Christmas Eve is tomorrow and I haven’t yet made up a firm menu. Partly because I rarely get to go home for the holiday, which makes me want to boycott it; partly because damn–I’m tired, I don’t feel like shopping!!; and partly because I know I can scoot over to Whole Foods Market first thing tomorrow morning where I will find freshly stocked shelves and no crowds.
I know our meal will include some nice halibut, probably some salmon–although out here they sell third rate sockeye for $17.99/lb, which KILLS me–, definitely some crab, also some mussels and clams, and probably a chowder as a starter. Yes, it will include a lot of seafood. Yes, we are Catholic. No, we are not Italian.
Not even close. My father, a Van Atta, is thoroughly Dutch. My mother, a Thorpe, is Native American and Welsh. Sadly, none of my motley ethnicities are renown for the gustatory color, flavor, festivity and pomp of the Italians. My godmother is Italian though, and I lived with her in Jersey for a few years, so in my mind I consider that a close enough association to make actually becoming I-talian a near possibility.
Italians, and Catholics all over the world, celebrate Christmas Eve by abstaining from red meat, poultry and dairy, in observation of the la Vigilia di Natale, the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The vigil is commemorated via The Feast of the Seven (or 10 or 12 or 13) Fishes.
Some people call this abstaining a “fast”. After surviving a week of juicing and detox just after Thanksgiving, I can tell you, this is my kind-a fast!
Interestingly, this piscine meal is not nationally observed in Italy. It is popular there mostly in Southern cities, which makes sense, since they are close to the sea and since seafood is so tightly wound into their cultural and culinary heritage.
Also, not every Feast features seven fish courses specifically, although there is some religious reference in that number. Food historians conjecture that the seven courses represent biblical completion, as in the seven days of Creation, while others say it refers to the seven Roman Catholic sacraments or to the seven hills that surround Rome. I’ve been to Feasts with 13 dishes, representing the 12 apostles plus Jesus, and even 11 dishes, representing the apostles minus Judas.
My godmother didn’t make her dishes based on theology, but rather on what was fresh at the market and what sounded delicious to her at the time. She often repeated some version of the meal for New Year’s Eve, which has no religious connotations at all.
Arturo Ottaviano, Owner of Osteria 177 in Annapolis, recently invited me for an unforgettable luncheon of perfectly prepared scallops, sole meuniere deboned properly by Arturo himself–tableside, tuna carpaccio, grilled octopus, a heartbreakingly tender and flaky sea bass atop a bed of sautéed escarole and a savory risotto made perfect by the grilled shrimp and jumbo lump crab hidden in its rich, cheesy depths.
It’s rare to find seafood prepared as finely as Ottaviano’s, which is why Osteria 177 has a strong reputation for elegant Italian dishes in a refined, yet relaxed atmosphere. It’s also why available reservations for his Christmas Eve menu are long gone.
Many people are intimidated at the prospect of successfully preparing a Fishy Feast. It’s not rocket science though. The key to cooking any type of fish, says Arturo, who attended culinary school in Italy and staged at Tiberius in Washington, DC, is to not overcook it and to keep it simple.
“I use basic ingredients and only a handful of basic sauces to create magic out of these simple things. I buy the best ingredients that I can get my hands on and I try to stay organic whenever possible. My seafood is always fresh, never frozen. When you combine simple, classic sauces with high quality ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, garlic, basil, parsley, tomatoes, lemon, olives and other herbs, you can create something wonderful whether you are making shrimp or scallops or salmon or whatever you can find fresh at the market”.
Here are several Fish recipes you can consider using for your own Feast. Keep in mind that these recipes are very versatile: you can substitute just about any type of fish. You can also search seafood, crab, or whatever on this site to find other favorite recipes.
Rockfish al Cartoccio (Rockfish prepared En Papillote) by Arturo Ottaviano
- 5 oz. Fresh Rockfish fillet (skin off)
- 3 baby clams
- 1 shrimp
- 3 slices of blanched potato
- Table spoon of grape tomatoes
- 1 garlic clove
- Salt, pepper, fresh basil
- A spoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 8 inch sheet parchment paper or foil
- Display the parchment paper on a table top and brush all over with a little melted butter.
- Put the sliced potato on the center of it and the Rock fish fillet on top of the potatoes. Put clams and shrimp on top the Rockfish. Complete the topping with the grape tomatoes sliced in a half, the garlic (smashed), salt and pepper, the basil, the olive oil and a splash of white wine.
- Properly close the Parchment paper and bake in a 425 pre heated Oven for about 14 minutes.
- When ready, open the foil on the top and served with any side you wish to have—vegetables or even pasta.
- You can add anything you want in the cartoccio from roasted peppers to sautéed mushrooms and more.
Risotto con Zucchini, Cappesante e Polpa di Granchio
(Serving for 4)
- 24 oz Arborio or Carnaroli Italian rice
- 1 medium size Zucchini, sliced
- 8 large dry sea Scallops, sliced into fours
- Jumbo lump Crabmeat
- 1 chopped onion
- Half tea cup of white wine
- In one medium to large casserole pan, sautée the chopped onion and the zucchini with a spoon of olive oil and touch of butter until golden in color.
