“Food trends start here,” a friend with a deep knowledge of Bay Area food culture once said to me. But in a more recent conversation, we came up with at least one trend that seems to have started on the East Coast and moved west. It’s the popularization of a Christmas Eve meal called “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” One might guess that such feasts are an Old World Italian tradition, but the name, anyhow, appears to have originated in the early-to-mid 20th century within certain East Coast Italian-American communities (mostly Southern Italian immigrant families).
A New York Feast
“It meant good times and lots of sharing to me,” says John Molinari, a contributor to several Edible Communities magazines in the New York City area. “Everyone speaking at the same time over dinner, lots of wine, sounds of joy, laughter, and eating. My mom would have relatives [Brooklynites and Upstate New Yorkers of Sicilian and Calabrian descent] over to her New York apartment and serve calamari; clams casino; shrimp with pasta; baked cod; little fishes called smelt fried in olive oil, a pinch of hot chile flakes, garlic in a herb vinegar reduction; Sicilian-style swordfish topped with anchovies, capers, olives, and fresh mint with lemon and white wine sauce . . .”
Molinari recalls that East Coast restaurants were in on the celebrations as well, offering renditions of those family menus as special holiday events. But it is only very recently that the idea has caught on with California restaurants, and here, many folks assume that the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Old World tradition.
From Calabria to California
Rosetta Costantino lives in Oakland and comes from the Southern Italian province of Calabria. A cooking teacher and author of two cookbooks on the foods of Calabria (see below), she tells me that people in her native land all eat seafood on Christmas Eve. “But it is not called ‘Feast of Seven Fishes’,” she says. “We call it ‘Il Cenone’ in Calabria or ‘la Vigilia di Natale’, and there is no such rule as eating five or seven or ten . . .”
The magic number is 13 dishes at the Costantino family’s “big meal” (as cenone translates to English). That’s one dish for Jesus and one for each disciple. But those are not all fish dishes: The menu for Costantino’s already-sold-out “Il Cenone” cooking class (to be held at Paulding & Co. in Emeryville on December 13) includes six fish dishes, plus an appetizer, two salads, and five traditional holiday confections.
In her first cookbook, My Calabria, Costantino writes about the central role of baccalà (salt cod) on Il Cenone menus and explains that many Calabrian families also serve a humble dish of pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs: “It reminds them of more difficult times, when anchovies were the only seafood their ancestors could afford.”
Tradition, Inspiration, and Careful Sourcing at A16
These days, seafood is becoming harder for anyone at all to put on the table, due to depleted and polluted fisheries and growing concerns about the future of these resources. Savvy Bay Area diners looking for a Christmas Eve fish feast may be angling for a responsibly sourced and carefully prepared meal, such as the one they will find at A16 in Oakland’s Rockridge district. The executive chef there, Rocky Maselli, works with TwoXSea (twoxsea.com), a Sausalito-based seafood purveyor that prides itself on its exemplary sourcing practices. Maselli’s menu brings to life the flavors and traditions from along Italy’s highway A16, which runs through Southern Italy from Naples to the Adriatic coast, where Maselli has family roots.
Chef Maselli’s Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes will feature five courses with menu items such as a squid ink tonarelli with Dungeness crab, Prosecco, crème fraîche and Meyer lemon; frutti di mare pizza with mussels, clams, gulf white prawns, calamari, garlic, chili and parsley; and whole roasted Mt. Lassen trout with Oregon white truffles and white escarole. The prix fixe meal runs $75 per person with optional wine pairings.
A 16 Rockridge
5356 College Ave, Oakland
The Feast Goes Pan-American
At Bocanova in Jack London Square, executive chef John Jackson and chef/owner Rick Hackett are preparing a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes in their restaurant’s signature Pan-American style. The idea took shape earlier this year while Hackett was traveling through Argentina and Peru and rediscovering the large Italian influence on South American cuisine. Says chef Hackett, “When you look at some of the more traditional dishes, they include calamari, lobster, and other shellfish, but I’ve created a menu just featuring fish with the addition of shellfish in the sauces and broths. Since Bocanova is Pan American, I’ve incorporated ingredients and spices indigenous to South America, especially Peru.”
