As I get older, holidays evolve. They are more about memories, keeping them alive, and creating memories for the next generations. My earliest Holiday Kitchen memories were of my grandmother, or my “Nonnie,” Millie Crisco, my mother Ro, and her twin sister Jo cranking out pots and plates and platters of seafood for the incredible Christmas Eve Seven Fishes Dinner. The visual of these three very round Italian-American women donning ruffled aprons over their flowing flowery dresses in that small 1960s modern kitchen could be a Guttuso painting. The aromas of boiling baccalà, steaming shellfish, frying shrimp and flounder, and simmering crab sauce on the electric stove turned the air into an intoxicating haze. Olfactory memories are the strongest I have.
The Catholic feast of the seven fishes, contrived by Italian Americans to represent the seven sacraments, also celebrated the relative affluence they acquired living in the New World. It has evolved into one of America’s great Christmas eve food traditions, especially for the second and third-generation Italian-Americans living on the Northeast American Atlantic coast. This is where it all began. Though eating fish is a Christmas Eve tradition in Italy, the SEVEN fishes feast is a distinctly Italian American thing. Growing up in New Haven on Long Island Sound in the 1960s, we were literally swimming in Italian Americans and fresh seafood. As you walked down the street, you could smell the sweet aroma of frying seafood and simmering crabs and lobsters wafting from kitchen windows.
The seven-course extravaganza in my Nonnie’s house was not laid out on the table with any sort of food styling or timing. The eating began in the late afternoon as the men, my grandfather (we called him Big Poppy), his cousins Toby and Foxy Frankie, and my uncles began arriving after work, They cleaned up, dressed in suits, and smelled of plenty of aqua Velva and cigarette smoke. They poured themselves homemade wine from green jugs, beer from quart bottles, and shots of Galliano for themselves as they smoked and nibbled on stinky chunks of provolone while awaiting the arrival of multiple plates of seafood.
Nonnie barked orders to my mother and Aunt Jo with her raspy, short-winded voice throughout the day. They bickered and argued but still managed to pump out the goods. As each pan was completed, its contents were plastered up and set on the table. I was quick to learn that I had better get mine before it got devoured by the men. This was especially true of the fried frutti di mare. Glistening calamari, smelts, scallops, shrimp, and flounder seemed to vanish as soon as the brown paper towel-lined platters hit the table. The seafood salad, lemony and oily with calamari, octopus, and scungilli tossed with onions, celery, and mint, was usually the first dish completed and was on the table all day. Bowls of steamed mussels in olive oil and garlic hit the table with frequency. Pie tins of baked stuffed Quahog clams, hot from the oven, appeared every half hour or so. These dishes constituted an extended cocktail hour, often eaten off paper plates, standing up in the kitchen with the women or on the screen porch with the men.
Around 7 PM we would finally gather and sit at the dinner table for the “main” dishes. The oval table was extended with folding card tables at either end to accommodate the crowd. Braised baccalà potatoes with olives, lobster tails baked in lemony garlic butter, and spaghetti with long-simmering crab sauce were served family style. The crab sauce was the most anticipated tradition, the dish that is made only once a year, the one you cannot get in restaurants.
In my family, crab sauce was made from crabs netted by my family from the Quinnipiac river right down the hill from Nonnie’s house earlier in the summer. We gathered by the muddy shore and worked in teams. One of us would drag a chicken neck tied onto a long string through the grass. Fat crabs crept behind it in pursuit as the neck came into view between the clumps of sod. A quick swoop of the net, and there was a crab or two to add to the bucket. We would catch between 20 and 30 crabs in an afternoon. When we got home, the crabs were quickly blanched, chilled, wrapped in wax paper, and put in the freezer, to be revived on Christmas eve for this special holiday only sauce. The crabs were submerged and slowly cooked in bubbling tomato sauce for hours. We didn’t even care about getting the scant nibbles of meat from them, we would just suck the juices from the claws and belly, getting the stinging sauce all over our cheeks and hands.
