On a recent trip to South Carolina, I found myself staring out into the ocean thinking -contemplating all the fish in the sea, concerned that maybe there were not, in fact, plenty of them. With the rapidly approaching holidays on my mind, my thoughts eventually turned to food. I began to have images of an Italian Christmas Eve dinner that I had only ever heard of and read about in books, the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Many of my Italian-American friends, especially from the East Coast have told me stories about their lavish family Christmas Eve seafood meals. Originally intended to be a no-meat fast the night before Christmas, in true Italian style transformed to become a sometimes extravagant meal of several courses (3, 7, 10, 13…who’s counting) of seafood deliciousness. This meal has been on my food bucket list for quite some time, and I am confident this is the year to cross it off.
After some research, what I have found to be the best aspect of this culinary tradition…there are no rules or specific recipes that must be followed. Every family has their own traditions and favorite recipes. In fact, despite many theories, there is not even a definite reason or significance to the number seven. Some believe the number is symbolic of the seven sacraments, the seven virtues, or even the Seven Hills of Rome (I found that to be the most fun, eating a fish for every hill just seems nonsensical). But, really the tradition is just about eating seafood on December 24th. Perfect. Because, while I’m ready to get my feast on, I want to make sure mine leaves plenty of fishes for the future.
Living in land-locked Columbus, it’s difficult to have that romantic connection to the sea that so many cooks and writers explore. Recently, I have found myself learning more about the declining health of our oceans and sea life, considering the ways our food choices make a difference. Land-locked or not, seafood is rapidly growing in demand everywhere, but is estimated that 80 percent or more of the world’s marine populations are fully fished, over-exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Without sustainable fishing methods and responsible aquaculture practices, our world’s waters will not be able to meet that demand.
The Marine Stewardship Council has developed strict standards for sustainable fishing practices and is a great resource to find environmentally friendly food. MSC is a non-governmental organization and the world’s leader for seafood sustainability certification. They even have a mobile app to guide consumers on the fly. Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a similar program called Seafood Watch. Both Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute are great resources to find out whether your favorite seafood is fished sustainably, as well as to find new alternatives or to learn about the deep blue sea and all its wonders. Making sure your dinner is responsibly fished is one way to ensure fish for our future; the other alternative is aquaculture.
While farm-raised seafood often has a negative connotation is the food world, responsible aquaculture is an important supplement to the world’s seafood population. And when done correctly, is not only environmentally-friendly but the quality can be excellent as well. Shrimp, salmon, arctic char, rainbow trout, tilapia and catfish are commonly farmed. But, be sure to ask your fishmonger about the farming standards and where it comes from; just like with beef, pork or chicken, it is important to know the farmer. The World Wildlife Fund has a wealth of reading material on what sustainable fish farming should be like if you would like to learn more.
Okay, now let’s get back to the fun stuff… the feast. I have yet to completely decide my menu for December 24th but I have found a few fantastic Italian seafood recipes that I can’t wait to try while keeping my meal sustainable this holiday season. And since this feast has been so symbolic to Italians throughout history, I have decided that mine will be symbolic of saving the sea. After all, the ocean covers seven tenths of the earth’s surface and we want it to be abundant for all Christmas Eves to come.
Salad of Shrimp and Roasted Peppers: Using responsibly farm-raised shrimp is one way to create this dish. Also, looking for the MSC Certified label on the shrimp ensures that they meet high standards for sustainability.
Whole Roasted Fish with Fennel and Onions: Rockfish or Striped Bass is rated Green by BOI standards. This means the species is relatively abundant, and fishing andfarming methods cause little damage to habitat and other wildlife. These fish are abundant and found along the Atlantic Coast of Canada and the US. They are mostly caught with a hook and line which is a fishing method that reduces bycatch substantially.
Stuffed Calamari: Squid, also known as calamari is an Italian staple. The squid most commonly sold and used for calamari mature quickly and reproduce at a young age, which helps their resistance to fishing pressure. According to BOI standards, they are rated Yellow, which mean some problems exist with this species’ status or catch/farming methods, but overall the species is in abundance.
Fish Fillets Italiano: Instead of cod or haddock, a possible replacement in this recipe could be farm-raised Arctic Char. I would also use a variety of different green and black olives instead of just black olives. Arctic Char is similar to salmon in look and flavor, but has a somewhat milder flavor. When farmed properly in land-based tanks, the farms prevent the escape of fish into the wild, protect them from predators, and have better control over the water quality.
Swordfish Calabrian Style: Swordfish from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are more abundant than that of the Mediterranean Sea or Indian Ocean. North Atlantic Swordfish populations are considered to be fully rebuilt and are the best choice for sustainability. Swordfish should ideally be caught with methods that do not produce bycatch, such as harpoon or rod and reel.
The beauty of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is that the menu is left up to your own creativity, so feel free to swap or change up any of the recipes for your favorite seafood dish. The important thing to remember here is that a well-rounded meal from under-the-sea can be planned responsibly and sustainably thanks to organizations like BOI, MSC and Seafood Watch, which means, our descendants will be able to feast just as lavishly as our ancestors.
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