There’s no better time than the holidays to indulge in hosting elaborate dinner parties filled with extravagant seafood dishes. The ”Feast of Seven Fishes” is most popular with Southern Italian and Italian-American families. And while the name refers to fish specifically, a variety of seafood is often served.
I’m not Italian though it is tradition in my family not to eat meat on Christmas Eve. My family doesn’t go all out with the seafood like many (though I did grow up spending a lot of Christmases celebrating with my Aunt’s Italian family and they do go all out). We make the same dish every year: baked stuffed shrimp made with jumbo shrimp filled and baked with a crab and crushed cracker stuffing.
Italian-American Christmas Eve dinner celebrations (also known as the Festa dei Sette Pesci or La Vigilia) are inspired by the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on December 24th, the day before Christmas. So, though this is not necessarily a religious meal, the number seven holds various symbolic representations for Catholics including the number of sacraments, the number of deadly sins, virtues, and days of creation. Also, you don’t have to be Italian or Roman Catholic to throw a seafood feast!
There are no hard and fast rules for what seafood to serve for the Feast of Seven Fishes, a lot of it comes down to family traditions. You don’t even necessarily have seven different types of seafood, though why wouldn’t you want to indulge in all different types of seafood?! Also, most households do serve salt cod, though it’s not my preference.
Popular seafood or “fishes” to include:
Whether you’re making one dish or spending all day in the kitchen making seven to twelve, I’m sharing plenty of ideas for your Christmas Eve dinner below. And don’t forget about Christmas day! Check out some of my menus for Christmas day here.
Pick something snacky for an appetizer course like a dip or bites that are easy to share. Fried finger foods like fritto misto (an assortment of fried things), calamari or fried salted cod are often served. However, I prefer appetizers that can be prepped further in advance so more attention can be on the later more elegant courses. Also, oysters served on the half shell or shrimp cocktail are both great options!
This baked stuffed clam recipe is made with a mixture of onion, celery, bell pepper, buttered breadcrumbs, spices, chopped clam meat and more piled onto the shells.
So, rather than using raw salmon this recipe uses smoked salmon paired with “everything bagel” toasts for dipping.
This dip can be prepped ahead of time and baked just before serving to cut down on the stress of entertaining.
This rich dish is made with baked oysters on the half shell topped with spinach and a butter sauce. It’s the perfect appetizer for special occasions.
The cream cheese and sour cream base is mixed with buttery crabmeat, Worcestershire, lemon and herbs. Serve this dip hot or cold.
These are like luxury cheddar bay biscuits! Also, french choux pastry is so light and airy filled with chunks of lobster meat.
Bathing shrimp in a silky, buttery wine sauce is tough to beat. Then, pair with grilled bread or toasts for an easy appetizer.
Also, I recommend making these crab cakes bite size for the perfect party hors d’oeuvres.
Pick a lighter salad as a segue into the next course. It can be prepped in advance and is a great way to move into the heavier courses. The key is pacing yourself!
This light salad is tossed in a ginger soy dressing.
I love this light salad made with butter lettuce in a creamy tarragon dressing. Make the popped quinoa ahead of time for easily assembly.
The avocado pairs well with the bright, acidic notes of the citrus and licorice flavor of the fennel in this simple salad. I top it off with quickly pan-seared shrimp.
A seafood stew is a great way to incorporate numerous types of fish or seafood. Choose from San Francisco style cioppino stew with scallops, shrimp, halibut, swordfish, clams, mussels and crab claws or a simple but elegant lobster bisque.
This chowder is made with green chilies and corn plus a combination of halibut, clams and shrimp.
Creamy lobster bisque is one of my favorite soups. Since it is a richer soup I recommend portioning small bowls for guests.
Knock out several types of seafood in one stew with cioppino! This famous dish from San Francisco is loaded with a variety of shellfish. Easily swap them out for any of your favorites.
Follow it up by choosing one or two entrées. This is the time to impress with rich and indulgent dishes that really show off the seafood. The great thing about seafood is many have a fairly quick cook time.
Baked stuffed shrimp are a family favorite. We always try to use the largest shrimp we can find! They’re baked over a buttery crab and cracker filling.
I pair the fish with a simple lemon butter sauce made in the pan. This technique can be used for any favorite type of flakey white fish.
I love how the rich, buttery sauce compliments the fatty salmon. If cooking for a large group I recommend roasting the salmon rather than pan searing to make it easier.
Rather than individual filets, one long half of salmon served on a large platter makes for an impressive spread. You can flake and serve the salmon with the lemon dill cream sauce.
This dish is filling enough to make a great entrée yet light enough that people won’t fill up too much with multiple courses.
You can fill the lobster pot pie ahead of time. Then, assemble it with the puff pastry just before cooking to cut down on prep.
This is a tender octopus that you can serve with crispy guiancale, white beans and tomatoes. Also, if adhering strictly to not eating meat then omit the guiancale. I sous vide the octopus so it’s extremely tender.
Make a big pot and set them in the middle of the table, letting people dig in! Also, don’t forget to serve with plenty of warm, crusty Italian bread.
Whole fish makes for an impressive entrée! Also, plan for one whole snapper for every two to three people.
The creamy seafood sauce is made from a seafood demi-glaze base with tomato paste and heavy cream. Also, it’s paired with seared shrimp and scallops over a bed of white rice.
What’s an Italian feast without some pasta?! A pasta course is definitely a must! Also, go traditional with a spaghetti alla vongole or lobster fra diavolo or switch it up with another recipe from below. Decide ahead of time whether the course will be better plated (plating spaghetti alla vongole or shrimp scampi risotto ahead of time allows for equal distribution of clams or shrimp) while other pasta dishes look prettier on a big platter, like lobster fra diavolo or creamy lobster pasta.
The spicy tomato-based sauce is filled with chunks of succulent lobster meat. So, this pasta is a staple for many Italian-American family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrations.
The fresher the clams the better spaghetti alle vongole. Also, this pasta comes together quickly making it easy for entertaining.
Shrimp scampi pasta is a simple dish that comes together with a few ingredients that can typically be found around the house.
This simple pasta comes together with only a few ingredients including salmon, zucchini, mushrooms, olive oil and parmesan.
This creamy sauce is made with sautéed mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes. Also, it’s served with shrimp though other seafood like scallops or squid would pair well.
This creamy lobster pasta is similar to a lobster bisque sauce over bucatini pasta.
This recipe can easily be scaled up for larger groups. So, while risotto takes a bit of attention the components come together quickly for an impressive entrée.
Finish the meal with a trip to an Italian bakery for cookies like pizzelle or Italian rainbow cookies or make your own!
The iconic Sicilian dessert is one of my favorites because it isn’t overly sweet. Also, you make it with a flakey shell with ricotta and mascarpone filling. You can dip the ends with chocolate chips.
While this is a French recipe, my aunt’s Italian grandmother would always make a big pile of cream puffs every Christmas. Also, it was always my first pick.
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