The Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei sette pesci is the Italian tradition for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Eve and usually consists of many dishes of fried, grilled or steamed seafood and fish.
Whilst – to some – seven dishes may sound excessive for the night before a substantial Christmas dinner, you don’t necessarily have to create seven whole dishes to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Case in point, our Italian-inspired Christmas Eve fish feast includes no less than seven spectacular fishes. Why not set a new Christmas tradition and start with a platter of simply grilled sardines and a main course of seafood stew, inspired by Cacciucco which originated from Livorno in Northern Italy.
8 fresh whole sardines, gutted with heads on
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tsp coarse sea salt
2 – 3 tbsp white wine vinegar (in total)
1 whole lemon, sliced into wedges
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
A green leaf salad (optional)
Preheat the grill to a high heat. Pour the olive oil into a roasting tray and arrange the whole sardines in the tray.
Grill the sardines at a high temperature for seven to ten minutes till sizzling and plump.
Sprinkle over the coarse sea salt and the freshly chopped parsley.
Serve on a platter with the lemon wedges and a green salad (if desired). Drizzle a little of the white wine vinegar onto the sardines and enjoy.
Cacciucco-inspired Seafood Stew
700g firm white fish such as seabass, turbot and halibut, cut into thick pieces
250g mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
250g clams, cleaned
300g shell-on king prawns
3 tbsp olive oil
2 banana shallots, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, finely sliced (or a stick of celery, finely sliced)
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 tsp coarse sea salt
1 400g can tinned chopped tomatoes
200ml good red wine
250ml fish stock
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp Taste No.5 umami paste (optional)
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dried red chilli flakes
3 whole sprigs fresh parsley
Zest and juice of ½ small unwaxed lemon
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A handful of fresh basil
A handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
A drizzle of good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Thoroughly clean the mussels and clams, discarding any shells that remain open. Immerse them in a large bowl of cold water with a pinch of salt and pop them in the fridge whilst you prepare the sauce.
Heat the olive oil over a medium heat in a large heavy-based casserole pot, toss in the finely chopped shallots and fennel (or celery, if using) and sauté for eight minutes or so until softened and slightly golden.
Add the dried chilli flakes and the sliced garlic and stir together for a further minute. Pour in the tinned tomatoes and rinse out the can with a little water. Add the fish stock, red wine, Marsala, tomato paste and umami paste (if using).
Increase the heat a little and add some freshly ground black pepper, the coarse sea salt, bay leaf, the sprigs of fresh parsley, grated lemon zest and lemon juice. Allow the sauce to simmer away for twenty-five to thirty minutes or so and taste to test. If required return to the heat to allow the sauce to thicken and reduce for a further five minutes. Pop the lid on and remove from the heat until you are almost ready to eat.
When you are ready to eat discard the parsley sprigs and the bay leaf. Put the stew over a medium heat, add the pieces of fish and pop the lid on for three minutes until slightly cooked. Add the mussels, clams and prawns, replace the lid and allow to steam in the sauce for a further three or four minutes until the shells open and the prawns transform from a mottled grey to a coral pink hue. Be careful not to overcook the fish and seafood.
Toss any unopened shellfish away and sprinkle with a generous amount of freshly chopped parsley and fresh basil leaves. Serve in pre-heated bowls with a drizzle of good quality extra-virgin olive oil, warm and thickly sliced ciabatta bread and a glass of good wine.