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Feast of the Seven Fishes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Carlotta Yonkers remembers the long hours her mother, Sylvia Potesta, spent in the family's East End kitchen every Christmas Eve preparing seafood dishes for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a holiday culinary tradition among Italians.

Catholics in Italy typically abstained from the consumption of meat on Christmas Eve in preparation for the Christmas Day feast. Italian immigrants continued to observe the seafood tradition when they established homes in the United States.

Potesta's maternal grandparents, who came from Calabria, in the southern coastal region of Italy, settled first in Boomer, where most of the men became miners. Her mother was born in Charleston. Her father, who was born in Abruzzi, preferred city life and moved to Charleston where he became a tailor and worked for years at The Diamond department store.

Potesta remembers that her father ordered seafood from New York City, which was shipped to them in a large barrel, for the family's Christmas Eve dinner because no Charleston grocers carried the required ingredients. "They struggled and were challenged to find the seafood," said Yonkers.

Today, a wide variety of seafood is available locally. Yonkers buys hers at Joe's Fish Market.

Her mother typically chose bacala (reconstituted dried cod), calamari, smelts, octopus, eel, shrimp and halibut for her seven seafood dishes. She cooked the bacala in a skillet and served it with freshly made marinara sauce. She stewed the calamari in a spicy tomato sauce and baked the smelts with breadcrumbs and garlic.

"That's the one dish that I always liked," said Yonkers, who didn't eat many of the other dishes when she was a child.

Octopus and eel went into a soup. She batter-fried the shrimp and pan-fried the halibut. "It was a lot of work. I would work at Magic Dry Cleaners, and then come home at noon and start cooking," she said.

Potesta, 92, lives with Yonkers and her husband, Ken, in their Kanawha City home and still prepares calamari and bacala on Christmas Eve. The dried, salted fish requires several days of soaking before it can be used.

"It used to stink up the whole house while it soaked," said Yonkers.

Her mother also always made fresh pasta and two sauces for the feast. She fried breadcrumbs and garlic in olive oil to top the dishes instead of cheese because dairy products were also forbidden during days of abstention.

The Potestas had two children, Carlotta and her brother, Ron, but their house was filled on Christmas Eve with extended family members, rarely fewer than 30, who enjoyed the seafood meal. After the feast, they all attended midnight Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Kanawha City.

"We left the food on the tables for the elves while we went to mass. Italian children leave food instead of cookies," said Yonkers. Santa probably appreciated the alternative to sweets.

Friends and family returned to the Potestas' home after Mass for more celebrations. "I always stayed up with them," said Potesta, who enjoyed the parties, despite her long day of cooking.

Yonkers streamlines the Seven Fishes preparations these days by using four or five different types of seafood in cioppino, a fish stew simmered in a fragrant broth and served with crusty bread for soaking. She typically makes the dish with mussels, clams, salmon or a firm white fish, scallops and shrimp, but recently substituted lobster for the mussels and clams.

"This is a great cheat," Yonkers said of the inclusion of multiple seafood ingredients in one dish. "Mom made all the traditional dishes, but this works too."

Potesta agreed that the timesaving recipe was convenient and said her daughter's cioppino is delicious. It may be delicious, but it isn't consistent from year to year. Yonkers pulls out 10 cookbooks and combines elements to create a new recipe each time.

"That's how I cook. I have the same audience every year, so I like to mix it up," she said.

She makes the broth early in the day from finely chopped carrots, celery, onion, garlic, tomatoes, red pepper, parsley, chicken broth and a splash of white wine or vermouth. Sometimes she adds clam juice or butter.

To the broth that has simmered at least an hour, Yonkers adds the seafood in careful succession of required cooking time, being sure that none of it is overcooked.

She serves the colorful, steaming bowls of soup with toasted Italian bread. As in her mother's younger days, extended family members will be welcomed into the Yonkers' home to share the repast.

"Christmas is all about family," Yonkers said.

Zuppe di Pesce Venetian

Carlotta Yonkers based the cioppino she made this year on the following recipe:

     2     tablespoons butter

     2     tablespoons olive oil

     1    head garlic, chopped

     3     medium yellow onions, chopped

     3     carrots, peeled and diced

     3    cups cleaned and chopped leeks

     4    cups chopped tomato

     1     bunch parsley, whole

     2    cups dry white wine

     1     quart chicken stock

     2     quarts cold water

     1     teaspoon fennel seed

     8     black peppercorns

     2    cups chopped fresh fennel tops

     Any combination of: whole shrimp, clams in their shells, mussels, crab pieces in the shell, scallops, white fish of any kind, fresh, cut into 2-inch chunks

PLACE butter, olive oil, garlic, onions, carrots, leeks and tomato in a 12-quart heavy stockpot and cook over medium heat, stirring, until things begin to brown a bit, about 15 minutes.

ADD parsley, wine, stock, water, fennel seed, peppercorns and fennel tops to the pot and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 1 hour. Drain the stock from the kettle and discard all the ingredients, returning the stock to the pot.

BRING the stock to a boil when ready to serve and add any or all of the seafood, using any amount desired. Start with heavy-shelled seafood, and then add scallops and fish last. Simmer until the clams and mussels are open, the shrimp pink and all is tender, but not overcooked, about 10 to 15 minutes.

LADLE into bowls and serve with crusty toasted bread.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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