Food & Drink

Vigilia di Natale — Feast of the Seven Fishes

I am fascinated by how food traditions transform and meld across cultures. It happens very quickly these days with the  worldwide, tall, deep reach of the internet. In prior times — before the internet, before television, before radio, before airplanes, before the telephone and  when people rode in carts, carriages, on horses and donkeys, and traversed land and sea on foot and on wave — it relied on the gentle, step-by-loving step instruction of a parent or grandparent to instruct the agape mind of youth in the line-by-line practices of family, faith and fortitude.

The custom of Vigilia di Natale — Feast of the Seven Fishes was practiced by the impoverished, land-working classes of southern Italy. The Catholic Church declared that the twenty-four hours before the birth of Jesus was a time of meat abstinence and that a vigil be kept while awaiting the baby at midnight. As poverty dictated that meat was a rare luxury in the south, the vigil focused on fish and vegetables.

Through immigration to the US this meal became known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.”

Why seven you ask?

The number seven occurs — you guessed it — over 700 times, perhaps reflecting the six days it took to make the world and the seventh to rest; the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; the seven hills of Rome; God’s divinity of three (father, son and Holy Ghost) within the four, (north, south, east, west) areas of the earth equals seven, symbolizing God on earth.

Traditionally the fish includes dried cod, salt cod (baccala), calamari, anchovies, sardines, eels, octopus, mussels, clams, shrimp and lobster, along with salads and vegetable dishes.

It is quite a feat to make this prolonged feast a continuously satisfying meal. Each dish has to step up in its depth of flavor while balanced with texture and temperature. This is especially important if you are pairing wine with the feast.

Here is a contemporary menu illustrative of the seven fishes tradition:



Hors d’Oeuvre

Poblano seafood corndogs with chipotle mayonnaise

Lobster deviled macaroni and cheese with herb crumbs

Asparagus, morel polpettone with Madeira crème fraiche

Broccoli rabe, rice vermicelli and mint with spicy balsamic-citrus syrup cashew dressing



Oysters with cucumber martini sorbet and white balsamic drizzle

Morel custard with truffled mushroom consommé – radish garnish

Smoked trout on lemon-tarragon panna cotta with asparagus

Tuna carpaccio with mache, black olive powder and vinegar meringue

Peas and carrots with pappardelle pasta and sweet pea marjoram butter broth (see recipe here)

Seared scallops with maple brown butter sauce with butternut squash pancakes

Grilled cod with sherried mussel sauce (see recipe below)

Green bean, radicchio and asparagus salad in mushroom soil with carrot mousse dressing

Lime-Cointreau baked bananas, caramelized macadamia nuts and coconut ice cream




Grilled Cod with Sherried Mussel Sauce


Yield: six portions as main course

Equipment: Kitchen scale, paper towels, large sauce pan, spider, fine mesh strainer, measuring spoons and cups, metal spatula, food processor.


2½ – 3# skinned cod, trimmed to 6 – 7 oz. pieces
½ C extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste

1C Water
½C dry white wine
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ C rough chopped parsley

1 ½ # washed mussels

¾ C white wine
1½ tablespoons Lime juice
1½ teaspoons lime zest
Ground black pepper

1½ C Heavy cream
½ C sweet sherry
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste


Place the trimmed cod pieces on layers of paper towel and pat dry. Season. Add oil to hot pan. Sear each piece of cod on the “presentation” side. Place on sheet tray with presentation side uppermost.

For the mussel sauce, heat water, wine, oil, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add mussels in four batches. Cover and boil until the shells open. Remove mussels to sheet tray to cool. Repeat till all mussels cooked.

Chop mussels, preserving all juice. Strain poaching juice. Add chopped mussels. Add wine, lime juice and zest and reduce by 50%. Purée. Add sweet sherry and heavy cream, reduce and season.

To serve, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Add the sheet tray with cod. Cook for five to eight minutes depending on freshness of the fish. Be aware that older fish, losing moisture, will cook more quickly than fresh fish.

Reheat the mussel sauce gently while the fish is cooking.


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