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  • Writer's pictureCulinary Cam

The Feast of Twelve Fishes: La Vigilia di Natale v.2023

Years ago, when I was in college, I dated a guy whose family was from Calabria. The first Christmas I spent with them was when I learned about this tradition of La Vigilia di Natale in the form of twelve fish courses in honor of the twelve apostles. Ironically, no one in that family really cooked; so twelve courses included fish sticks (from a box), tuna salad (from a can), etc. While I didn't love the execution of that dinner - and didn't stay with that college boyfriend - I did love the idea and I've adopted into my own culinary traditions. I have been doing this for over twenty-five years with different recipes each year.


Other parts of Italy have only seven dishes, not twelve. I did some research to discover that the Feast of the Seven Fishes represents the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church: Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and the Sacrament of the Sick. It could also refer to the seven days of creation. Additionally, in Biblical numerology, seven is the number of perfection.


In any case, this Christmas Eve celebration embraces the Catholic prohibition against eating meat while awaiting the birth of Jesus. So, the Feast of the Seven - or Twelve - Fishes is a meal that consists almost entirely of seafood dishes.



This year - because we were down the coast celebrating D's 20th birthday - we stopped in Avila Beach for a seafood market field trip at the Harford Seafood Market that specializes in local, sustainable seafood. I picked up everything I needed for this special Christmas Eve dinner.


I didn't do courses. I just put everything except the dessert on the table and we just passed platters, served ourselves, and enjoyed.


Dungeness Crab


No recipe for this. Just steamed, cracked crab served with clarified butter and lots of napkins. This was my favorite of the dishes.


Crab Cakes


This was R's second favorite dish and Jake's least favorite! Do you see why I offer lots of options?!


Ingredients makes 6 mini crab cakes

  • 2 cups crab meat

  • 1 egg

  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1/3 cup shredded parmesan cheese

  • 1/3 cup crushed crackers or breadcrumbs

  • 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning

  • melted butter or olive oil

  • Also needed: lemon slices for serving


Procedure

Blend all of the ingredients together in a mixing bowl and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Divide the crab into six portions and shape them into patties. Place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with melted butter or olive oil and place in the oven. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of your cakes. You want them firm and golden brown. Serve with lemon slices.



Smoked Sablefish and Smoked Halibut Deviled Eggs


This was was R's favorite dish of the evening. I used house-smoked halibut and sablefish. You can use whatever smoked fish you have on-hand.


Ingredients serves 4

  • 4 large organic eggs

  • 1/3 cup organic mayonnaise

  • 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic

  • 1 Tablespoon smoked halibut, chopped plus more garnish

  • 1 Tablespoon smoked sablefish, chopped

  • freshly ground pepper for serving


Procedure

Hardboil your eggs. Cover eggs completely with cold water by 1 to 2 inches in a heavy saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer eggs, covered with a lid for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and let stand - covered - for 15 minutes. Transfer eggs to a bowl of ice to stop cooking. Let stand 5 minutes.


Peel eggs and halve lengthwise. Remove yolks as carefully as you can and mash in a bowl with a fork. Add mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic, and smoked fish. Stir with fork until smooth.


Fill egg whites with deviled egg mixture and garnish with more smoked fish. Sprinkle with black pepper before serving.


Ahi Carpaccio


This and and the halibut crudo were the top of the menu for both my mom and Jake. I love that they are so simply. You can pound the ahi to be super thin, I went with a more rustic platter and just sliced it as thin as possible.


Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound sashimi-grade ahi tuna loin, sliced as thinly as you can

  • flake sea salt

  • 4 Tablespoons vinegar (I used a spiced apple cider vinegar)

  • 6 Tablespoons olive oil (I used a lemon olive oil)

  • 4 Tablespoons capers


Procedure

Pour 3 Tablespoons of olive oil on a platter. Add the sliced on ahi and drizzle with 2 Tablespoons vinegar. Sprinkle with salt and 2 Tablespoons capers. Cover and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Uncover and flip the slices over. Drizzle with remaining olive oil and vinegar. Sprinkle with salt and remaining capers. Cover and refrigerate for another 10 minutes. Serve chilled.


