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Kara Explains: What is Sette Pesci?

February 19, 2010

When we recently launched our redesigned Oldways website, we expected people to make comments on the new design, the added features and recipes, and so on.  We certainly got a lot of great feedback, and everyone seems to love interacting with Oldways via this new and beautiful portal.  I personally didn’t expect people to email or call, asking me to explain “that sette pesci thing” I mentioned on our “Pleasures of the Table” page.  For one thing, you have to scroll just about all the way to the bottom of the page to find me!  But I guess my family’s version of this very Italian Christmas Eve tradition sparked some curiosity out there, so I’m happy to share a little information – and a whole lotta food pics! – here on our blog.

First, the tradition.  Sette pesci means “seven fishes,” and the Festa dei sette pesci, or Feast of Seven Fishes, is thought to have begun in southern Italy where fish and fish dishes are fresh and plentiful all year round.  This Christmas Even tradition usually involves a variety of seafood or even fresh water fish and mussels, with each course or dish using a different type.  You might have dried salt cod, then a light clam chowder, then baked lobster, fried eels, etcetera and so on.  Why seven fishes?  Well, I’ve heard theories that the seven fish dishes represent the seven virtues, or possibly represent the seven Sacraments, but I think one of the best things about Festa dei sette pesci is that it’s interpretive.  You don’t have to serve dried salt cod if you don’t want to, and some families serve seven, nine, or even thirteen different fish dishes.  It’s all about how your family chooses to celebrate the tradition.

In my family, we choose to experiment and try new recipes, and we’ve learned that portion control is the biggest factor in making it all the way through this dinner.  Even though dinner lasts for hours, beginning around 6:00 PM and ending well after midnight, keeping dishes small means you get to taste everything and enjoy it all.  Best of all, we don’t do it alone – we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have friends-who-are-family opt to celebrate Christmas Eve with us and bring a dish of their own creation.  This is a huge help, because the other Christmas Eve day tradition is a 4:00 AM trip to Philadelphia (more on that next month), and mise en place for five dishes after a wake-up time like that is much better than prepping for all seven.

Okay, enough about what we do, let me show you what we did.  Yes, that’s right, it’s time for food porn!  Now, I confess that I got caught up in the food and fun and missed taking pictures of two of the courses, so I hope you can forgive me for that. Here we go, dish by dish…

This was the first of our three appetizers, baked crab cakes served over caviar and herb pesto.  One of our friends-but-family guests brought these, and I’m not normally a crab cake fan, but these were phenomenal – and so light!

Next came salmon skewers, seasoned with a long-time favorite blend from Chef Paul Prudhomme.  His seasoning blends never contain MSG, which is a big deal for my mom and I, so they’ve been spice cabinet staples for years.  We skewered and seasoned the salmon early to let flavor develop, then popped them in the oven for a quick broil before serving each skewer over homemade tomato relish.  Then we broke out some seriously spicy shrimp that came from this Bobby Flay recipe.  Rather than serve the shrimp with tomato salad as this recipe suggests, we paired the fiery little devils with lightly pickled cucumber slices.  Since I don’t have a picture of those, I’ll show you part of the cheese spread as it was waiting to go out.

After appetizers, a prosecco toast, and some wine, we were herded to the table to enjoy small bowls of striper soup.  Disambiguation: This was soup made from striped bass, commonly called “stripe-ers,” not soup made from go-go dancers.  It was a very light chowder, and the guest who brought this dish actually caught and cleaned the striper himself out on the ocean a few weeks earlier.

You may notice my soup isn’t actually on the table.  That’s because The Man and I were busy putting together our contribution for the feast, and I just couldn’t leave my tasty little bowl behind.  And what did we prepare for sette pesci?  I’d been struggling with a few options, but finally chose scallop cevich, a dish I’ve always wanted to make.  The tricky thing with ceviche in my parent’s house is, we can’t use grapefruit, but that opened the door for experimentation.  So instead of grapefruit, we chose blood oranges, lemons, and limes after checking with a culinary RD friend of mine to be sure there would be enough acidity in the mix to chemically cook the scallops.  The ceviche turned out beautifully, and we served it over a bed of baby spinach and arugula topped with blood orange segments.

Dish six was one of my dad’s specialties – seafood risotto with tiny bits of tender lobster tail, paired with broccoli rabe.  Yeah, that one didn’t last long enough for a picture, sorry folks.  When my dad makes risotto, it comes out so creamy and mild that the spoon doesn’t stop shuttling between bowl and mouth till it’s gone.  Instead, I give you our final dish, which may have been my absolute favorite from the night.  My mom came up with idea of making monkfish “sliders” using naan, which is this leavened, oven-baked flatbread from India.  She also whipped up a tangy, spicy mayonnaise and we used some of the extra arugula to go with it.  You might think this was a heavy note to end on, but monkfish is a very light and flaky whitefish that paired very well with the chewy naan.  And again, portion control – these were sliders, little bites, not big ol’ slabs of fish on bread.  See how big the arugula looks?  Yup, tiny little fishy sliders…

There you have it!  Seven fish/water-dwelling-creature dishes.  And yes, we did have dessert afterwards.  There was a flourless chocolate cake, assorted cannoli, three different types of pies, various cookies, any or all of which would be washed down with the digestif of your choice.  For me, this meant a small but satisfying glass of utterly frigid limoncello.  A perfect ending to another perfect Festa dei sette pesci!

– Kara

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