- Add rice and a couple of minutes later add the wine and evaporate it, add to this some fish broth or clam juice to cover the rice.
- Keep stirring the rice with a wooded spoon until it reduces. You may need to add some more broth.
- Repeat this until the risotto is close to doneness.Halfway through the cooking, add the sea scallops and a portion of the crab meat.
- Finally without over-cooking the rice, remove it from the heat and add a little Parmesan cheese, chopped Italian Parsley and half cup of extra virgin olive oil. Stir briskly to release the starch and serve it
- Always check and adjust with salt and pepper if necessary.
Fish En Papillote with Roasted Carrots and Cipollini Onions.
By Executive Chef Keith Long, Factor’s Row, Annapolis
- 2 Lbs. Firm fish, such as Blue Catfish (Cut into 7 oz portions)
- 8 Cipollini Onions
- 1 Lb. Baby Heirloom Carrots
- 4 oz. butter
- 2 cups Dry White Wine
- 4 sheets Parchment paper, about
- 4 fresh Thyme sprigs
Wash carrots and onions. Lightly drizzle with olive oil. Place on baking sheet and roast at 400° until just soft, around 20 minutes, depending on size. Allow to cool.
- Fold a 14X12 sheet of parchment paper in half.
- Cut a half-heart shape that is the height and width of the paper.
- Lay out each full heart. Place one portion of fish in the middle of one side of each heart. Divide carrots, onions, butter and thyme into four equal portions and place next to fish. Season with salt and pepper.
- Fold the top half of the heart over, like a taco, and starting at the top, leaving an inch or so nearest the top unfolded, fold the edge of the paper over, all the way down to the bottom tip, to create a pouch.
- Place the four pouches on a baking sheet and set oven to 450°. Pour ½ cup of wine into each pouch then finish folding the edge over to seal the pouch.
- Bake for about 12 – 14 minutes until fish is cooked through. Be careful opening each pouch they will be filled with steaming wine. Serve.
Pan Roasted Monkfish with Mashed Acorn Squash and Tarragon-Walnut Vinaigrette
Executive Chef Jeff Buber, Vidalia, Washington, DC
For the Fish
- 4 each, 6 oz. fish filets
- ½ cup dried cepes, pulverized very fine
- salt and pepper to taste
- olive oil to cook
For the Mashed Acorn Squash
- 3 each, acorn squash, roasted and pulp removed
- 8 ts butter
- 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/4 ts grated nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
- salt and pepper to taste
For the vinaigrette
- ¼ cup fresh tarragon
- ¼ cup toasted walnuts
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 ts lime juice
- salt and pepper to taste
- Remove pulp from squash and place in medium saucepot. Add butter, cream and seasoning. Mash with paddle until well incorporated. Do not over mix.
- Dredge the fish in the cepe flour and season to taste. Roast the filets over medium high heat until desired doneness. Remove.
- Puree all the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a food processor at high speed until well blended. Season to taste.
- Place one scoop of squash on each plate. Arrange fish on top of squash. Spoon vinaigrette around puree. Chef Buder garnishes this plate with fried squash. Fresh herbs or roasted winter vegetables would be good as well.
Catfish, Fried Southern Style
Executive Chef Josh Brown, Level, A Small Plates Lounge, Annapolis
- Catfish Fillets
- Enough buttermilk to cover
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs or cornmeal
- salt and pepper to taste
- pinch of cayenne, or to taste
- pinch paprika, or to taste
- 1 quart peanut oil or canola oil for frying
- Season fillets with salt and pepper
- Soak the fillets in buttermilk for several minutes. Remove from the buttermilk and let any excess drip off.
- In a separate bowl, mix the cayenne pepper and any other preferred spices with the panko and flour.
- Heat the oil to 350°: use a counter top fryer, Dutch oven or a cast iron pan filled about half-way with the oil. You can add a little bacon grease for added flavor.
- Dredge fish in the panko mixture then fry until golden on all sides.
Halibut, Swordfish or Salmon Piccata
By Whole Foods Market Annapolis Prepared Foods Team Leader Robert Vouse
- 4 Fish filets
- 2 TB Shallots, diced
- 1 TB Garlic, minced
- 1 Sprig Thyme, fresh
- ¼ ts Oregano, dried
- 2 TB Capers
- 1 can Artichoke quarters, drained
- ½ cup Tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup Chicken Stock
- ¼ cup White wine
- ¼ cup lemon juice, fresh
- 1 ts Lemon zest
- 1 TB Fresh parsley, minced
- 1 TB Butter
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- Season the filets with salt and pepper and sear both sides in a hot pan with olive oil.
- Remove the filets from the pan, turn the heat down to medium, and sauté the shallots, garlic, thyme, capers and artichokes until soft, about four minutes.
- Add the white wine, oregano, chicken stock and lemon zest (season the sauce with salt and pepper to desired taste) and simmer for about 5 minutes.
- Return the filets to the sauce and simmer until cooked through.
- Plate the fish and stir the lemon juice, parsley and butter into the sauce.
