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December 22, 2013

Feast of Seven Fishes

The traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal

FARRELL — Any Italian family who celebrates the Feast of the Seven Fishes already has the baccala soaking, laying the groundwork for the preparation of seven seafood dishes that memorializes the Christmas Eve dinner tradition.

I know we started soaking ours today and we’ll take turns changing the water every couple hours until the fish goes from looking like a crusty wooden plank to a firm, flaky, tender piece of cod. And that’s just the beginning of the Feast of the Seven Fishes in the Scarmack household. We’ll also be cleaning smelts, cracking crab legs, stuffing calamari, sautéing shrimp, steaming clams and frying anchovy bread.

And we won’t even get into all the Italian cookies that we’ve been baking for weeks now; that’s another story.

I didn’t grow up with this tradition, but I learned it early on, after marrying into a large Italian family from Farrell. Not everyone in the family keeps the tradition going, but we do and our 18-year-old granddaughter, Amber, takes to heart every part of the preparation, from making biscotti and pizzelles and wine cookies, to learning how to properly clean and fry a smelt.

Though we’ve been cooking our Feast of the Seven Fishes meal for many years, Amber and I recently took a cooking class offered at The Market District Giant Eagle, in Robinson Township, on how to prepare several seafood dishes for the meatless holiday meal.

Historians don’t know exactly when the Feast of the Seven Fishes became popular, but most agree that “La Vigilia”, also known as “the vigil”, was thought to be a celebration of the end of the wait until the Messiah was born.  Serving fish at the meal is significant for Roman Catholics who abstained from eating meat during Lent and on specific holy days; they had fish fried in oil on those days because they couldn’t eat meat or butter.

The significance of the number seven has several theories. Some think it stands for “the completion”, that on the 7th day God rested after he created heaven and Earth; others think it stands for the seven Catholic sacraments, representing sacred ceremonies in the church. Others believe it represents the seven hills surrounding Rome or the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost and still others think it represents the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.

There are hundreds of variations among Italian families when it comes to the menu, but baccala – the dried salted cod – is a staple. It’s served baked, fried or simmered in red sauce. We bake ours with a buttery bread crumb topping and as my in-laws, Art and Pearl Scarmack used to do, we simmer it in a simple tomato and herb sauce with golden raisins.

Chef Donato Colucci, who goes by “d”, is the owner of Donato’s of Fox Chapel and not only does he teach multiple classes at the Market District, he also teaches the preparation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes at his restaurant. He serves the meal the entire month of December, he said.

“It’s always a sell out. People love the course. I just try to teach how my grandmother did it; feeding 30 or 40 people with tables set up between in the dining and living room. It’s really just a way of peasant cooking from Southern Italy but it’s wildly popular here in Western Pennsylvania.”

“I don’t think we ever ate anything hot, though, because she had to cook it so much in advance for that many people,” he laughed. And anyone who has squeezed upwards of 30 guests into their dining room knows exactly what he means about putting card tables at the end of the table to “extend” it to another room.

Colucci instructed the class on how to clean and debone sardines and smelts and how to cook an octopus to make the tentacles curl for “presentation” atop a bowl of angel hair.

“It’s the same idea in most Italian households yet it’s totally different. The ways to prepare fish are as varied as there are fish,” he said. “Every family has their own Christmas Eve dinner and the stories are passed down from generation to generation,” he said.

Amber and I, along with 10 others, prepared and cooked anchovy bread, fried smelts, le sarde (baked sardines), cold octopus salad, stuffed calamari, shrimp scampi and sautéed cod. And as we sat down “family-style” to enjoy our work, we washed it down with a traditional Limoncello.

Though the food was delicious (except for that cold octopus salad), we’ll stick with our traditional meal, but with a few improvements. We will clean and fry fresh smelts; Chef “d” showed me how to rollout and stuff the anchovy bread in a much better way and Jim will love the baccala sautéed with fennel and potatoes.

And no holiday table at the Scarmacks would be complete without stuffed artichokes, olive salad and plenty of homemade wine to wash it all down.

As I said, I didn’t grow up with this meal, but I wouldn’t have a Christmas without it now. And thanks to Amber, who is thrilled to carry on the tradition, I won’t have to.

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