From Poland to France, Italy to Germany, serving fish on Christmas Eve is a long-standing tradition in many European cultures. The most popular of these celebratory meals is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or La Vigilia, which originated in Southern Italy. Why so much fish you ask? Well, the answer is pretty simple. In the Catholic tradition, people abstain from eating meat on religious holidays, and Christmas Eve is like the Super Bowl of religious holidays. As far as the fish goes, in Southern Italy and Sicily, fish is very abundant given that there is water literally surrounding the area. In other European cultures where fish may not be as accessible, such as Poland in celebration of Wigilia, there is also an emphasis placed on vegetables such as cabbage, beets, and of course, pierogies stuffed with potato, sauerkraut, mushrooms, or cheese. However, even in countries like Poland, fish is always on the menu during the celebration. Only the best for Mary's baby boy!
I grew up in a very proud Polish family, and small town steeped in Polish tradition. At a very young age, I remember looking around the Wigilia table at my grandparent's house, combing over the offerings of cabbage and noodles, pickled herring (my Dad's favorite), baked cod, stuffed mushrooms, and several other dishes that were very foreign to a 7-year-old in the early 90's. All I wanted to do was order a pizza and open the presents that Santa should be dropping off at any moment. After a few minutes of quickly handing off every serving plate passed my way, I'd finally be gifted the plate of potato and cheese pierogies, fill my plate, and that was the extent of my participation in Wigilia while avoiding fish of any type. Thankfully, being the savvy, well-seasoned Christmas Eve veteran of 7 years, I would fill up on the shrimp cocktail before we ever sat down to dinner.
Even as I got older and my palate began to expand and become much more adventurous, I still wondered why we filled a huge table with so many traditional, albeit slightly bland, dishes that were never finished into a single meal. As I got even older and started to cook many of the dishes myself, I realized it was a huge waste of time and food to prepare so many dishes for one meal that a small army could never finish in one sitting. So finally, under the advice of a friend, I started spreading the dishes throughout the day and decided to start including some modern and, in my opinion, tastier recipes into the rotation. Don't worry, pierogies are still on the menu at my house.
Now that Thanksgiving week is upon us, I will be releasing a recipe every week to inspire your celebration and hopefully add a bit of much-needed variety to your table. Here is a list of 7 fish dishes, with recipes to follow, to get you through the entire day without the gut-busting feeling of trying to actually fit 7 fish dishes into a single meal.
I have laid out the schedule and rationale for this year. That is until the wine, lively 'conversation', naps, and any other distraction you can think of pops up, forcing me to throw my schedule and prep list into the roaring fire.
Morning/Breakfast (8 AM)
Avocado toast with smoked salmon, poached egg, and everything bagel seasoning
Ease your way into the day with a quick, easy, and healthy dish. Avocado toast can be as simple or complex as you want. I for one go for simple whenever I can, so we'll leave the super fancy and elaborate versions to overpriced restaurants you find in almost every city. If poaching an egg seems above your culinary pay grade, take a deep breath and relax. It's incredibly easy, and one of the few ways I actually enjoy eggs. However, if you don't have the time or desire, you can always make your eggs sunny side up or fried. This is also very easy to make to scale for your family, whether it's just you and your significant other or you have a gaggle of little ones and the in-laws are in town.
Brunch (10:30 AM)
Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp and Grits is certainly not a traditional Christmas Eve dish for a Polish family from New Jersey, but my wife is a born and raised Southerner, and I aim to please her. So shrimp and grits it shall be. This was also one of my Pop's favorite things to make, so a little nostalgia for a guy who loved to cook. Check! This takes us into dangerously heavy back-to-back dishes with lunch rapidly approaching, but we also have a very busy afternoon, so everyone needs to do their stomach stretching and exercises and get ready for a long day.
Lunch (12 PM)
Sepia pasta with grilled lobster and Calabrian chili (Lemon salt)
This is going to be one of my favorite dishes of the day, and not even because I love lobster. Pasta is a lunch staple in nearly every household in Italy, and if it's good enough for Italy, it's good enough for me. Pasta is my favorite thing to make and eat, so it has to make the list. I'm not going to overwhelm you with making your own fresh sepia pasta, because it's already a crazy day in the kitchen, but fresh pasta adds better flavor and texture to this dish. Grilling lobster rather than poaching or steaming it, gives it a sweeter and smokier flavor. You'll baste it with some garlic butter once it's done cooking, but believe me, grilled lobster hits different. And with football kickoff times rapidly approaching, a nice base is exactly what you need before cracking the beer and/or popping the first bottle of wine of the day.
1 PM Raiders Chiefs Snack
Time for a reprieve from sit-down meals and ready to break into passive snacking. I say dip/canapes here because I myself don't know which one I want to make yet, so luckily, I have a couple of weeks until I have to settle on one (do I need to settle though?) before I post the actual recipe. Both are simple recipes and since we'll be using canned crab, there will be a break in the active cooking for you to enjoy some of the game too. Oh, and either option is perfect with a light lager or dry white wine… So there's that.
4:30 Giants Eagles/Pre-Church Snack
Fried Crawfish Po Boy
Ok, now we're getting into the nitty-gritty of the day. My family goes to 6 o'clock mass on Christmas Eve, which also means there will be a few hours until dinner after church. I know many families do midnight mass, but to me that has always been a crazy proposition. Even when I was younger, there was no chance I would be able to stay awake for a mass that ended at 1 AM. Plus, as a parent now, Santa's gotta get to our house early if I'm going to be up at 6 AM. As far as timing, we are a few hours removed from our last real meal, you and your family/guests may be ready for a nap, may have a nice buzz from the first game and if you're also from the NJ area, you are definitely more than tipsy in anticipation of this huge rivalry game, records be damned. So a sandwich just sounds right in this spot. As far as prep work, this one is not difficult, but frying in batches will take some time, especially if you want to get everyone their sandwich before kickoff.
Dinner (7 PM – No idea)
Shrimp Cocktail (Nostalgia) – Passive App before sitting
Make your life easy, and just order this beforehand from a quality grocery store or your local fish shop. Poaching shrimp is pretty easy and straightforward, so I'm also not going to waste my time posting a recipe. I will, however, post a cocktail sauce recipe because the sauce you get from a grocery store is basically ketchup.
Cullen Skink – Appetizer
I fell in love with this dish during a trip to Scotland while I shoved spoonful after delicious spoonful into my mouth. All I could think of was that this is the perfect Wagilia dish! Creamy, salty, savory, smoky, and hearty. It's a wonderful balance and perfect comfort food. The biggest issue is that Finnan Haddie, or the smoked haddock found in abundance in Scotland, is very difficult to find here in the US. You have to either buy very large quantities to make it worth the purveyor's time and effort or make it yourself. Seriously - if you find a place that sells and ships within the US, give me a heads up because this takes a long time. Otherwise, it's a fairly simple, absolutely delightful receipt. You can also use smoked cod or any other firm white fish.
Crispy Fried Cod with Tartar Sauce - Main
This is the lone traditional fish dish that remains from that beautifully decorated Wagilia table of my youth. It was baked back then, but fried fish is just better in my opinion. If you're lucky enough to have small outdoor friers like my mother does at her house, frying fish, and the crawfish for the Po Boy from earlier is much easier to make and clean up, plus the house won't smell like fried food. If you don't, that's fine. Turn on the hood and do a shallow fry on the stovetop.