When I was a kid, we never heard of the Feast of Seven Fishes. It was simply Christmas Eve. It was held at my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn. The place was not very big, and had no formal dining room. Instead, they’d set up a table in the living room. And by table I mean they had a huge plank of plywood that they would put on top of the kitchen table. Even with the table cloth, I always came home with splinters. Jesus is credited with many miracles, but I doubt even he could’ve squeezed so many people around a table, with room for any unexpected guests who just popped in to say “Buon Natale.” I think we pulled the living room sofa and chairs up to one side of the table—they all had those thick plastic slip covers, so no worries if you spilled any sauce. There was octopus salad and fried baccala, and mounds of fritto misto—fried vegetables and seafood. There was of course spaghetti—maybe with clams for the adults, and marinara for the kids. We’d drive back to New Jersey well after midnight, meaning it was already Christmas, and we always wondered whether Santa had already visited our house. Looking back, I feel sorry for my parents, who surely just wanted to go straight to bed, but had to stay up till well after we kids had all fallen asleep.
When my grandfather died, my dad took up the mantle to continue the tradition. Not that he knew what he was doing—he had watched his father preparing the feast, but apparently not with the intention of learning. I was in high school when we first tried making the octopus salad, also known as seafood salad. We went to NYC for the ingredients—at that time, Chinatown was gradually encroaching on Little Italy, which was great because you could get fresh seafood and a nice salami within a block or two of each other. We had no idea how long it took to cook an octopus. Spoiler alert: a long friggin’ time!
Eventually, I moved across the country, and picked up the tradition as well. My feast is much smaller, because I don’t have half as many guests, but the centerpiece is still the octopus salad. Most of the ingredients are easy to find at the Korean and Chinese markets nearby. The dish is fairly simple, but easy to mess up because you have to know how long to cook things. It’s hard to mess up shrimp and bay scallops, but squid is tricky—you either have to cook it really hot really quick or simmer it for a long time. Octopus and scungilli (conch), on the other hand, can’t be cooked quickly, but always need to be simmered for a long long time. I’ve come to prefer the baby octopus, rather than the full-grown octopus I used with my dad. Also, extremely important: NEVER get cooked scungilli. You will regret it. That probably means you will have to buy it in a big block, but you can cook the extra in tomato sauce (people joke about scungilli but it’s actually sublime when you cook it this way). Also, you should be able to find cleaned squid, but when I was younger, you had to clean it yourself. That’s the subject of another post someday. Also, you don’t need large shrimp—something in the range of 30-40 count will work great. Last tip: you don’t need to change the water for each fish—you can keep the same pot going. You can also use the water, which essentially become fish stock, for your cioppino.
As for the proportions, there’s no exact measure—use more of what you like, less of what you don’t.
What you need
1 lb small raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb raw bay scallops
1 lb raw squid, cleaned
1 lb (or 1 package) baby octopus, or 1 adult
1 lb scungilli
½ cup chick peas
Red pepper flakes, salt and pepper
How you make it
- Assuming some of the fish is frozen, thaw it out by putting it in a pot full of cold water—the metal and water are good thermal conductors.
- Remove the shells from the shrimp, but don’t throw them out—they’re good for making stock.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Prepare a bowl full of ice water.
- Dunk the shrimp in the boiling water and cook until no longer translucent, maybe 2-4 minutes. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and dunk in the ice water. Transfer to a bowl, and add new ice to the water bath.
- Dunk the scallops until no longer translucent, about 2-4 minutes. Can they be cooked with the shrimp? I don’t know—I never tried. Scoop them out and dunk them in the ice bath, then add them to the bowl with the shrimp. Replenish the ice as needed.
- Dunk the squid—they’ll quickly shrink and turn white after just a minute or two. Don’t overcook them. Dunk them in the ice bath. Slice the tubular bodies into rings and cut the tentacle portions in half. (Squid have a pair of longer tentacles—I usually trim off the excess so the tentacles are all the same length.) Add them to the shrimp and scallops.
- At this point, you can start to toss the shrimp, scallops, and squid with some olive oil. Put it in the fridge to stay cool while you cook the next items.
- Add the octopus to the pot and simmer until tender. This can take at least 20 minutes for the babies, or more than and hour for a large octopus. Assuming you’re using baby octopus: dunk them in the ice bath as soon as they’re done. Cut off the bulbous head. It’s all OK to eat, but feel free to trim away any parts that do not look appetizing. Cut the the tentacled portion in half. Add to the bowl of seafood (and return it to the fridge).
- Add the scungilli to the pot and simmer until tender. OK, it’ll never be really tender, but it should not be like eating a bicycle tire. Don’t be surprised if it takes an hour. Dunk them in the ice bath. Slice them down the belly and remove the siphon (Or is it the foot? Or are those the same thing?) Slice as thinly as you can and add to the bowl.
- Chop up a stalk of celery, maybe half a red onion (slivered), and a generous amount of fresh parsley. Add them to the bowl.
- Rinse off half a cup or so of chick peas and add them to the bowl.
- Add a pinch of crushed red pepper and the juice of at least one lemon, more or less to taste. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
I typically make this the night before Christmas eve. My dad didn’t use chick peas—that’s my twist. Keep it in the fridge, and give a stir from time to time, adding more lemon to taste. Serve with crusty bread, and some crushed red pepper and lemon wedges.
Buon natale, and buon appetito!