Christmas eve is the one night of the year when my family’s table is laden with fish – everything from spaghetti with mixed shellfish, to baccala’ cakes, to stuffed squid and lots more. We never called it the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” because we never counted. My mom just served fish – and plenty of it. The first time I went to Italy, I found it odd that my relatives there in the north don’t really make a fuss about fish for Christmas eve dinner. This “feast of the seven fishes” was totally unknown to them. My mother adopted the culinary customs of her Southern Italian family she married into, but even they didn’t have a prescribed number of fish dishes. The custom of “seven” seems to have been invented by Italian Americans.
Whatever you call it, I still cook fish for Christmas eve and I too, can’t be sure yet on whether there will be seven. Some years it’s five, some years it’s 10 and gosh, maybe it’ll be seven this year, but if that happens, it’ll be purely by accident. I usually make my traditional dishes (there HAS to be stuffed squid and baccala), but I’m frequently guided by what looks freshest at the fish store the morning of Christmas eve. This year I plan to add involtini di pesce spada – or swordfish rollups – to the menu. I ate these the first time I went to Sicily years ago and have tried – and failed – to find a good recipe since then. But last month, Fabrizia Lanza gave a talk at the Italian cultural organization I’m involved with. When I saw the cookbook, I wanted to make everything in it, including her involtini di pesce spada. Once I did, I knew I had finally found the right recipe for that dish. It’s almost identical to what I ate in Palermo years ago and it’s delicious.
I made this for a dinner party last month so I bought a huge hunk of swordfish, but you can use buy a small amount and make it for one or two people.
I cut my chunk in half, because after pounding the slices, I knew they would spread out a bit. I didn’t want them to be so large that they’d be unwieldy to handle. Then I sliced thin pieces from each chunk, but it’s not easy, I’m warning you. I even put the fish in the freezer for about an hour to make it less “jiggly” when I cut into it. It helped somewhat. I may see if my fish guy can do this for me next time.
Here’s what I ended up with from about three pounds of swordfish.
I put some waxed paper on both sides of the fish and gently pounded with the flat side of a meat pounder until it flattened a bit (don’t use the side with the prongs or you’ll tear the fish apart.)
Then I added the stuffing. You can smear it all over the fish, or leave it in one spot. If you leave it in one spot, you’ll have a finished dish that has a lot of stuffing in one central place. If you spread it out, then you’ll have something like the first picture above. Or do a little of both. Either way works fine.
After they’re rolled up and coated with breadcrumbs, place them in a casserole with slices of lemon, orange and bay leaves in between. I have a bay leaf plant and was able to use fresh bay leaves. If you can’t find them, use dry ones. This casserole served enough for five people with some leftover after the dinner. I even had a few that I didn’t put in the large casserole.
Instead, I put them in a smaller container and froze them for later use. They later cooked up just as if they had been fresh, so you can definitely make this ahead of time and freeze it.
It sure was nice to pull that out of the freezer and sit down to this for dinner a couple of weeks later.
These were so easy to make and taste so great that I plan to add this to my Christmas eve fish feast from now on.
Ciao Chow Linda was recently interviewed by N.J. Monthly for a story about the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” You can read more about my childhood memories of that night here.
Here are some other recipe ideas if you want to have your own “Feast of the Seven Fishes”:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 3/4 cups unseasoned dried breadcrumbs, divided
1 lemon, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 orange, half juiced, half thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dried currants (I used white raisins, cut into small pieces)
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
fine sea salt and black pepper
1 pound swordfish, sliced into 8 thin pieces (about 1/3 inch thick; if the pieces are too thick, you can pound them gently between pieces of wax paper)
12 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drizzle the bottom of a medium baking dish with olive oil.
Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil and onion in a medium skillet and cook over medium-high heat until softened, about three minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 3/4 cup breadcrumbs, mixing everything together until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the oil. (I made the mistake of mixing all the breadcrumbs with the other ingredients the first time I made this, and it was fine.) Return to low heat and toast the breadcrumbs slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon and orange juices, the currants, pinenuts, and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Lay a piece of swordfish on a work surface and put a heaping tablespoon of the breadcrumb filling (squeeze it in your hand to compact t) in the center and roll up. Repeat with the remaining swordfish and filling.
Pour some olive oil into a shallow pan and fill another shallow pan with the remaining 2 cups breadcrumbs. Dip each roll-up first in the oil, then dredge in the breadcrumbs until lightly coated. Place the swordfish roll-ups snugly in the baking dish and tuck the bay leaves and lemon and orange slices between the rolls. Drizzle with some more olive ol and bake until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. (Mine needed 15 minutes to cook through.)