Many of us are recovering from our holiday feasting, having stuffed ourselves with things like Christmas roast, potatoes and pies. One of my favorite foods of Christmas is the seafood stew that my father-in-law makes on Christmas Eve. It is full of scallops and shrimp, clams and haddock, big bunches of basil, parsley, and tons of garlic. It is a celebration of the bounty of our oceans at a time of year when it is easy to forget about all that great seafood.

My husband and I lived in Italy for a couple of years when he was in the Navy and we fell in love with Italian culture and, of course, food. One year, we were invited to our friends’ house for their family’s Christmas dinner.

We literally weren’t allowed to get up from the table for four hours as we were served course after course. Roasted pig, goat, lamb, and veal all came one after the other. There were the usual plates of homemade pastas, as well, but this was really a celebration of meat.

Some time after that meal (likely soon after while I was in an immobilized and semi- comatose state), I did a little googling to learn more about Italian Christmas traditions. It turns out that this celebration of meat comes on the heels of a celebration of seafood – The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Its origins date back to Roman Catholic times when people refrained from eating meat during certain religious holidays, including La Vigilia, or Christmas Eve. La Vigilia is literally the vigil or waiting for the midnight birth of baby Jesus.

The number seven may come from a few different places. According to Wikipedia, the number seven appears in the Bible over 700 times: Seven deadly sins, seven Christian virtues, seven days of creation, seven hills of Rome, to name a few.

So, the Christmas Eve meal consisted of seven seafood dishes, as meat was not allowed. The variety of seafood was a celebration of its abundant supply, which could provide a hearty meal, despite the lack of meat.
It wasn’t until this year as I started planning for our family Christmas gathering that I realized our Christmas Eve seafood stew was loosely part of this tradition. The loose part is that we have no Italian heritage in our family to speak of. The connection is the common celebration of the delights of the sea.

While we don’t prepare seven different fish dishes for our feast, there are likely seven different kinds of seafood in my father-in-law’s stew. The amazing part of this is that all seven are local. In fact, every year we get to go on a provisioning trip to collect the ingredients from local purveyors. It is a great reminder of the resources we have so close by.

I wouldn’t change his stew for anything and have been known to eat it two or three times a day after Christmas. But, I wondered what the seven fishes were that people ate in Italy. It turns out that one of the most traditional is baccala, or salted cod.

Salt cod was one of the early foods of New England settlers; they salted and dried fish to preserve it for the winter. Fried smelts are another of the seven fishes – and another that is common to New England.

Americans don’t typically eat oily fish like smelts, which are similar to sardines or anchovies, but the novelty of their short availability during the winter ice fishing season often makes people curious enough to try them.

As for the other seven, they could be anything from calamari to shrimp to clams and mussels. In New England, some might include lobster, though it is far too pricey to get in Italy.

I love having found this connection between our own family traditions and my fond memories of living in Italy. And, it is fun to have found commonalities in the traditional species between two very different places.

It makes me realize that, though our oceans are quite varied, each area full of its own suite of living things, they are all connected. Holiday seafood feasts remind us to appreciate both this connectivity, as well as the productivity of the oceans.

Portuguese Fish Stew
(feeds an army)

  • 6 Tbls olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 5 large garlic cloves
  • 3 medium zucchini
  • 3 medium yellow squash
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 3 cups of large diced Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1 ½ lbs. scallops
  • 1 ½ lbs. shrimp peeled, deveined
  • 10 oz. chopped clams
  • 10 oz. crabmeat
  • 10 oz. lobster meat
  • 12 oz. chorizo or linguica
  • 3 lbs. haddock
  • 16 oz. clam broth
  • 16 oz. fish stock
  • 2 Goya “sazon’ (seasoning) packets
  • 2 Tbls. dried thyme
  • 1 large handful each of chopped fresh basil and parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Crusty boule

Parboil potatoes in separate sauce pan, drain and set aside. Gently sauté chorizo in separate frying pan, chop and set aside. Gently poach haddock in not-quite-boiling water for 9 minutes, gently flipping once; drain and set aside.

In a large pot, sauté (medium heat) chopped onion in 3 Tbls. olive oil until translucent; add minced garlic for the last minute or so. Add diced zucchini and yellow squash and sauté until soft stirring frequently; set aside.

Sauté until soft, eggplant in remaining 3 Tbls. olive oil. Re-introduce squash onion mixture to large pot with eggplant, add potatoes, tomatoes, raw scallops, shrimp, crabmeat, clams, cooked chorizo chunks, clam broth, fish stock, Goya seasoning, salt and pepper.

Barely bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, simmer for 40 minutes.

A couple of minutes before serving stir in parsley, basil and thyme saving a small amount to sprinkle on each serving. Place large chunks of room temperature haddock in the bottom of each serving bowl and ladle stew on top.

Serve with warm crusty loaf.