Story and photos by Becky Billingsley
Long ago somewhere in Italy's southern coastal instep it became tradition to celebrate Christmas Eve with a long multi-course dinner to symbolize waiting for the birth of Baby Jesus. Today the Feast of Seven Fishes is enthusiastically continued by Italian-American families.
The fish part of the tradition comes from the geography of the place it started: it's near the coast where there is an abundance of seafood. In the late 19th and early 20th century when a surge in Italian emigrants brought Italian flavors to the United States, the new citizens added local American seafood to the celebration.
"And as per any Italian household," says Chef Louie Gelormini, "it's hard to define the Feast of Seven Fishes because you've got moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and everyone saying how it's supposed to be and what has to be included. One constant is that the food is usually served family-style. If Italian families were able to buy one huge table that was a Lazy Susan it would be the best thing going, because usually when all the dishes for the Feast of Seven Fishes are set out you have to dodge arms everywhere going for the food."
Another constant is that a pungent and salty Baccala Salad is served. The dish is not something you'd want to serve as an entree, because a few bites on a cracker will likely satisfy any cravings. But as a traditional nibbler dish with a glass of hearty Chianti, the salt cod mixture is an unusual and memorable treat.
Chef Gelormini works at Fishmonger Seafood in Surfside Beach, S.C., and he stocks salt cod for the area's significant Italian-American population.
Another given on most Feast of Seven Fishes tables is Fried Smelt. The tiny finger-size fish are fried whole until crispy, making for a tasty snack that looks back at you. Chef Gelormini says Fried Smelt are piled everywhere on the feast table, and he remembers his grandfather coming into the kitchen to give his grandmother a peck on the cheek while he "stole" a few fried smelt from where she was piling them, and then running out of the kitchen to escape her wrath.
As for the other five courses, Chef Gelormini says there is always a pasta course such as his mother's Linguine alla Olio.
"You make linguine and cook it," he says. "You take a little good olive oil and get it nice and hot in a pan. Then you add sliced fresh garlic, just throw it in there. I like it caramelized almost to the point of being burnt. Then you toss it with the warm pasta, and there's your side dish, or it even makes a great main dish."
Another Feast of Seven Fishes tradition in the Gelormini family is to get fresh blue crabs and cook them in some of his grandmother's red sauce.
"When they're done and you crack the crab legs, and the oils from the sauce come running out - oh man, now that's good," the chef says, eyes closed, smiling, remembering.
"And there's always Shrimp Cocktail, fresh boiled shrimp with no seasoning. There's octopus in Pulpo Salad, and conch in Scungilli Salad. I do Shrimp Parmesan every year - 15 pounds of it. My grandmother would even take her red sauce and put two or three cans of tuna in oil in there, and then put that over linguine. It's delicious. The hard-core Old World Italians will have a lot of strong fish like the salt cod and anchovies."
The point is, if you want to start a Feast of Seven Fishes in your family, make one or two of the traditional dishes and then come up with your own seafood recipes to put your own style and preferences into the feast.
Chef Gelormini is getting us started with his recipe for Baccala Salad, but he emphasizes even the recipe is just a guideline. Feel free to use more or less of his recommended ingredients, or to add or delete ingredients as you like.
2 pounds salted cod
1 small sweet onion, 1/4" brunoise
1 cup sliced olives such as black, Kalamata, olive cured, etc.
1 red bell pepper, 1/4" brunoise
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes or 1 cup fresh tomato concasse
2 large garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1/4 cup Italian parsley, rough chop
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Cracked black pepper, to taste
Lemon slices or wedges, capers or fresh Italian parsley, for garnish
Put the cod in a bowl and let it soak in fresh water. Keep changing the water as frequently as you think of it, all day long. After it has soaked enough to get much of the salt out, flake the fish into bite-size pieces. Add remaining ingredients, toss and refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. Garnish the plate with lemon, capers, and/or fresh Italian parsley.
Baccala Salad is usually served at the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
Chef Louie Gelormini prepares fish dishes at Fishmonger Seafood in Surfside Beach, S.C.
Fishmonger Seafood also sells fresh, salted and smoked fish, such as this salt cod.
Chef Louie Gelormini's recipe for Baccala Salad calls for brunoise onion.
Jarred garlic and sun-dried tomatoes can be used in Baccala Salad if fresh are not available.
Baccala Salad can be garnished with lemon wheels or wedges and capers or fresh parsley.