Everyone who comes to Bocanova on December 24 will be enjoying the prix fixe Feast of the Seven Fishes menu, but accommodations for children, vegetarians, and those with shellfish allergies are in the works. Cost is $68 per person (children under 6 at no charge and children up to 12 at $28).
55 Webster St, Oakland
BUCATINI WITH DUNGENESS CRAB
This amazingly rich and luxurious pasta dish, courtesy of Rocky Maselli, executive chef at A16 Rockridge, is simple to prepare and offers a great way to showcase Dungeness crab. Chef Maselli says that if you take the time to buy whole crabs and clean them yourself, you can collect the crab fat to incorporate into this sauce. “It will add even more sweet Dungeness crab flavor to this pasta, elevating it from luxurious to decadent,” he says.
Yields 4 portions
1¼ cups Dungeness crab meat
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
Pinch chile flakes
1½ cups San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
1 pound bucatini pasta
¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
Zest of 1 meyer lemon plus juice
Salt as needed
Heat the oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Gently sauté the garlic until it starts to take on a golden brown color. Then remove and discard the garlic.
Add chile flakes to the pan, cooking briefly before adding the tomatoes. Cook until the sauce thickens. Reduce heat and add the crab meat (plus crab fat, if you have it).
Cook bucatini in a generous amount of boiling, salted water until al dente, drain, and toss with the crab sauce.
Sprinkle in the chopped parsley, add lemon zest, and toss again. Adjust seasoning with salt and lemon juice and serve.
SALT-CURED AHI TUNA TATAKI
By Chef Rick Hackett of Bocanova
Look for this appetizer on Bocanova’s Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes menu. Chef Hackett says to sear the tuna in a light flavorless oil such as grape seed oil, so as not to detract from the flavor of the salt-cure or the tuna itself.
12 ounces sushi-grade Hawaiian ahi tuna loin, fabricated into a rectangular bar
1 ounce Old Istanbul Blend from Juliet Mae (an exotic blend of Turkish spices and chiles)
¼ ounce coriander seed, toasted and coarsely ground
¼ ounce cumin seed, toasted and coarsely ground
½ ounce ground Marash chile pepper
(a Turkish chile pepper that resembles Aleppo pepper)
¼ ounce black peppercorn, coarsely ground
¼ ounce pink peppercorn, coarsely ground
2 ounces sea salt, finely ground
1 ounce black sea salt, finely ground
1 ounce granulated sugar
Zest of one orange
Zest of one lime
2 ounces high-quality sherry wine
Grape seed oil for searing
In a stainless steel nonreactive bowl, mix together all of the dried spice ingredients along with the salt, sugar, and orange and lime zest.
Using a pastry brush coat the ahi tuna bar on all sides with a liberal amount of sherry wine. Then place the sherry-coated tuna bar into the stainless steel bowl with the dried spice mix. Using your hands, gently press generous amounts of the salt-spice cure mix onto each of the 4 sides of the tuna bar.
Place the spice- and salt-covered tuna bar on a roasting rack set over a sheet pan to catch the drippings from the tuna as it cures in the refrigerator. Allow it to cure for at least 24 hours, but no more than 36 hours.
When ready to serve the tuna, remove it from the refrigerator and brush away the dried spice-salt cure from all sides. Heat some grape seed oil in a sauté pan to very hot and quickly sear the ahi on all four sides. Allow it to cool completely and then using an extremely sharp slicer, portion the tuna into equally thin perfect slices. Serve with a salad of lightly pickled cucumbers garnished with cilantro and thin slices of ripe avocado.
