For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve dinner has been a letdown. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the tradition (and the company) but the menu, in particular, has grown tired and old. After several grueling years of the same Christmas Eve meal, I’m looking to give it a much-needed modern makeover.
For those of you who don’t know, many Italian-Americans have a “Feast of the Seven Fishes” every year on Christmas Eve. The idea is that each fish represents one of the seven Sacraments. There is not a set menu that everyone follows, but most include the likes of baccala insalata, tilapia, scungilli salad, and maybe even a shrimp cocktail.
This is something I dreaded every year growing up. Now, it isn’t that I dislike fish, or I hate the idea of tradition. However, it was never really done particularly well. I’m over the baked tilapia, the baccala salad, the bubble-gum-textured calamari. I want something new. This year I am modernizing the classic seven fish dinner. Gone are the days of filling up on bread every Christmas Eve because I could not stomach the thought of choking down a luke-warm piece of salted cod.
It takes a lot of planning, and careful thinking—Who will be there? What will they want? What do I want?—are the main questions I have been asking myself. I settled on planning out each of the seven courses, as well as easy cocktail and wine pairings for it all. Any filler courses and dessert can be left up to the other guests to bring.
We will start the meal my favorite way—cocktails. I’m utilizing the method of batching cocktails to pull this off. Batching cocktails is the easiest, most efficient way to go about drinking at a family function or gathering of friends. Think punch-bowl level of easy, but not cheap or overdone. A successfully batched cocktail is indistinguishable from one made-to-order. Many of the world’s top-rated bars such as Amor y Amargo in NYC are doing it, so why shouldn’t you?
I am a huge fan of Negronis, so a Negroni variation it will be this year. Keep in mind, any spirit-forward cocktail, or cocktail containing primarily spirits with no addition of juice or sugars will work with this formula; it just requires math. Take the volume of one serving of the cocktail, multiply the volume of one by the amount you are trying to batch, then apply that number to each ingredient.
Negroni Variation Batch Recipe
Yield: 1 750 mL bottle
(Measuring cup mL1, 750mL liquor bottle, Funnel)
• 200 mL Campari
• 100 mL Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth
• 100 mL Montenegro Amaro
• 200 mL Tanqueray or Beefeater Gin (Stay away from floral or citrus-forward gins like Hendricks or Malfy con Limon).
• 140 mL cold, filtered water (for dilution)
1. Add all ingredients to the bottle using the funnel.
2. Store in refrigerator.
You can omit the Montenegro and instead add a full 200 mL of Carpano Antica to make a more traditional Negroni. The water is necessary because it means that when it comes time to drink, all that is needed is to pour over ice. The drink is already chilled and diluted—no stirring necessary.
Moving on to menu-planning, I am sticking with the theme of seven different fish. However, I’m not making anything that resembles a meal Italian-Americans are used to. I want this to be unique. I want this to make my Italian grandmother question my worth. I have decided to start with fare that, while delicious and fun, remains completely approachable to the average guest.
The first of seven fishes of the night comes in the form of a lobster roll. That’s right, fresh lobster salad on a buttered and griddled potato roll. Dishes like this are extremely advantageous as they can be prepped ahead of time. All that really needs to be done at the party itself is the toasting of the rolls, and the assembly (which are easy enough to be pawned off on another family member). This dish is simple, and can be served as finger food—it’s a glorified sandwich.
The next course is a take on an appetizer that I absolutely despise: shrimp cocktail. This is something every Christmas Eve dinner has had my entire life. I am sure I am not the only one familiar with a tray of grocery store shrimp cocktail. It comes already cooked, and frozen. It is extremely simple to prepare, which is why it has become so popular in the American household, but it has got to go. The shrimp are always chewy and dressed in a film reminiscent of slime. Moreover, they leave your palate laden with an undesirable taste—one that only bad seafood is capable of leaving.
