With Christmas Eve fast approaching, it’s time to starting thinking about that uniquely Italian-American tradition of the Seven Fishes. Probably born from the Italian tradition of not eating meat on Christmas Eve, this American tradition was influenced by the abundance of seafood available far away from the coasts. Loosely interpreted as either seven courses of fish, or seven types of fish, this meal is a big draw for non-Italian non-cooking people seeking out a Christmas Eve invite. I even pulled off a Kosher seven fishes one year when we invited a Jewish couple over for Christmas Eve dinner. There’s also a tradition of going to midnight mass after seven fishes that I’ve never quite pulled off but it does explain the great smell of wine on peoples breath at this typical service.
But I think my favorite seven fishes story occurred on my first visit with my to-be in-laws at Christmas in Seattle. As Christmas Eve drew nearer I began wondering what was up for Christmas Eve? Not wanting to be the new guy being pushy, I restrained myself until I could no more. I finally asked and discovered, to my horror, that the family tradition that I was to marry into was ordering Chinese food on Christmas Eve – in Seattle, in the close proximity to the best seafood in the country. I ever-so-gently suggested we take another direction and immediately drove to the closest good quality seafood counter. With mussels, crab, shrimp, clams, sea urchin, squid and salmon in hand, we where off to the races. Now every time we visit for Christmas, I’m asked for a repeat performance.
So that brings me to this dish as a nice first or second course in the meal. There’s nothing quite like saffron paired with black mussels and a light tomato broth; it’s the perfect way to enter into a meal. You could certainly substitute clams instead. I would make and serve this the same day as the meal, as mussels don’t reheat well. Just let them return to room temperature and then gently reheat. You could also serve with some anchovy-toasted breadcrumbs as a crunchy element.
It’s never to soon to start planning your seven fishes meal, keeping an eye out for the friends of yours with that “lost puppy” look in their eyes as Christmas Eve approaches.
- 1 package (750 grams) Pomi brand or similar strained tomatoes
- 4 cloves peeled garlic, divided
- Pinch good quality saffron, soaked in warm water to infuse
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- ½ lb shell-shaped pasta
- 2 lbs black mussels, beards removed
- ½ cup white wine
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley, divided
- In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat one tbsp extra-virgin oil. Add 2 peeled garlic cloves and sauté until light brown. Discard the cloves; the oil is now flavored with the garlic.
- Deglaze the pan with an ounce of wine and then add the strained tomatoes and the saffron infusion. Cover and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, to let all the flavors meld. Season with salt and pepper to taste, remembering that the mussels will add more salt. Keep warm on simmer.
- Cook the shell-shaped pasta in heavily salted boiling water to 2 minutes less than al dente per the package directions. Drain well and add to the saffron broth. Stir to combine. Continue to simmer the broth until the pasta is completely cooked and has released some of its starch.
- In a separate pan big enough to hold all the mussels, heat 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the 2 remaining garlic cloves and a pinch of red pepper flakes and lightly brown. Add the mussels and stir into the oil. Add the remaining white wine, 1 tbsp of parsley, and toss. Cover and let the mussels steam open—about 5-to-10 minutes. Remove from heat and let the mussels cool until you can handle them.
- Saving the accumulated liquid, remove the mussels from the shells and transfer to the tomato-pasta mixture. Discard and mussels that don’t open. Pass the mussel broth through a cheesecloth or paper towel in a strainer and add to the tomato broth. Stir to combine.
- Reheat the soup before serving and ladle into warm bowls. Top with the remaining chopped parsley.