In many parts of Italy, it’s traditional to have seafood on Christmas Eve, probably a result of past religious prohibitions on meat.
Menus vary from region to region, but in some areas, the meal consists of many courses. Rosetta Costantino, who’s from Calabria, Italy’s “toe,” lists the 13 dishes traditional in her family in her wonderful cookbook, “My Calabria,” (although not all are seafood.)
Valentina Guolo-Migotto, chef of Ca’ Momi Osteria in Napa, comes from the Veneto in northeast Italy. She prepares different seafood dishes like crostini al salmone affumicato (smoked salmon crostini) primo risotto ai frutti mare (seafood risotto) and polpo alla luciana, an octopus stew from Naples.
Stefano Masanti, a Michelin-star chef and founder of one of Italy’s most beloved restaurants, Il Cantinone in Madesimo in the Italian Alps. Since he closes for the summer, he spends the summers at V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena. He shared a recipe with smoked eel, which is traditional. He explains, “The snake (eel) is the symbol of evil so eating the snake is like avoiding it as symbol of good luck.”
When Italians immigrated to America, the Christmas Eve seafood custom evolved into the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s now a festive custom among many Italian-Americans, who prepare seven fish, shellfish and mollusk dishes as part of a celebration that also includes pastries and panettone. This tradition has even migrated back to Italy.
Many of the Italians who settled in San Francisco’s North Beach were fishermen from Genoa and the surrounding region of Liguria. They brought a seafood stew like those common all over the Mediterranean coasts with them, and it evolved into cioppino, often made with local Dungeness crabs, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels and finfish.
The name seems to come from ciuppin, the Ligurian seafood stew or soup in which the seafood is cooked until it disintegrates. It’s more tomato based than some Mediterranean versions like bouillabaisse.
Years ago, when my family moved to Southern California in 1971, we adopted the custom of preparing cioppino for Christmas Eve (and on sailing trips to Catalina) even though we have no Italian antecedents. I guess we wished we did.
We used the classic recipe form an early version of the “Sunset Seafood Cookbook.” We used small local crabs, which we bought cheaply at the Redondo Beach pier.
On one of the times we prepared cioppino from that book, He Kitty, our big Burmese cat, tracked sauce over the page open to “cioppino” and those faded paw tracks remain.
Sunset changed its recipe over time. In the next version, they substituted oregano and basil for the dried rosemary and thyme in the 1967 version. I use fresh springs of the original herbs from my yard when I recently prepared cioppino for some friends.
Sunset also threw in whole garlic cloves and removed them. Chopping it and leaving it in seems better.
Finally, I use seafood stock instead of the water called for the recipe. This time, it was made from the crab shells, crushed and steeped with onion, celery, carrot and a bay leaf from my Mediterranean laurel tree.
We served it in bowls with a lot of garlic bread and an authentic Caesar salad – and a lot of napkins. It’s very messy.
To complete the seven fishes theme, we had appetizers of smoked salmon, smoked mackerel and cream cheese dip, tinned Spanish anchovies and smoked oysters (plus anchovies for the Caesar salad for those who wanted them.
Cindy Deutsch brought a tasty crostini of Rancho Gordo Marcella beans from the New York Times.
To maintain the theme, we started with 2013 Schramsberg Sparkling Brut Rosé and a bottle of 2013 Schramsberg Sparkling Brut Blancs des Blanc.
With the meal, we had a wonderful crisp classic Stony Hill Chardonnay, which eschews oak and malolactic fermentation to make it perfect with shellfish, as does a 2015 unoaked St. Supéry Chardonnay. Another classic was Grgich-Hills Chardonnay, which is also restrained though with a touch of oak.
Cioppino often contains red wine, and we thought a Heitz Grignolino would be a perfect pairing, as the grape originates from just over the mountains from Liguria in Piedmont. It was light and fruity, as far from a Napa cabernet as possible.
Finally, food journalist Janet Fletcher brought a pudding made with persimmons from her yard for dessert, which we served with a Chateau Loupiac -Gaudiet 1973 contributed by John Young.
With a meal like that, who needs presents?