I have decided to instead switch the shrimp out for prawns. I will also be oven-baking them as opposed to boiling and serving them hot instead of cold. This is a dish that speaks for itself. Prawns with the head, shell, and tails attached; the way they should be eaten. Coated in citrus and good olive oil before being baked in the oven. Tossed in a fresh herb-forward vinaigrette as they come out of the oven. You can eat them off the tray, or dress it up on a platter with lemon aioli to dip, and Wet Ones napkins ready to go. No one will be missing the boring (and overrated) shrimp cocktail.
A Modern Christmas Eve Menu
Lobster salad, butter, potato roll
Prawns, lime, herbs
Assortment of sushi and sashimi
Mussels (recipe follows)
IPA, herbs, fennel
Whole Roasted Snapper
Potatoes, herbs, lemon
Pan-fried Baccala Cakes
Salt cod, arugula, lemon
Country Ham Wrapped Scallops (recipe follows)
Apricot, mustard greens, brown butter, risotto
The easiest of my appetizers actually feels closer to cheating than a valid contribution to the meal; mostly because it more or less is. My third fish of the night is actually multiple fish, and it comes in the form of sushi. No, I will absolutely not be making sushi at home. I have done it before, and while rewarding, it is not worth the trouble for Christmas Eve. Besides, I have a plethora of other responsibilities for this meal. Instead, I will purchase a large tray of assorted sushi and sashimi from my favorite sushi spot. I have done it in the past, and you best believe I am doing it this year. Try not to think of it as cheating. Putting together a meal like this is not easy, everyone deserves an easier round.
During appetizers, people will hopefully be finishing up on their Negronis. A Negroni, as it should, leaves the guest both ready for more food, and thirsty for more drinks. Now would be a great time to pop open some light drinking wine to occupy your guests while you prepare the last appetizer which must be done at the last minute. I would opt for something sparkling and inexpensive. Cava from Spain is an extremely affordable sparkling wine that is not only easy-drinking but is a nice alternative to the often too sweet Prosecco, or the too expensive Champagne.
Now that appetizers are over, everyone is at least a little less hungry than when you started—so crack open some more wine. You want to avoid any wine that is too heavy because the bulk of the meal is consisting of lighter seafood. The old misconception that red wine does not go with seafood is a myth that must be put to bed. Etna Rosso is a red wine from Sicily, specifically near Mount Etna. It is a lighter drinking red with profound earthiness from the volcanic soil in which the grapes are grown on. Above all, it goes exceptionally well with seafood. For a white wine, you have much more freedom. Personally, I love New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which is tropical and fruity, along with being extremely affordable.
First Course | Cava, Spain
Main Course | Etna Rosso, Sicily | Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand
(Wooden spoon, lid, stainless steel rondeau or pot)
• 3 ½ – 4 pounds of PEI mussels
• 1 16 oz can or bottle of IPA beer
• ½ cup of olive oil
• ½ tbsp chili flakes
• ¼ cup each parsley, chives, and mint, minced
• 1 bulb of fennel diced (reserve fennel fronds for garnish)
• 4 cloves of garlic, minced
• Salt to taste
• ½ stick of unsalted butter, cold and diced
1. Check mussels being sure to discard any that are already open.
2. Heat pot and add olive oil.
3. When oil is shimmering, add diced fennel and garlic. Season with salt and sweat until translucent (avoid adding color).
4. When translucent, add chili flake and cook until aromatic.
5. Add all of your beer into the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add mussels to pot.
6. Stir so all mussels are coated, season, and then cover with lid. Let steam for 2 minutes before checking.
7. Once all mussels are open, remove only the mussels from the pot and into your serving bowl.
8. Bring the liquid to a boil and add cold butter—working in vigorously with your spoon so that it emulsifies.
9. Turn off heat, season to taste, add herbs.
10. Ladle sauce directly over the mussels in the bowl. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve immediately.