After dinner, the tables were cleared, and the men returned to the screen porch, smoked more, played pinochle, and ate nuts and fruit. The dining room table once again loaded, this time with the tins and platters of hundreds of Christmas cookies made by the aunts, cousins, and neighbors. Swapping trays of Christmas cookies was a crazy ritual, almost like a competition. My mother would always quietly comment on whose “anginettes came better.” We kids, now loaded up with sugary sweets, ran wild around the small house in anticipation of Santa Claus. The women loaded seafood leftovers on paper plates and wrapped them in foil for the neighbors and friends to take home. They were stacked on the table on the screen porch where it was cool enough for safekeeping until the non-catholic friends and neighbors came to get their plates. In the words of Nonnie “to waste is a such a sin”.
From all of this personal history, I have designed a deep and delicious Zuppa recipe that captures the essence of the crab sauce so that you can enjoy the seven fishes dinner without having to cook seven courses all day long! (though starting with a round of oysters on the half-shell is always a great idea.) The crab and shrimp-infused tomato sauce capture the flavors from my memory.
This “Zuppa” was a Christmas Eve tradition at my restaurants for over 25 years, enjoyed by all denominations, humanists, and atheists alike. Only the Buddhists missed out!
Though this recipe might seem daunting, it is just a few simple steps, one of which the stock, could be made well in advance.
The secret of this Zuppa is making a great crab sauce base and then timing the cooking of the seafood, so you don’t overcook anything! This is best served over pasta like thin spaghetti or angel hair or just with a loaf of good Italian bread.
Serves 6 people
6 hardshell blue crabs, alive and kickin’, or use frozen
8 oz crabmeat, the less expensive claw meat, is perfectly fine for this
1 lb cleaned calamari, tentacles intact, tubes cut into ½” thick rings
12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined, peeled reserved (buy American)
12 medium (20-30 per lb) dry-pack sea scallops, adductor muscle removed
18 littleneck clams (scrubbed)
24 Plus 24 mussels (scrubbed & debearded)
1 ½ lbs firm fish filet like cod, hake, pollock, or flounder, cut into chunks
Extra virgin olive oil as needed
The prepped crabs and shrimp shells
A smallish fish carcass (optional)
1 medium onion, peeled and diced small
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
2 20 oz cans plum tomatoes in juice, squished by hand
2 cups dry white wine
2 fresh bay leaves (see note)
1 quart water
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 cans crushed tomatoes
The crab stock above
Crushed red pepper to taste
Italian parsley galore
Salt to taste.
To make the “Zuppa sauce” base.
Prep the crabs.
Bring a pot of assertively salted water to a rolling boil. Drop the crabs in and cook for 3-4 minutes to kill them. Remove from the pot and plunge into a bowl of icy cold water to stop the cooking. Allow the cold water to run over them for a few minutes until they are cool to the touch. (If you are using frozen blue crabs, skip this step.)
Use scissors to remove the face (eyes and mouth) and the “apron” or the flap that it uses to cover its butt. Pull off the back and remove the “dead man’s fingers” or gills. These are parallel sets of grayish slender fingers that taper to a point. Google if you are not sure. They are not as toxic as rumored in yore’s days, but any impurities in the crab’s watery environment will be collected here. Besides, I find they add a pissy flavor to the broth, so get rid of them. Use a heavy knife and cut the crabs in half.
Make the stock.
In a heavy pot, drizzle in enough olive oil to coat the entire base of the pot.
When it is hot to almost smoking, add the crabs and reserved shrimp peels and season with a two-finger pinch of salt.
Allow the crabs and shrimp shells to sizzle in the oil, stirring as needed until the sweet aroma releases and the shrimp shells are pink. Stir and scrap the bottom of the pan.
Lower heat to medium.
Add the onions and cook until soft but not brown.
Add the tomato paste and fry it well for at least one minute.
Add the white wine, stir hot well to bring to a boil.
Cook at a brisk boil for 3-4 minutes.
Add the first 24 mussels, the fish carcass (if using), the plum tomatoes, and the bay leaves, and bring back to a boil. Now add the water and allow it to simmer for at least one hour to infuse the crab flavor.
Strain the stock, squeezing the juices from the crabs well.
Note: This can be made one or two days in advance and stored in the fridge. (You can even do it weeks in advance and freeze it.)
On the day of your dinner- make the sauce.
You now have a deep seafood-infused tomato sauce for the Zuppa.
In a cold pot with a tight-fitting lid, add the olive oil and onions.
Turn the heat to medium and add a two-finger pinch of salt.
Cook the onions slowly until shiny but not brown.
Add the garlic and continue to cook for another two minutes, now let the garlic brown. If the pan is too hot, add a splash of water to slow the cooking and keep the garlic and onions from browning.
