Feast of love

December 2021

By Jean Kerr
For Points East

Frutti di Mare
1/3 cup of olive oil
1 large, chopped onion
6 cloves of garlic, smashed
Red pepper flakes (optional or to taste)
1/2 cup fish or seafood stock
1@ cup dry white wine
1 28 ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
½ teaspoon sugar
12 hard shelled clams, preferably littlenecks scrubbed and rinsed
1/2 pound small, cleaned calamari, preferably rings and tentacles
1 pound of mussels, cleaned and debearded
12 large raw peeled shrimp
1 pound firm white fish like cod, cusk or hake
1/3 cup of chopped Italian parsley
1. In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat olive oil over low heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add wine and simmer for a couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and bring back to a low boil. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes and allow to reduce a bit. Add ½ teaspoon sugar. NOTE: You can make this up to two days ahead and add the seafood before serving.2. Pound calamari several times on all sides with a rolling pin, kitchen mallet, or heavy frying pan. Bring tomato mixture to a boil. Add littlenecks and mussels. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add calamari, fish and shrimp. Simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes until clams and mussels open and fish is cooked through.3. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

If you come from an Italian American family, especially if your ancestors hail from southern coastal parts of the old country, you may celebrate Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. While certainly not a universal tradition among Italians, or even Italian Americans, it seems to me that it would be a good one to adopt, whether you’re of Italian descent or not.

The Vigilia di Natale, translated as “the wait for the birth,” is only loosely connected to the liturgical calendar, but it is certainly a feast of love, family and tradition. In the busy kitchen, recipes may be shared, debated and relished.

While the Festa dei Sette Pesci as it’s known, or Il Vigilia observes the custom of “fast” days before a feast day, i.e., no meat consumed, the menu includes a wide range of fin fish, crustaceans and bivalves. Traditional seafood might include eel, calamari, baccalau and a whole roasted branzino, a Mediterranean species that resembles New England black cod. We may not have access to all the same species you’d find in the Mediterranean, but New England’s bountiful fisheries offer more than enough to choose from.

The significance of the number of courses is difficult to trace. Some say it represents the sacred number seven – as in the seven sacraments, the seven virtues or the seven days of creation. But some feasts may include even more than seven types of fish. As a food writer, I’ve been invited to more than my share of tasting menu dinners, and while I have a healthy appetite, seven (or more) courses, unless consumed over the span of many hours, would just be too much food for me.

In my small kitchen, seven courses (with tiramisu or panetone to finish) would be a lot to handle, and I don’t have space in this column for that many recipes anyway. The recipe below offers a simplified way to incorporate seven delicious types of seafood into your feast. Even so, served with pasta and/or crusty bread, dining at a leisurely pace, with plenty of sips of wine, seems advisable.

You might begin with baccalau fritters (there are good simple recipes online) or a warm crab dip with crackers, followed by a caesar salad with anchovies. The main attraction might be a heaping platter of Frutta de Mare, like this one, served over pasta or simply with, another, good crusty bread.

How come all of a sudden it seems like an awfully long time until Christmas Eve? Buono Feste to all!

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor magazine and is a regular contributor to Cruising World magazine.