December 5th, 2013
01:30 PM ET
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The Feast of Seven Fishes, or the Festa dei Sette Pesci, is the traditional dinner that many southern Italian and Italian-American families will sit down to this Christmas Eve. (It is also one of the few appropriate times to pluralize fish as fishes.)

The significance of the number seven reels in many different theories: Some families say it's for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, others say it's for the seven hills of Rome, and still others say it represents the days of creation or stands as a reminder of the seven deadly sins. Other families' traditions even allow for 10 or even 14 different aquatic dishes.

And just as the numeric explanations are allowed loose translations, so are the types of seafood served. The true meaning isn't in the number or kind you choose, but with whom you decide to share your feast.

This Christmas Eve, Alex Guarnaschelli, chef of Butter in New York City and Food Network star, encourages you to serve the humble sardine atop lightly fried cauliflower, an ode to her mother's Sicilian roots.

Fresh sardines - not the pungent, little canned guys - are delicious, inexpensive and sustainable, three wise choices for this holiday season.

Grilled Sardines with Cauliflower Fritters
Serves 6-8

sardines with cauliflower florets

For the cauliflower:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons canola oil, plus 1 quart for frying
Kosher salt to taste
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
18 ounces (1 1/2 bottles or 2 1/4 cups) pale lager beer
1 large head cauliflower, stem removed, cut into bite-size florets
1 tablespoon smoked hot paprika

For the sardines:
18 fresh sardines*, scaled, gutted, rinsed and patted dry
1/4 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons for dressing
1/2 to 1/4 small jalapeño, sliced into thin rings (about 15-20 rings total)

Preheat the grill.

Arrange the sardines in a single layer on a baking sheet and rub sparingly with 1 tablespoon olive oil (too much oil will cause them to flame on the grill) and season on both sides with salt. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 2 teaspoons canola oil, a generous pinch of salt, red pepper flakes and coriander. Stir to blend. Whisk in the beer. Set aside in a warm place. Like bread dough, it will puff up slightly.

Arrange the cauliflower pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Put the paprika into a small strainer and dust the cauliflower with an even layer of the paprika.

In a large, deep pot, heat the remaining 4 cups canola oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Monitor the temperature of the oil with a thermometer. Prepare a baking sheet or plate fitted with paper towels to drain the florets as they come out of the oil.

Stir the batter slightly. To test the consistency of the batter and the temperature of the oil, put a piece of cauliflower on a slotted spoon and submerge it in the batter. It should coat the piece lightly but completely. (If the batter is too thick, add a little water to thin it out. If the batter is too thin, sift and whisk in a little more flour.)

Dunk a cauliflower floret in the batter, shaking off the excess, and lower it into the oil. It should bubble slightly and the cauliflower should gradually rise to the top. Fry until light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, and transfer to the towel. If the batter doesn’t form a thin, crisp shell, don’t be afraid to drop it back in the oil and fry for an additional minute. After the test floret, fry the cauliflower in small batches; drain on paper towels. Season with salt while the cauliflower is still hot.

Place the sardines on the medium-hot grill until they start to lightly char, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a metal spatula to gently flip them over; grill the sardines on the other side for 1 to 2 minutes until cooked through. Check the interior of one to make sure it is cooked through without being dried out. Top with basil leaves.

Arrange the cauliflower pieces on a large serving platter, and top with the sardines.

In a small bowl, whisk the juice from 1 lemon with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and jalapeño slices. Drizzle over everything. Serve immediately.

*Note: If you can't find fresh sardines, mackerel, trout or even bluefish can be used as a substitute.

A quest for Christmas pudding
This family recipe's secret? It came from a cookbook
A very homemade holiday

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Filed under: Christmas • Christmas • Holiday • Holidays • Italian • Make • Recipes • Step-by-Step

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    I adore sardines, they're just sometimes hard to find WHOLE – but if I ever do find them whole, I will certainly be trying this!

