It’s no secret that smell can trigger strong memories. For me, seafood is reminiscent of Christmas Eve. Now before you scrunch your nose in disgust, I’m not talking about the ultra-fishy smell at the fish market. Think fried calamari, linguini with clams, fresh shrimp – an ample amount of seafood cooked in a variety of ways like marinara sauce, or garlic and olive oil. I’m talking the Feast of the Seven Fishes – an Italian American tradition that my family has embraced since my mom was a little girl, and likely even earlier than that.
Every December 24th, my mom’s side of the family gathers at my Great Aunt Annie and Great Uncle Jerry’s house to cook and relish in seven different types of fish (and let’s be real, tons of antipasto and desserts too. After all, no Italian dinner is complete unless there is a copious amount of food). To be honest, I’m not sure why this is an Italian-American tradition or what it stands for, but it’s one of my favorites. I love it even more than Christmas Day (well, maybe after I became an adult).
Surrounded by approximately 30 to 40 people and four generations, it’s a time for celebration, and, for me, to reconnect with family I haven’t seen in a while. I walk through the door, spending several minutes to say hello to everyone before digging in, and it’s like I was never away (aside from my little cousins growing like weeds since I last saw them).
Even as I write this, my heart warms at the thought of countless Christmas Eves spent surrounded by my huge, crazy Italian family. Like most Italian-Americans, our family gatherings revolve around food. It’s how we connect and come together. As the generations get older, it occurred to me how important it was to capture the most significant family recipes on paper. But, have you ever tried to learn a recipe from an Italian? It doesn’t exist. “What do you mean a recipe? I just cook it.” was the frequent response I received. It’s a “little of this” or “eyeball it.” Thankfully, with help from other family members, I was able to coax a few out so we can pass the dishes down to younger generations.
To keep the tradition alive, my mom started cooking a fish dish or two on Christmas Eve when we’ve celebrated at home in Virginia. A few years ago, she discovered zuppa de pesce – not just a tasty dish, but a “one dish wonder” that incorporates all seven fish to complete the “feast” rather than several individual fish dishes. Zuppa de pesce is how we made the tradition our own, and it’s become just as special to me as the memories with my family in New Jersey. Flavorful, hearty and warms you down to your soul. Not to mention decadent if a lobster tail, crab legs or other more indulgent seafood is incorporated.
As I’ve recently started a family of my own, I know it’s something so important to my husband and I. Because this isn’t just food, it’s history. Stories and anecdotes tend to follow suite as the memories flood in while making these dishes. The Italian lessons from my Uncle Jerry, meeting my husband’s Nonna for the first time, arriving at my grandma’s house late Friday night after a four hour drive, the homemade meal my husband made for me on our second date. I want to continue to create wonderful memories with my growing family. Keep the traditions, but also make them our own. So maybe, one day, the smell of zuppa de pesce will trigger a smile on my son’s face at the memory of Christmas Eves past.
Zuppa de Pesce (Fish Soup)
The great thing about this dish is that you can make it your own. You can include any seafood you like, such as clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, cod, calamari, scallops, lobster, or any other firm white fish (like halibut or sea bass). For filets, get one good size piece of fish (typically ¼ to ½ lb.) and 1/3 to 1/2 lb. each of scallops, shellfish, shrimp and/or calamari. My go-tos are clams, mussels, crab meat, shrimp, cod, seabass, lobster and scallops.
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 28 oz. can whole Italian tomatoes
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
12 basil leaves, cut into slivers
½ cup dry white wine
7 types of seafood of your choosing
A dash of red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rustic loaf of bread
In a large pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over moderate heat.
Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about one minute. If desired, add a dash of red pepper flakes for spice. TIP: Do not burn the garlic – this causes a very bitter taste.
Add the tomatoes--crush them with your hands or masher, or puree in food processor and add back to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to simmer for about 10 minutes.
Add the white wine and 8 basil leaves, bring back to a simmer. Pouring a glass of white wine to enjoy while cooking is highly encouraged.
Cut any fish filets into chunks. Add the thickest fish first, one type at a time. Allow them to cook, approximately 5-10 minutes each depending on thickness of the fish.
Add any shellfish and cook until the shells open. TIP: Throw out any shellfish that do not open after cooking. They could have gone bad and it’s not worth the risk!
Add the shrimp and cook until pink. Finish with rest of the basil.
Serve immediately with rustic bread to soak up the stewey goodness. Add salt and pepper to taste.
About The Author
Megan is a marketing and branding professional who loves to stretch her creative muscles in her free time through writing, cooking and photography.
Megan enjoys traveling and learning new techniques, flavors and cuisines to bring home. She also takes on more DIY projects than she’d like to admit and has plenty to contribute to #pinterestfail. She lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband, dog and newborn baby.