What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes? According to Mario Batali, "It's what Italians do when they say they're fasting." More precisely, the Feast is a meal served in Italian households on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve). In many parts of Italy , the night is traditionally a partial fast, during which no meat should be served. But in true Italian style, this proscription has morphed into something very unfastlike indeed: course after course of luxurious seafood dishes, often as many as 7, 10, or even 13. "No one's quite sure of the significance of the number," says Batali. "Some families do seven for the sacraments. Some do ten for the stations of the cross. And some even do 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus."
Regardless of the religious symbolism, for most people the main point of the meal is to gather family and friends and enjoy delicious food. In Batali's Italian-American family, his grandmother used to host the feast, with everyone pitching in. "She would let us kids help her make fresh pasta," Batali recalls. "Then she'd lay it out on towels on our beds to dry for the day." After dinner, they'd open half their presents, saving the rest for Christmas Day.
This Christmas, we asked Batali to put together a special Feast of the Seven Fishes menu for Epicurious. The dishes he chose represent the traditional elements of the meal: antipasti to get things going; simple, classic pastas; three hearty main courses; and plenty of desserts to finish on a sweet note. Most of the recipes hail from the Campania region, specifically the Amalfi coast, which Batali feels produces Italy 's most spectacular seafood. (When asked why he loves the area so much, he simply said, "Have you been there?")
One item that might be unfamiliar to some American palates is the baked eel, but Batali stresses that this is an essential part of an Italian Christmas Eve celebration. "To most Italians, it would practically be sacrilegious not to have it," he says. Have your fishmonger skin and gut the eel, and the dish will be a snap to prepare-and you might be won over by its flavorful succulence.
Batali also demo'd three of his recipes in exclusive videos and shared preparation and serving tips.
Before the meal, an appetite-piquing aperitif is traditional with the antipasti. "I like bitter Campari mixed with freshly squeezed blood orange juice," says Batali. You could mix up a batch of this cocktail in a glass pitcher or punch bowl. To accompany the feast, he recommends a white wine from the Amalfi coast such as the floral Marisa Cuomo Ravello Bianco. After dinner, traditional sips would be limoncillo, the lemony liqueur from Campania , and espresso.
"In Italy , most of the meal would be served buffet-style," says Batali. "Italians don't mind their food being room temperature. This allows you to make almost everything ahead." The exceptions are the pasta dishes, which should be cooked at the last minute and eaten immediately. To serve the meal the traditional way, have the antipasti out for guests to snack on as they mingle. Then seat the guests and serve them the pasta course. Then, set out the rest of the dishes (main courses on one table, desserts on another) and let guests graze as they decorate the tree, open presents, or otherwise celebrate. Here are specific make-ahead tips for each recipe:
Prep the clams with their stuffing up to one day ahead. Refrigerate them, then broil just before serving.
These must be made at least six hours ahead, and can be kept under their oil in the refrigerator for up to one day.
This should be cooked at the last minute, but you can prep the ingredients (scrub the clams, slice the garlic, and chop the parsley) earlier in the day and keep them refrigerated. The actual cooking shouldn't take more than ten minutes.
This also should be cooked at the last minute, but you can scrub and debeard the mussels, slice the garlic, and chop the parsley ahead. (To save time, prepare all the garlic and parsley for both pasta dishes together.)
Be sure to start the cod soaking at least two days ahead. You can also cook the entire dish one day ahead, refrigerate it in the baking dish, and reheat it in a 350°F oven. "Don't worry about the cod getting too soft when you're reheating it," says Batali. "It's hard to overcook baccalà."
This also can be cooked one day ahead. Refrigerate it in a covered container, and then bring it to room temperature before serving.
This can be baked up to one day ahead and refrigerated in the baking dish. Reheat it in a 450°F oven for 20 minutes. "Unlike most fish, eel is so succulent that it can be reheated without drying out," explains Batali.
This is easy to prepare at the last minute, but you could also make it one day ahead, refrigerate it, and then serve it at room temperature.
The shells and the filling can both be made one day ahead, but-and Batali stresses this point-do not combine them until just before serving. To keep the shells crisp, pipe in the filling at the last minute.
These can be made up to four days in advance and they don't even need to be refrigerated-with their honey coating, they'll keep perfectly well at room temperature. But, advises Batali, "Hide them in a cupboard. Otherwise, people will take one every time they walk by, and you won't have any left for Christmas Eve!"
Mario Batali's Feast of the Seven Fishes
- Clams with Oregano and Bread Crumbs (vongole Origanate)
- Marinated Fresh Anchovies (alici Marinati)
- Linguine with Clams (linguine Con Le Vongole)
- Spaghetti with Mussels (spaghetti Con Le Cozze)
- Salt Cod with Tomatoes and Capers (baccalà Alla Vesuviana)
- Jumbo Shrimp Marsala House-Wife Style (gamberoni Casalinga Siciliana)
- Eel with Olives, Chiles, and Capers (anguilla Livernese)
- Broccoli Sautéed in Wine and Garlic (broccoli Al Frascati)
- Chocolate Chip-orange Cannoli (cannoli Di Ricotta)
- Christmas Honey Fritters (struffoli)
By Sarah Kagan
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