast of the Seven Fishes.
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 large shallots, chopped
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes in juice
- 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
- 5 cups fish stock (or bottled clam juice)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 pound manila clams, scrubbed
- 1-pound mussels, scrubbed, debearded
- 1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 1/2 pounds assorted firm-fleshed fish fillets (such as halibut, cod, or salmon), cut into 2-inch chunks
- Optional additions: scallops, calamari, and crab legs to bring the seafood variety up to seven
- In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the fennel, onion, shallots, and salt and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, sautéing for another 2 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste and cook for a minute before adding the tomatoes with their juices, wine, fish stock, and bay leaf. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the flavors blend, about 30 minutes.
- Add the clams and mussels to the cooking liquid. Cover and cook until the clams and mussels begin to open, about 5 minutes.
- Add the shrimp and fish. Simmer gently until the fish and shrimp are just cooked through, and the clams are completely open, stirring gently, about 5 minutes longer (discard any clams and mussels that do not open).
- Taste and adjust the seasoning with more salt and red pepper flakes if desired.
To Serve: Ladle the stew into bowls and serve with a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley. Accompany with crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the savory broth.
This Cioppino, rich with a variety of seafood, embodies the spirit of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, where each type of fish honors the traditions of the past and the togetherness of the present. It’s a dish that captures the essence of the sea and the warmth of the holiday season, bringing joy and fulfillment to your Christmas Eve table. Buon Natale e Buon Appetito!