Halibut a la Grecque
By Andre Bienvenu, Joe’s Stone Crab, Miami Beach, FL
In the absence of good-tasting tomatoes, I have used 8 ounces or so marinated roasted red and yellow tomatoes, which can be found at Whole Foods Market.
- 2 Pacific Halibut fillets, 6 to 8 oz each, skin removed
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 large vine ripened tomato, seeded and chopped
- 10 imported black olives
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 TB fresh oregano
- 1 TB basil leaves, chiffonade
- 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and sliced
- 12 cilantro leaves, chopped
- 8 TB olive oil
- Freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Lemon wedges for garnish
- Season the fillets with salt and pepper. In a bowl combine the cheese, tomato, olives, garlic, oregano, basil, scallions and cilantro.
- Add 6 tablespoons of the olive oil.
- Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper; set aside (this mixture will serve as a topping for the fish)
- Preheat a grill or heat the remaining tablespoons of olive oil in a pan.
- Grill or sauté the fish for about 2 minutes on each side. Preheat the broiler.
- Place the cheese-herb mixture on top of the fish and broil for a few minutes until light golden brown.
Bacon-Wrapped Prawns or Sea Scallops in a Balsamic Reduction
by Foraging for Flavor
- Prawns or scallops- as many as you need
- Bacon- enough for 1/2 strip per piece of fish
- Wrap prawns or scallops with very good quality applewood-smoked or Black Forest bacon, using a toothpick to hold the bacon in place.
- Broil until bacon is caramelized and seafood is cooked through.
- Drizzle the serving platter or salt block with a balsamic reduction.
- Place seafood on the platter.
Bring 1 cup balsamic vinegar and 2 tablespoon soy sauce to a simmer, reducing to about ½ cup or until sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon. This should take about an hour. Soy sauce can be omitted. Reduction will keep and is wonderful with roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, on baked chicken or especially over slow roasted salmon.
- Use center cut filets, about 1 inch thick, or thick steaks of uniform size, one filet per person.
- Heat the grill to medium high heat.
- Salt and pepper the fish, marinate or use a dry rub. If you marinate in an oil base, beware of flare ups while grilling.
- Place filets skin side down on grill grate; grill until skin shrinks and separates from flesh and turns black, 2 to 3 minutes. Alternatively, place the steaks directly on the grill for 3-4 minutes.
- Flip fillets gently when meat is opaque throughout, yet translucent and red at the very center when checked with the point of a paring knife, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Transfer to a platter.
- Serve with any of the fondue sauces already posted on this site, the balsamic reduction or these other sauces.
Oysters with Mignonette Sauce
from Two for Tonight: Pure Romance from L’Auberge Chez Francois, Jacques Haeringer (Bartleby Press, 2001).
3-6 fresh oysters per person, any species is fine
For the Mignonette Sauce
- ½ c red wine vinegar
- 2 ts cracked black peppercorns
- 1 ts shallots, minced
- ½ ts sea salt, or to taste
- ½ ts finely minced chives
- Combine all the ingredients for the sauce in a small mixing bowl, whisk thoroughly, taste and adjust seasonings.
- Wash the oysters, open and lift off the shallow shell. Be sure to wipe off the knife after opening each oyster. Leave the oysters attached to the bottom or deeper shell.
- Place the oysters on the half shell on a special oyster platter or on a bed of crushed ice to keep them level
- Serve the oyster with the sauce, rye bread and butter
Lump Crab and Shrimp Ceviche
From “Seafood Lover’s Chesapeake Bay”, a lovely book by Mary Lou Baker with more than 50 restaurant profiles and 75 recipes from the best restaurants along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. You can find the book at Barnes Noble, Amazon, the Baltimore Museum of Art bookstore, The News Center in Easton and Arnold Pharmacy at the Four Corners Plaza in Arnold as well as other local outlets.
For the ceviche
- 1/4 lb jumbo lump crab
- 1/4 lump crabmeat
- 6 large shrimp
- 1/2 red pepper, diced small
- 1/2 yellow pepper, diced small
- 1 jalapeño pepper, diced small
- 1 small red onion, diced small
- 2 TB chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup oil
- 1/4 TB cumin
- 3 limes
- 1 orange
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 5 avocados
For the avocado cream
- 1 avocado, halved and scooped out
- 1 cup sour cream
- 4 ts lime juice
- cilantro leaves, for garnish
- tortilla chips, for serving
- Mix crabmeat in a large bowl. Steam shrimp and shock in an ice bath. Drain, dice and add to the crab.
- Add peppers, onions and cilantro to the mix. Stir well.
- Toss with oil and cumin.
- Heat limes and ginger for 90 seconds in the microwave . Cut in half and squeeze into mix after removing seeds (or squeeze through a strainer).
- Add salt and pepper, to taste.
- Cut avocados in half and remove seeds. Set aside.
- Prepare the avocado cream by mashing 1 avocado with the sour cream and lime juice. Mix well.
- To serve: Fill center of remaining avocado halves with the seafood mixture and garnish with cilantro leaves and avocado cream. Serve with tortilla chips.
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