If the beer does not seem like enough liquid, add water, stock, or more beer. You can leave out the chili flake to avoid spice. Do not serve any mussels that have not opened. Salting the garlic and fennel will help to avoid browning as it draws moisture out of them, but once that moisture has cooked off, browning will happen twice as fast—keep a close eye.
The star of the show for my dinner is going to be a whole roasted fish. The beauty of this lies in the fact that, well, you can cook the entire thing at once with vegetables and accompaniments on the same tray. You can use several different types of fish, branzino being the most classic when it comes to an “Italian” feast. However, I am going with snapper this year. Beautifully clean and fresh tasting fish that is gorgeous to both the eye and palate. I plan on adding some boiled potatoes and halved lemons to the tray to cook alongside it. Rosemary and bay leaf to be stuffed inside the fish, as well as a simple seasoning of salt and pepper. Just go to your fishmonger and talk to them about cooking fish whole. They will tell you what they have that is best for it. With applications like this it is less about the type of fish and more about what the best available is— the method rarely changes.
Another great addition to the meal is something along the lines of a crab cake entrée. The classic “Maryland Style” is always great, but more fitting for the theme of an Italian Christmas is to change crab meat to baccala. Baccala is an Italian salted and cured cod. More often than not, it is incorporated into a cold salad to be served as an appetizer. I have had plenty of horrible experiences with salt cod in my lifetime. However, it is a delicious product that is easy to find around Christmas time due to a higher demand. Even better, you can take virtually any crab cake recipe that you like and swap the crustacean out for this flaky white fish. My favorite recipes have loads of bell pepper, sweated onions, hot chiles, and are pan-seared on both sides. I plan on serving the salt cod cakes with a substantial amount of lemon wedges and a sharp arugula salad.
Salty pork and scallops is a match made in heaven, but this is not a new discovery. People have been serving this for years as finger food or snack, usually complete with a toothpick and eaten in one bite. Bacon or prosciutto-wrapped scallops are delicious and easy to make. What is even better than making them as is, is turning it into a complete entrée and innovating upon the recipe that many people already adore.
Country Ham Wrapped Scallops with Brown Butter Risotto
(Sheet tray with rack, Rondeau, Wooden spoon, Tongs, Wooden skewers soaked in water)
• 2 pounds of fresh scallops
• ¼ cup kosher salt
• ¼ cup brown sugar
• 1 tsp cayenne pepper
• ¾ pound of thinly sliced country ham (use speck or prosciutto if desired)
• 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
• 1 ½ quarts of chicken, or vegetable stock
• 3 tbsp unsalted butter
• ½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
• Salt to taste
• 1 jar of apricot preserves
• 1 bunch of mustard greens
1. Prep scallops ahead of time.
2. Mix the brown sugar, salt and cayenne and sprinkle lightly over all sides of scallops. Let sit to cure for one hour in fridge, uncovered.
3. Pat dry, removing excess seasoning and wrap each scallop tightly with ham. Insert skewers to hold the ham in place.
4. Place on a sheet tray lined with a baking rack and place under broiler for 10-15 minutes, flipping once.
5. While you wait, add butter to your rondeau and cook until just brown, be careful not to burn.
6. Add your rice and coat in brown butter before adding stock a few cups at a time. Cook off stock completely, then repeat. Do this until all stock is used, should be about four applications.
7. Add cheese and work into the risotto until completely incorporated.
8. Pour risotto into serving dish, and place scallops on top. Garnish with several dollops of apricot preserves and scatter the mustard greens over the dish. Serve immediately.
Be careful with the salt cure, it is more to dry out the scallop to improve cooking than it is for seasoning. You do not need too much, as well as you do not need to cure it for more than an hour. The risotto and the ham are both going to be plenty seasoned. Risotto is tricky, and is ideally made to order. Making it ahead of time is absolutely acceptable, just make sure the consistency is right when reheating. The scallops are done when the ham is crisp, and the scallop bounces back when touched by your finger.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.