For many families, Christmas dinner is the most extravagant, special, and looked-forward-to meal of the season. But in my family we’ve always focused on what we’ll be stuffing ourselves with on Christmas Eve, when that anticipation of ripping through piles of gifts is at an all-time high. Since both sides of my family are from Alaska and now reside in the Pacific Northwest, seafood (and wild salmon in particular) has always been a unanimous family favorite. A couple of decades ago we decided to start a new tradition of having an annual seafood feast on Christmas Eve—it just felt like the right thing to do.
Little did we know, the Feast of the Seven Fishes (AKA the Eve, AKA the Vigil, or la Vigilia) is a longstanding Christmas Eve tradition among Italian Americans. The tradition of eating seafood (considered a fasting food) on Christmas Eve (a fasting day) dates back to the Roman Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on the eve of a feast day (Christmas). Devouring copious amounts of luxurious seafood and wine and calling it a fast is a mindboggling, ballsy move—but I am completely on board.
There’s no one agreed-upon origin story for this tradition, nor is there consensus on how to do this feast. It’s generally accepted that the number seven signifies the seven sacraments, though some families will choose to do 12 (for the disciples), 13 (the disciples plus Jesus), or 21 (Holy Trinity multiplied by the sacraments). Apparently seven fishes is just a suggestion; how many dishes you make will depend on whether or not (A) you’re an authentic tradition-doer who comes from a huge Italian family; (B) you come from a medium-sized, mixed family like mine who can eat the same amount of seafood as a huge Italian family; (C) you come from a small family of mice. Some households will also choose to abstain from dairy as well on the fasting day, but really it’s a choose-your-own-adventure seafood feast! Do what makes you happy.
Ava Gene’s Italian restaurant on Southeast Division has been doing its Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve every year since opening, but owner Joshua McFadden says it’s been especially successful the last couple of years.
“I’m not Italian either, and I didn’t grow up with a tradition,” McFadden says. “When I was cooking in New York it was the first time I started seeing it, hearing about, and tasting it. And it seemed like a really fun tradition. Having an Italian restaurant, it’s obviously something really fun to play with.”
The menu for this year’s seafood feast isn’t set yet, but McFadden says he’ll likely do something with baccalà (Italian-style salted cod), calamari, and may or may not have lobster and clams. McFadden assures me there’ll likely be wine pairings and definitely cannoli for dessert.
Ava Gene’s seven-fish feast is one day only, but McFadden says they’ll have seafood dishes on their menu leading up to the Eve.
“Salt cod is one of my favorite things to eat, and there’s so many different preparations of it and it just feels like the holidays,” says McFadden. “Especially at that restaurant, with the lights and the vibe. And there’s a lot of families that have been coming there every year for the last six years, and it just feels really, really good.”
When asked for advice on how to accomplish the feast at home, McFadden says, “Keep it simple and family-style [with] lots of things to share. Anchovies in a Caesar salad—that’s a fish!”
If you’re a seafood enthusiast or want to try something new for the Eve, here are some suggestions both traditional and non- for how to pull off a stellar seven-fish feast.
1) Start slow with antipasta.
Do yourself and your family members a solid by beginning dinner with crackers and spread, bruschetta, or something else light and snacky. A crostini with smoked salmon, a spread of Cypress Grove PsycheDillic sustainable goat cheese, and a thin slice of cucumber would kick things off nicely.
2) Get things rolling with a fresh but hearty salad.
In years past we’ve gone crazy for a green salad topped with king crab meat, avocado, slices of boiled egg, some chopped veggies, and louis sauce for dressing. If you’re worried about finding quality king crab at a reasonable price, Oregon pink shrimp makes a solid substitute.
3) Warm up your bellies with soup or seafood stew.
You can never go wrong with clam chowder. Enough said.
4) Try something new, like ceviche!
I’ve never made ceviche before, but ever since dining at Casa Zoraya on North Lombard I’ve been curious to see if I can emulate the fan-fucking-tastic ceviches they make there, which incorporate a fish of the day, ají limo leche de tigre, sweet potato, and corn.
5) A special side.
Okay, there’s nothing “traditional” about this one, but we make these twice-baked crab-stuffed potatoes every year. Season the skins with olive oil, garlic salt, and pepper. Inside gets a heavenly mixture of cheese, milk, butter, and crab, and they’re topped with green onion and more cheese. Make extras—you’ll want one for lunch on Christmas afternoon.
6) Incorporate pasta into your menu.
Since there are so many filling courses (especially that luscious potato you just ate), it’s a good idea to avoid rich or heavy cream sauces in your pasta course. A plate of linguini with prawns, lemon, herbs, and a sprinkling of shredded parmesan would be delicious, but won’t fully push people over the edge.
7) Finally, the meaty main.
It’s hard not to opt for a cedar-plank-cooked king salmon or steelhead as the grand finale (and we’ll most likely be serving at least one of these this year, because the people have expectations now), but recently some more obscure catches have stolen my heart: opah and swordfish. Both are very flavorful on their own, so you can really dress them up with something simple.
BONUS ROUND! Seal the deal with something sweet.
Pie and ice cream is always a good move during the holidays, but something lighter like cannoli, gelato, or panna cotta could be less intimidating after such an epic feast.