Simple crab linguine requires little besides white wine, lemon juice, garlic, and very fresh crab to make a great dish. Image source: Flickr CC user Naotake Murayam
Growing up in Vietnam, our traditions for Christmas Eve were a bit different than here in the Bay Area. One of the many things I love about this country is how many culinary options there are for people to celebrate the holidays. While turkey is an established tradition for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve dinner is up for debate. Some families I know have roast beef and others serve another turkey. Some go out to Chinese food. Me? I like fish.
A Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia, Feast
Because of my fondness for seafood, one tradition I’m fascinated by is the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. It sounds like a natural fit for someone in the seafood business, but what I really like about it is its versatility. The meal is traditionally served in Italian households on Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia. The night was originally one of fasting in which no meat was served. But fasting is apparently tough for Italians, so it become a feast of seafood, usually seven courses and sometimes more. While eel is one of the classic dishes for the feast, there is no set menu.
Planning Your Seven Fish Feast
Coming up with seven dishes for a single meal can feel a bit daunting, but think of it as a progression of dishes. You can serve them all at once or over the course of an evening. To make it easier, you might consider making it a potluck if you’re having a crowd over. Simply assign seafood-centric salads, appetizers and entrees, so you don’t end up with five plates of linguine with clams. And while seafood is lighter than roast beef, seven courses is still a lot, so start small and build to ensure you can realistically enjoy a sampling of every dish.
Here are a few ideas of festive seafood dishes I love that would also be good choices for a Feast of the Seven Dishes celebration. And, this being the modern world, try ordering your seafood online from a good vendor to make preparation easier and less time-consuming during this most harried of seasons.
Dishes 1 and 2: Easy Appetizers
Appetizers are natural place to start a multi-course meal like this. Everyone likes a good dip and I love smoked salmon, so my usual move is to combine the two into an easy smoked salmon cream cheese spread. I simply chop the salmon, mix with cream cheese, a little sour cream (which makes it more spreadable), chopped parsley, and roughly chopped capers. A squeeze of lemon juice is a nice optional touch as well. Serve with some hearty crackers or sliced toasted baguette and plenty of sparkling wine. This is one that lends itself perfectly to making ahead and storing in the fridge for when the time comes to set everything out. As an added plus, I also think it tastes better once the flavors have a chance to meld. It works just as well with smoked albacore or smoked trout, too, if those are easier to come by.
Another great appetizer is baked clams. Just steam two or three pounds of clams just until they open, then top each with a spoonful of garlicky breadcrumbs mixed in with a little shredded Parmesan. Bake in the oven at 350 F until brown and bubbly.
Then Dishes 3 and 4: First Courses
For the next two, how about pan-fried Dungeness crab cakes and Caesar salad with a traditional dressing made using anchovies? Dungeness crabs are in season in December, and definitely a celebratory ingredient, if there ever was one. If you’re making a few dozen crab cakes, think about spending a little extra on high quality pre-shelled crab meat. It’s worth it for the time you’ll save cracking a pile of crabs. I’m including a good simple crab cake recipe below, but I’ll skip the salad since I figure most of you already have a favorite Caesar dressing recipe.
Simple Crab Cakes
Combine all ingredients, form into patties, and fry on medium heat in neutral oil until browned on each side, about 4 minutes a side. Serves sixteen people.
Dish 5: Pass the Pasta
While the Feast of the Seven Fishes is by now far removed from its Italian roots, a pasta dish for course number five is a tasty nod to the tradition’s origins. Save some of the crab meat from the crab cakes (or pick your own crab meat from fresh Dungeness) to make a crab linguini. Don’t use a creamy alfredo-style recipe, though, as it won’t be the best vehicle to show off your incredibly fresh, in-season crab. Go with a recipe that puts the crab front and center.
Cook the linguine and set aside. Then, heat 2-3 tablespoons of neutral oil in a large saucepan on medium heat, then add the minced garlic and cook for a couple minutes until fragrant. Turn up the heat for a few seconds (not too long or the garlic will overcook), then add the wine. Turn down the heat so that the wine simmers gently. Let cook for a few minutes, then add the crabmeat and cook gently for just a couple minutes to combine the flavors. Lower the heat, then add the pasta to the crab sauce. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes. Adjust according to your taste preferences, then sprinkle with parsley. I like to serve this with a good Parmesan grated on top. This recipe serves 16.
Dishes 6 and 7: The Grand Finale
Baking a whole fish may sound intimidating, but it’s actually a time saver and makes a great show when you set it down on the table. A whole branzino or two, braised in white wine, lemons, garlic, and fresh sprigs of fennel, is a showstopper.
Braised Whole Branzino
Lay your whole, unscaled fishes down in a braising dish (or two or three)and sprinkle with salt and pepper inside and out. Layer the lemons, garlic and fennel inside, then douse with a few glugs of wine. Cook the fish covered with foil in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the flesh pulls away easily from the bones.
For the final dish of the feast, I love cioppino, a Bay Area classic that is yet another way to showcase fresh, locally caught Dungeness crab (along with a variety of other delicious seafood). You’ll have a lot going on with a meal like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, so try ordering cioppino kit from a good seafood retailer--it bundles together all the different kinds of seafood you need into one package that gets delivered to your door the next day.
Skip the Store
A lot of seafood goes into this Italian celebration, but they don’t call it a feast for nothing. Like shopping malls, supermarkets get crazy over the holidays, so try ordering online from a reputable seafood vendor like Daily Fresh Fish. Not only will you save time and your sanity, but the fish you get will be several days fresher that what you’ll find at the market because it never goes to a middle man. It goes straight from our docks to you so you can have the happiest of holidays.