Halibut Crudo


This is another simple preparation, but I wanted it to look different from the carpaccio, so I went with small cubes. Inspired by a kiwi vinegar, I garnished with fresh kiwi and thin persimmon slices.


Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound sashimi-grade halibut, cut into small cubes

  • flake sea salt

  • 3 Tablespoons vinegar (I used a spiced kiwi vinegar)

  • 1-1/2Tablespoons olive oil (I used an Olio Nuovo)

  • 2 to 3 Tablespoons cubed fresh kiwi

  • persimmon slices for garnish

  • freshly ground pepper for serving


Procedure

Place halibut cubes in a single layer and drizzle with 1-1/2Tablespoons vinegar. Sprinkle with salt. Cover and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Uncover and stir to coat with vinegar. Drizzle in remaining vinegar, sprinkle with salt, cover and refrigerate for another 10 minutes. Uncover, drizzle with olive oil. Toss in kiwi cubes and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. Serve chilled.


Double Salmon Rillette and Smoked Sturgeon Pâté


And finally we are at D's favorite dish of the evening. I have made rillettes before - with meat - but I was intrigued by this version by a chef I heard on The Splendid Table podcast...only I didn't hear the introduction and didn't know the chef's name! Still I was able to find a link o the recipe and used it as a starting point.


Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cups white wine

  • 1/2 pound wild salmon steak (you can use whatever salmon you have; I had a gorgeous steak from Harford Seafood Co.)

  • 1/4 pound smoked salmon, diced

  • 3 Tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme plus more for serving

  • freshly ground black pepper


Procedure

Pour wine into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add in the salmon steak and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and let poach for 2 minutes. Flip the steak, cover and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Let cool slightly, then remove the skin and the bones. Place meat in a mixing bowl. Add in the remaining ingredients and stir gently, breaking up the salmon steak a little bit and moistening the entire mixture with the dressing. Season to taste with black pepper. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with slices of a hearty bread.


As for the Smoked Sturgeon Pâté, well, I bought that already made in the seafood section at Whole Foods.


Marinated Baby Octopus and Prawn Salad


The final two seafoods I picked up were baby octopus and large prawns. I opted for a frutti di mare marinati, marinated seafood salad.


Ingredients serves 6

1/2 pound baby octopus, beaks removed if not purchased prepped

1/2 pound large prawns, shelled and deveined

1 bay leaf

1/3 cup olive oil

2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves plus more for serving

1/3 cup diced tomatoes

Also needed: lettuce leaves for serving


Procedure

Place octopus in a large pot and cover with water. Float the bay leaf on top and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 1 hour. In the last three minutes drop in the prawns. Drain all of the seafood out. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, salt, and oregano leaves. Toss the seafood in the dressing and let stand until cooled to room temperature. To serve, place in a bowl with lettuce leaves and scatter diced tomatoes over the top. Serve immediately.


Eggnog Cremeux with (Fish-Adjacent) Black Seaweed Caviar Pearls


This decadent dessert features the pop of caviar, but the brininess is more subtle because these are caviar-style black seaweed pearls. Chocolate and caviar are an unexpectedly exquisite pairing. I opted for white chocolate to reduce the bitterness and let the color of the caviar pearls shine! Note: everyone at my table thought this was very disconcerting. I liked it!


Ingredients

  • 1 cup organic eggnog

  • 1/2 cup organic heavy whipping cream

  • 1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise, beans scraped and set aside

  • 2-1/2 cups white chocolate chips

  • 1-1/2 cup thick Greek yogurt

  • caviar-style black seaweed pearls for serving


Procedure

Place whipping cream and eggnog in a sauce pan along with the beans of one vanilla pod - plus the pod. Heat the cream until it begins to bubble around the edges. Remove from heat. Let steep for 10 minutes.

Remove the pod from the cream. Bring to a bubble again. Add in white chocolate chips and swirl until they are completely submerged. Let stand for 3 minutes. Then, with a whisk, blend till smooth - like you're making a ganache.


Place yogurt in a mixing bowl. Once the white chocolate-vanilla cream is smooth, add it to the yogurt and honey. Blend until completely combined.


Spoon cremeux into small serving dishes Cover and let them set overnight. For serving, add a dollop of caviar pearls on top. Serve immediately.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mateo-Manns


I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season full of good food, good drinks, and good friends.

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