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The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition in Sicily that celebrates the holiday with an extensive seafood dinner. The origins of the tradition itself and the significance of the number 7 are elusive. Some speculate religious symbolism, that 7 indicates the number of days of God’s creation or the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Some attribute the bounty of seafood to the Catholic abstinence from meat on Christmas Eve; others say the menu is largely influenced by the meal’s region of origin, specifically the coast of Southern Italy and the island of Sicily.
Whatever the lore, the lure for Chowgirls co-founder Heidi Andermack is how the Feast offers the chance to celebrate dear friendships and explore a delicious spread of food — a seven course meal that highlights at lease seven different seafoods. For this pictorial, Chowgirls chefs and stylists created a lush warm setting in the Workshop warehouse in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
In my college years, about 30 years ago, I was invited to be a guest at a Sicilian seafood feast, a dinner my friend’s family hosted every year. On Christmas Eve, My Friend’s Sicilian Mother would cook up a mind-blowing spread of seafood dishes for her father, her brother’s families, her husband, and her kids. There were a lot of big voices and big personalities. The characters, the atmosphere, the food. I ate it up!
When the patriarch passed, there was a falling out in the family and the brothers were no longer invited to dinner. But I was. And My Friend’s Sicilian Mother made all the same food. Just for me. Crab legs. Shrimp Scampi. Squid Potatoes. Seafood Salad. ALL. THE. SEAFOOD.
It was an honor to be welcomed into that family for so many years. My last dinner there, My Friend’s Sicilian Mother shared a couple of recipes with me. Squid Potatoes and Seafood Salad. I treasure these recipes and have made them an integral part of my own Feast of the 7 Fishes.
After I moved to Minneapolis from Detroit in 1993, I adapted the tradition to honor my new family, my friends in Minneapolis. I make a 7-course meal featuring at least 7 fishes. The meal is anchored by recipes from My Friend’s Sicilian Mother, expanded with dishes from other significant people in my life. This year’s menu was rounded out with a few new recipes as well, for which we brought in Chowgirls heavy hitters.
Creating an amazing display to welcome our guests, Chowgirls Chef de Cuisine Arianna Baker Kern smoked oysters and local trout to serve with Parmesan and Taleggio cheeses. She also sought out the sexiest tin fish out there from Jose Gourmet, sardines, tuna, and calamari, packed in unique artful containers.
One of the original recipes from My Friend’s Sicilian Mother features calamari, shrimp, clams, bay scallops, lobster, and crab mingled in Italian dressing. While she used Seven Seas dry Italian dressing mix, I created my own scratch recipe. She also included octopus in her recipe, but since learning more about the level of intelligence of these cephalopods, I’ve decided to forgo the octopus in my culinary exploits. In fact, for this occasion, I honored the octopus with the headline illustration on the menu.
Handmade pasta with a rich lobster sauce, this is our interpretation of a recipe from Spiaggia, an Italian restaurant in Chicago. An important Feast guest and dear friend, Steve Cohen, shared the Spiaggia cookbook with me years ago, so it was a pleasure to bring some of his treasured dining experiences to the table.
This dish is simple perfection: shrimp swimming in olive oil with melt-in-your mouth garlic and red pepper flakes. My mother-in-law, who was Swedish not Italian, prepared this for me whenever I visited her in Florida.
A new small plate by my culinary partner, Chowgirls co-founder Amy Lynn Brown, pairs a hearty sea scallop with creamy polenta and Valencia brown butter cauliflower. Amy was inspired to create this dish by Bar La Grassa, our favorite Italian restaurant in Minneapolis.
Another original from My Friend’s Sicilian Mother, this hearty rustic dish features calamari with roasted organic potatoes in red sauce, seasoned with earthy flavors of oregano and balsamic vinegar.
A year after we started Chowgirls, I expanded my gastronomic chops at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School of Regaleali, a family farm and vineyard in Sicily. There I learned this tuna dish, which is unique by comparison to how we eat tuna in America today. While we generally expect our tuna rare or seared, this tuna loin is roasted, fully cooked until flaky, infused with garlic and fresh green herbs — mint, oregano, and parsley. It pairs beautifully with another recipe I learned at Regaleali, roasted artichokes in garlic-herb olive oil which pairs beautifully with some soft and crusty bread to soak it all up!
Anna Tasca Lanza, who taught the aforementioned cooking class, had some funny witticisms, including… “Why would you take the time to make bread when there is a perfectly good baker down the street?”
The “perfectly good bakers” for our feast was my husband Chank Diesel and an occasional Chowgirl Sasha. It was beautiful to enjoy their creations, lovingly made by hand with really good locally milled flour from Baker’s Field.
Of course, a feast would not be complete without coffee and dessert — pizzelles and biscotti made from another Sicilian friend’s family recipes.
To celebrate citrus season, Amy created a grapefruit cocktail spritzed with rosemary and Prosecco.
I love the Feast of the 7 Fishes for so many reasons… the sense of family and tradition, the creative collaboration, and, of course, the amazing food. Cheers to all who contributed to this amazing celebration.