How to Pull Off a 5-Course Holiday Fish Feast

November  7, 2017

Is there a more ambitious holiday meal than the traditional Italian seafood extravaganza known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes? We wanted to try and simplify this classic seafood spectacle, so we've partnered with the Norwegian Seafood Council to bring you creative ways to cook with fish this holiday season.

The Italian tradition of a large meal anchored in seafood for La Vigilia ("the Vigil") stems from the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on holy days. But how that morphed into the phenomenon known as The Feast of Seven Fishes—and whether that seven signifies the seven Roman Catholic sacraments, the seven days of creation, the seven deadly sins, the seven hills of Rome—is less clear.

The exact number of fish and/or dishes varies between families and restaurants, between the regions of Italy and the Italian diaspora. Some may cook seven—or ten, or thirteen—different sea creatures, while others may cook one or two varieties in a dizzying number of preparations.

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As Lou DiPalo, who owns an Italian specialty food store in Little Italy that does big business on Christmas Eve, told Edible Manhattan, "Some say seven, some say twelve—everyone has a different number. It doesn’t matter." And while some fish are more traditional than others—salt cod, or bacalao, which the Vikings used as a jerky-like snack for long ocean voyages, became a hugely important food for fish-fasting days because fresh fish could not reach the observing masses—there's plenty of room for inserting your own favorites.

To plan your own Feast of Seven Fishes, you'll want to consider the variety of dishes and the variety of seafood:

  • Think about an appetizer that can be waiting for your guests when they arrive hungry; a soup and/or pasta course to get them warmed up; and at least one head-turning main dish to ground the table (and leave folks feeling full).
  • Ideally, you'll cast a wide net on seafood types—trout, halibut, cod, salmon, and aforementioned salt cod, known in Italy as baccalà and in Spain as bacalao—and turn to fish that are available year-round and fished or farmed sustainably, like Norwegian salmon, steelhead trout and cod.
  • From a practical standpoint, it's wise to lean on dishes that can prepped ahead of time and finished at the last moment, like seafood stew and tonnato.

To save you some work (and because there are lots of—wait for it—fish in the sea), we've planned a five-recipe menu and given you a step-by-step guide for how to pull it off. Ready, set, go fish!

Our menu:

Here's how to pull it off:

Three days before your party:

  • Soak the bacalao for the salt cod "tonnato": You want to make sure you're soaking the fish three days in advance and changing the water three times per day. (Assign this task to a younger family member and say it's good practice for having a pet!)

The day before

  • Trim, clean, and prep the vegetables you'll be serving with the tonnato (fennel, sliced carrots, blanched broccolini, halved radishes, radicchio, and endive, for example).
  • Pick up a loaf of bread or a package of crackers for more dipping action. Bonus points if the bread pairs nicely with both the tonnato and the cioppino.
  • Make the artichoke pesto for the Pancetta-Wrapped Roasted Cod. (You could also use a more pesto traditional recipe, if you prefer, or go wild with whatever green sauce your refrigerator steers you towards.)
  • Make the base of your cioppino and keep it stored in the fridge. Sauté alliums and celery with herbs like parsley, thyme, and tarragon. Add tomato paste, stir until it's darkened, then deglaze the the pan with white wine and add fish or vegetable stock and canned tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, taste, and adjust the seasoning (a squeeze of lemon juice? a hit of salt?) until you have something slurp-worthy.
  • Cook the salmon fillet for the Salmon Pasta. One of the best parts of the recipe—and one of the reasons you'll return to it for many a weeknight, non-feast meal—is that it works wonders for leftover fish.

The morning of:

  • Poach the bacalao in the milk and cream mixture, then strain and remove skin and bones.
  • Make the cod bundles for the Pancetta-Wrapped Roasted Cod by butterflying the cod loins and spreading the cut-sides with the artichoke pesto before closing them back up and swaddling in prosciutto. Oil the bottom of a glass or ceramic baking dish, arrange the bundles on top, and store in the fridge until you're ready to bake.

An hour before the meal:

  • Blend the tonnato until smooth, then season with Tabasco, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper.
  • Cut and toast that bread for the tonnato (or break out the crackers).
  • Roast the whole fishes (we recommend one trout per person) on a bed of cubed potatoes. This will take about 30 minutes at 375° F, but the time will vary depending on the size of the fish.
  • Drizzle each cod bundle with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh thyme, and roast for about 10 minutes at 425° F.
  • Cook the pasta for the Salmon Pasta to al dente, then drizzle with olive oil to keep it from sticking. Reserve a bit of the pasta cooking liquid.
  • Heat the broth for the soup in a large pot on the stove and keep warm.

While your guests snack on tonnato:

  • Add the seafood to the stew: Firm, delicate halibut filets will take 5 to 7 minutes to cook. Once they're nearly done, consider supplementing with other seafood. Add clams and mussels, then cover the pot so they can steam. Drop in any shrimp, scallops, and/or squid last—they need to be carefully monitored, lest they overcook.

When it's time for the main event:

  • Finish the pasta on the stove and serve.
  • Then broil the cod bundles to crisp the pancetta and plate the whole trout according to how many guests you have (or serve it family-style, on a large platter with the potatoes underneath).

You just aced the Feast of (Not-Quite) Seven Fishes! Now take a little well-deserved break before you start thinking about Christmas morning breakfast.

What does your family eat on Christmas Eve? Tell us in the comments below.

Is there a more ambitious holiday meal than the traditional Italian seafood extravaganza known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes? We wanted to try and simplify this classic seafood spectacle, so we've partnered with the Norwegian Seafood Council to bring you creative ways to cook with fish this holiday season.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • Lyrajayne
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


AntoniaJames November 7, 2017
The Provencal tradition of Les Treize Desserts . . . a simple but thoughtfully prepared supper followed by dessert wines and a large plate with 13 different little treats (dried fruits such as dates and figs, mandarins, and tiny cookies, candies, etc.) For good luck, each person samples one of each. And all raise a glass to this lovely traditional réveillon toast "May God grant us grace to see the next year, and if there should not be more of us, let there not be fewer." I'll make more than 13, because I'll send out several dozen boxes to friends and families, and having an even wider variety is just more fun. Details here: ;o) P.S. Our réveillon supper will celebrate our VA and deep south (Protestant) heritages with a big pot of Brunswick stew.
Lyrajayne November 8, 2017
That is excellent - I might have to copy that concept. Like the spreadsheet as well, in particular the per recipe breakdown (easier to swap out if you substitute an alternate recipe). Though I'm surprised you don't have the calendar iteration as well. ;) Or maybe that's a different document.

We do a Seven Fishes every year, family style, with the cioppino and steamed shellfish as the main entree. My work involves 60-80 hour weeks until about mid-December, and plated entrees never seem to happen at my house. Giant bowls of simply and thoughtfully prepared seafood, good bread, vegetables, plenty of wine, and lots of friends.