For many years now my sister, who lives in Pennsylvania, has been regaling me with tales of her Italian-American neighbour’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, a popular Italian Christmas Eve supper to celebrate the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, the vigil for the birth of Christ. Her neighbour invites friends and family around and each brings some sort of fish or seafood dish to share. Each year, I make my sister recite the menu to me. It is quite varied, but according to tradition, at least one dish is made with baccalà (salt cod). Not all the dishes she describes are from Italian recipes and usually there are many more than seven different fish. My sister, invariably, brings the homemade gravlax – definitely not Italian. Hearing about this Feast is almost as good as being there. Almost.
You see, all these years I have been secretly envious of this little get-together. (Although when my sister reads this post, it will no longer be secret!) Being thousands of miles away, not to mention separated by an Ocean, I’ve taken matters into my own hands. This year I intend to have my own little feast of fishes. But, all of my fishes will be crammed into one dish – a Tuscan fish soup/stew, known as cacciucco, from the coastal town of Livorno. It is a similar to other Mediterranean fishermen’s stews: French bouillabaisse, Portuguese caldeirada, and Greek kakavia.
This is my interpretation of a traditional Italian fish soup/stew. Because of the elaborate preparation and the amount and variety of fish required, this is definitely a party dish or something for a special occassion. Usually, it is made with at least seven different fish/seafood, but I’ve restricted mine to five because of a shellfish allergy among some members of my family. If you are lucky not to be allergic to shrimp, clams or mussels, add these to the finished soup. Clams or mussels should be steamed open before adding, but the cleaned and de-veined raw shrimp can can be added last in the list of fish to the soup.
When you fillet the sea bass and the red mullet for the soup, do not throw away the bones. If you get your fishmonger to do this for you, make sure the head and bones are wrapped separately. These heads and bones form the basis of the stock. Stock can be made the day before, refrigerated until ready to use. And, since this makes double than what is called for in the soup recipe below, half can be frozen for future use.
Makes about 3 litres
- heads and bones from the red mullet and sea bass used in the soup (see below)
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion
- 1 leek
- 1 celery stalk
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 whole clove
- 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
- stalks from a bunch of parsley (used in the soup below)
- 3 litres of water
Clean and chop the onion, leek, and celery into small pieces (the mirepoix) and put into a bowl. Mix in the juice from 1/2 lemon.
Clean the fish heads and bones under cold running water. Cut bones into pieces. In a large heavy bottom stock pot heat the oil and add the fish heads a bone pieces. Turn over in the hot oil so that everything is coated. Reduce the heat and cook with the lid on for 5 minutes before adding the mirepoix. Mix, cover again and let it cook for 10 minutes.
Add the water. Smash the garlic clove and add this along with the salt, bay leaf, the clove, the peppercorns, the sprigs of thyme and the stalks from the bunch of parsley. Cover, increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes with the lid on and another 30 minutes with the lid off.
Sieve through a cheesecloth to catch all the small bones, scales, spices, etc.
The following are the fish I’ve chosen, but you can vary your choice, but just make sure they are Mediterranean fish and that you have at least one “gelatinous” type such as monkfish or grouper. The squid and octopus are a must as these form the basis of the soup and are slow-cooked for about an hour and a half. The rest of the fish are quick-cooked just before serving.
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 shallots
- 1 fresh red chilli
- 2 small squids/calamari
- 1 small octopus
- 200ml dry red wine
- 2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes
- small bunch of sage
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1-1/2 litres litres fish stock
- 200g monkfish fillets
- 2 sea bass fillets from a medium size fish
- 4 red mullet fillets from two fish
- bunch of parsley
Clean and chop both the octopus and calamari into small pieces and set aside. Finely chop the shallots. De-seed and finely slice the chilli. Gently fry the shallots and chilli in the olive oil in the soup pot. When the shallots are translucent, add the octopus and calamari pieces. Gently cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the wine and continue on a simmer until the wine is reduced and has been absorbed by the fish – approximately 25 to 30 minutes.
Add the tins of tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Slice the sage leaves into strips and add this to the pot. Add salt to taste. Stir, cover the pot with a tight fitting lid, and simmer for 45 minutes on low. Stir occasionally. The octopus and squid require this long slow cook to become tender. The concentrated flavours form the base of the soup. This base can be made ahead of time and simply reheated when you are ready to finish.
About half an hour before you are ready to serve, add the stock to the pot and increase the heat so that the soup comes to a gentle boil. Skin the fish fillets and cut them into chunks. Add the monkfish to the soup first as it requires more time to cook. After about 5 minutes, add the sea bass. Finally, after a minute or two, add the red mullet. If adding shrimp, add this last. Reduce the heat and let the soup simmer for about 15 minutes before stirring in chopped parsley. If adding mussels or clams, clean and steam them open separately before adding (including shells) just before serving.
Traditionally this is served with day-old or toasted rustic country-style bread rubbed with garlic and placed in the bottom of the bowl. The soup is then ladled over. Or, serve a loaf of crusty bread separately.
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Buona Vigilia di Natale! I’ll be back after Christmas.
Last Christmas: a British custom, Flap Dragons…Snip, Snap, Dragon!