STUFFED CALAMARI WITH CELERY, RAISINS AND PINE NUTS
Yields 6 servings
12 calamari, cleaned and tentacles cut away to use separately
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 stalks celery, diced
Pinch crushed red chile
2 teaspoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
¾ dry white wine
¾ cup whole peeled tomatoes in juice, crushed
¾ cup golden raisins
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt to taste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup finely grated pecorino
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped oregano
4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish)
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic, diced celery, and a pinch of chile; cook until soft, about 8 minutes.
Add tomato paste; cook until caramelized, about 3 minutes. Add wine vinegar, white wine, tomatoes, raisins, and bay leaf. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Check seasoning and adjust with salt. Set sauce aside.
Heat oven to 350°. Heat remaining oil in a skillet over medium heat. Chop calamari tentacles and add to skillet; sauté for 30 seconds or until cooked through and tender.
Remove from heat; stir in breadcrumbs, pecorino, parsley, 2 tablespoons pine nuts, and oregano. Season with salt to taste.
Stuff each calamari body half full with breadcrumb mixture, using a toothpick to close up the opening, then place in a baking dish. It’s important not to overstuff the calamari body as it will shrink while it is cooking and the stuffing will burst the calamari.
Pour sauce over calamari and bake until warmed through, about 18–20 minutes. Garnish with remaining pine nuts and serve.
This simple and satisfying calamari dish, courtesy of Rocky Maselli, executive chef at A16 Rockridge, works as antipasti or as a main course. Photo by Stacy Ventura
SPAGHETTI COL SUGO DI BACCALÀ
SPAGHETTI WITH SALT COD AND A SPICY TOMATO SAUCE
From My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino
(W.W. Norton & Company, © 2010)
½ pound boneless, skinless salt cod
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, halved
1 28-ounce can Italian San Marzano tomatoes, broken up by hand, with juice
6 fresh basil leaves
Ground hot red pepper or hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 pound spaghetti or bucatini
In the refrigerator, soak the salt cod in water to cover for 2–3 days, changing the water once a day. Thick pieces will need longer than thin ones to rehydrate and shed their salt. Taste the cod after 2 days to see if it is still too salty. Take care not to oversoak or you will drain the cod of all flavor.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over moderate heat. Add the garlic and sauté until golden. Carefully add the tomatoes. Tear the basil leaves in half and add to the saucepan along with salt and hot pepper to taste. Simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Drain the salt cod and add to the saucepan. Simmer uncovered until the cod flakes easily, 15 to 20 minutes, turning the cod over in the sauce halfway through. Remove and discard the garlic cloves. Shred the cod in the sauce with a fork. Stir in the parsley, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Keep the sauce warm over low heat.
Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat. Add ¼ cup kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 10 minutes. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta into a colander and return it to the warm pot. Add the sauce and toss well, adding some of the reserved water if needed to thin the sauce. Serve immediately.
COOKBOOKS BY ROSETTA COSTANTINO
Home cooks looking to create a Calabrian-style holiday celebration will find Rosetta Costantino’s two cookbooks indispensable. My Calabria (written with Janet Fletcher and published by W.W. Norton & Company, ©2010) offers such traditional Christmastime recipes as Spaghetti col Sugo di Baccalà (reprinted above), Insalata di Baccalà con Patate (salt cod and potato salad), and Struncatura con Acciughe e Mollica (whole wheat linguini with anchovies and breadcrumbs), as well as many of the requisite Christmas sweets: Grispelle (warm Christmas doughnuts), Chinule (sweet Christmas ravioli with chestnut filling), and Cannariculi (fried ridged pastry with honey glaze).
Her new book Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily (written with Jennie Schacht, photos by Sara Remington, published by Ten Speed Press, © 2013) offers even more adventure for the home baker. Many of the recipes take full advantage of the superlative products of Northern California, such as extra virgin olive oil, figs, honey, pistachios, almonds, cherries, persimmons, and citrus.