Add the tomatoes and the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add the crabmeat and the cod, and allow to simmer gently for about an hour.
Assemble the “Zuppa”. Timing is everything!
OK—get this. The crab and the fish filet can cook a long time, so we added them to the sauce to break down and add their flavors to the sauce.
THE CARDINAL RULE OF COOKING COMBINED SEAFOOD: The clams take the longest to cook, then the scallops and shrimp, and finally the mussels and squid. Respect your seafood!
Bring the back sauce to a medium boil.
If you are serving pasta for this, have it ready. Don’t make the fish wait for the pasta!
Now drop the pasta to cook.
Add the clams and cover.
In EXACTLY FOUR MINUTES, the clams should be just starting to open.
Don’t wait for them all to open.
You must ANTICIPATE THE OPENING OF THE CLAMS!
Open the lid. If the clams are just starting to pop, add your shrimp and scallops and give them a stir.
Cook TWO MORE MINUTES covered.
Add the mussels and cover. Now cook TWO MORE MINUTES.
Now add the calamari and cook ONE MORE MINUTE COVERED.
Add a fist full of chopped parsley and cover. Turn off the heat and let it all gently steam for 3 more minutes before serving.
Ladle over pasta or in big bowls with plenty of bread. Serve olio Santo on the side (see recipe below).
1 large fresh long hot pepper, stemmed and cut into half-inch pieces
1 cup or more of EVOO.
A pinch of salt
In a small pot, add the pepper and salt. Cover the pepper by at least an inch with oil.
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the pepper is soft but not brown. Allow the pepper to steep in the oil.
Drizzle over the pasta to taste, or serve with bread. Store in a jar on the counter and use whenever you need a taste of the “Oil of the Saints”
- About fresh bay leaves. They are available in the produce section in small plastic boxes. Buy them, and keep them in the freezer. You will learn why bay leaves are such a magic addition to sauce.
I Vote Red: Though this is a serious seafood dish, the right red can dance with the acidity of the tomatoes and shellfish.
I am enamored with fresh Sicilian reds with this kind of stew. A quality Etna Rosso DOC (Nero Mascalese/Nerello Cappuccio) or Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG (Nero D’Avolo-Frappato) are both perfect with this type of tomato-based seafood dish. The minerality of both of these Sicilian wines embraces the shellfish and will not overpower the delicate fish, while the freshness brings out the fruitiness of the tomatoes and the sweetness of the crab, especially if the wine is served slightly cool.
If You Prefer White: I suggest a dead dry, crisp white with plenty of minerality. A well-made Southern Italian white like Grecante, Cattaratto, or Frascati would stand to the side and be cleansing and refreshing. Albarino or Picpoul de Pinet, or Quincy also have just enough minerality and subtle fruit to quaff while enjoying the seafood feast.
But then again, a quality sparkling wine would be lovely.
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Great article! Loved the memories and connections.
I Agree. I grew up in a similar family and the story was spot-on!
So true, My Italian family never made seven fishes, but we had a variety. My grandmother was from Calabria and she would make eels in sauce and marinated octopus. My Mom made stuffed squid ( my favorite) and baccala, but when our family got smaller it was linguini with anchovies. Dad grew up in Capri and ate lots of seafood, but Found out later in life that he was allergic to all shellfish which was a bummer considering we all loved shellfish. My ex mother-in-law was from Maine and she always make crab sauce. This all sounds delicious and I wish I had people I could make this for! Bravo Ric ( great photo too !
Our family tradition of 7 fishes has gone by the wayside – we are now down to 3 or 4. But the memories of Nonna, Aunt Sadie and Aunt Josie in the kitchen at Christmas stay with me.
Excellent evocative story, so enjoyable I could smell it. The recipe is so complicated but Ric makes it sound easy — although eating his version would be so much more satisfying. Thank you , Ric, for your generous spirit and bringing the old time holidays to life.
Loved it! I wrote a story about the Feast of the Seven Fishes that it was actually an American-Italian thing created in America and people blasted me saying it was created in Italy. I told them to check out Wikipedia. You were right on with this story. My story is on my blog: patriziatravels.home.blog and on my Facebook page: patriziatravels. I’m from Kingston and now live in Florida. I love my Italian heritage and frequently visit Italy. Thanks!