"Feast of the Fishes" & Christmas Eve

Articles
December 21, 2008

"Feast of the Fishes" & Christmas Eve

All around the world on December 24th, Christians celebrate Christmas with both the religious and the secular traditions. One tradition that combines the two is the serving of an expansive fish supper following mass that includes, at least, seven fish dishes, for the seven sacraments. Each dish represents one of the seven sacraments. Seven is also an important number in Christianity to indicate the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem and, in the beginning, the seven days it took to create the world. (The ichthus, a fish-like symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs resembling the profile of a fish, an early symbol in Christianity and recalls the description of the disciples of Jesus as "fishers of men.")

All around the world on December 24th, Christians celebrate Christmas with both the religious and the secular traditions. One tradition that combines the two is the serving of an expansive fish supper following mass that includes, at least, seven fish dishes, for the seven sacraments. Each dish represents one of the seven sacraments. Seven is also an important number in Christianity to indicate the Seven Hills of Rome, the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem and, in the beginning, the seven days it took to create the world.
(The ichthus, a fish-like symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs resembling the profile of a fish, an early symbol in Christianity and recalls the description of the disciples of Jesus as "fishers of men.")

This is not to say that there are seven main dishes, for this is an appetizer-styled meal, with small bites of this fish and that, breads and potatoes to soften the bite of the stronger tasting fish, and vegetables to round out the meal. After all, it is usually late evening or, in some cases, after midnight when this is served so no need for super-hearty portions.

Which fish are included is not as important as following the intent of this "festival of the fish" but common ones in your area (and fabulous imported ones) like steamed lobster or crab, grilled eel, lobster, raw oysters, sautéed scallops or shrimp, whiting, calamari, anchovies, mussels, and herring. Since there's a glut of lobster in some areas of the country, choosing lobster will not only be a delicious addition but a boon to the budget, too.

Some Italians begin with vegetable and anchovy, plus a caponata di pesco (fish salad); Germans and Scandinavians love their herring, and other eastern Europeans enjoy herring along with carp or pike baked or braised then made into patties or balls with carrots and onions, and a myriad of other recipes. Crab legs are an extravagant and delicious tradition in seaside ports where the table sports one large full bowl of crab and another completely empty bowl that awaits the quickly eaten… and discarded… discarded shells.

Herring is so readily available both fresh in the fishmarket and jarred in the supermarket refrigerator section that it makes an ideal centerpiece along with boiled potatoes or a hot potato salad, carrot or bean salads, hearty pumpernickel or rye breads, plus a platter of a variety of cookies with decaf tea or coffee for dessert.
The variety of herring is impressive: they're rich in omega 3s, high in potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and have loads of vitamins, particularly A and D, and a mere ounce has 7g of protein and only 61 calories. Of course, brining them adds a ton of sodium, and oils and sour cream amp up the cholesterol and fat levels, but since they're rather strong tasting, a little goes a long way. Herrings are small, round, oily fish sold whole with a distinctive bite of a flavor that easily adapt to frying or grilling, smoking or picking. Varieties include kippers, which are usually smoked; buckling, a lightly smoked, dry salted whole herring, red herring, a heavily smoked and highly salted version and boned herrings like rollmops which rolled with chopped onions, gherkins and peppercorns and Bismarcks which are flat fillets covered with finely sliced onion. Jarred and tinned versions come in olive oil, red wine or sour cream with onions. Check out Russian, Armenian, Hungarian/Czech or Scandinavian grocers for fresh ones or unique jarred and tinned ones to try.

Christmas Eve Herring Salad
This version should be made the day before to help marry the flavors, leaving you free to spend the evening with family and friends at home or at church. Feel free to experiment!

Ingredients:
12 ounce jar herring, in wine sauce
1 medium Bermuda onion, thinly sliced
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 medium dill pickle, chopped
1 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon sugar
1/8 cup distilled white or wine vinegar
GARNISH: dill fronds, as desired, or chopped and sprinkled atop the salad

Directions:
Remove herring pieces from the jar and drain the sauce, but reserve it for later. The skin or membrane is edible but some people remove it for a "cleaner" looking salad. Chop the herring and put it into a medium size bowl. Combine with the sliced onion, chopped apple and pickle then mix in the sour cream, sugar and vinegar so that the herring is well cover. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerated at least 24 hours for the best combination of taste.

To serve, line a decorative bowl with leaves of washed and dried Romaine lettuce and place a mound of the salad in the center. Garnish, as desired, with dill fronds. Add a platter of pumpernickel or rye bread cut into small pieces. To serve as a course for a small group, place some arugula on each salad plate, place a scoop on top, and serve with the bread.

Makes 4 to 6 servings; recipe easily doubles