    December 19, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  2. dannybz123

    Check out "THE FEAST of The 7 FISH" Italian Christmas by Daniel Bellino, the defining book on the Italian Christmas

    December 14, 2013 at 1:30 am |
    • dannybz123

      THE FEAST of THE 7 FISH by Daniel Bellino-Zwicke is Awesome! It's Thee # 1 Defining Book on the subject, the subject of The Italian Ritual Christmas Eve Meal of THE FEAST of SEVEN FISHES ..
      On AMAZON

      April 16, 2014 at 1:09 pm |
  3. therealchiffonade

    I do the Feast of the Seven Fishes every year and have since reaching adulthood. The preliminary fish may vary but the main course is always a whole lobster stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat. I used to serve either Pasta Puttanesca or Linguini with White Clam Sauce but since my daughter developed a taste for it, I would be run out of town on a rail if I didn't make her the Linguini with White Clam every year. I do baby stuffed calamari; shrimp connected together yin/yang style topped with a spoonful of marinara and a sprinkling of breadcrumb; mussels marinara with a TON of garlic and chopped tomatoes; scallops with creamed leeks; and a few cocktail type things for milling around at the beginning of the meal. My mom loved make believe crabmeat (surimi) with cocktail sauce and I serve it every year in her honor. I also serve shrimp cocktail and an octopus salad.

    FOSF is the Italian Cook's Super Bowl. I start thinking about it in September every year.

    December 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • MangiaNancy

      I love your reference of the Italian cook's super bowl! I end up with more than 7 fishes... with some every-year favorites like the seafood salad and linguini with scampi. I used to do the stuffed calamari but instead I make baccala zuppa (potatoes, celery, onion in a tomato sauce). And you've got me thinking of a new dish to serve... the scallops and creamed leeks sound delish. Ciao.

      December 24, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
      • therealchiffonade

        I'm so glad you got a chuckle at my Super Bowl reference but ain't it the truth!! Our Christmas Eve went very well this year. I did an array of cold seafood, i.e. shrimp cocktail, good old make believe krabmeat, and mixed seafood salad I made that included bay scallops, sliced boiled shrimp, clams and octopus. Then came the linguini with white clam sauce and after that, shrimp in the oven and mussels marinara. Finally, the whole lobsters stuffed with lump crabmeat came out. I made tiramisu for dessert. Ina Garten's recipe. It always surprises me that a chubby little Jewish lady from NYC has the best tiramisu recipe I have ever used. I have made it for up to 100 people for caters. If you would like to see a photo of the lobsters (and Eatocracy permits it), here's a link: Buon Natale!!

        December 29, 2013 at 9:49 am |
      • therealchiffonade

        PS – That baccala zuppa sounds out of this world!!

        December 29, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  4. Very Punny

    I love all seafood, but I'm not shellfish!

    December 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  5. Tommy

    We always have fish sticks on Christmas Eve, but we're not Italian.

    December 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • AleeD®

      Then ... you LIKE fish sticks? ~_~

      December 9, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Tommy

      Yep! I dunk them in ketchup and miracle whip. They go good with Ore Ida french fries or tater tots.

      December 9, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • AleeD®

        Say out loud, several times, to someone with a not-so-pure mind "I like fish sticks." It ... comes ... out quite different than you expect.

        December 9, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
        • Tommy

          That reminds me of I Am Sofa King Stew Ped hot sauce, that also tastes good on fish sticks.

          December 9, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
        • AleeD®

          Ed Zachary!

          December 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  6. Barnes & Barnes

    Fish Heads, fish heads, Rolly-polly Fish Heads.

    December 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Sun

      Eat them up, yum!

      December 9, 2013 at 7:39 am |
  7. robert fitz

    you forgot bacala, clams,mussels, and other shellfish, not to mention fresh ancovies

    December 7, 2013 at 4:37 am |
  8. Forget the Viagra...Pass me a Carrot!

    Reblogged this on Forget the Viagra, Pass Me a Carrot and commented:
    Sardines are a wonderful, inexpensive way to obtain healthy fats and nutrients – this is a great way to prepare and eat them.

    December 6, 2013 at 3:16 am |
  9. GiGi Eats Celebrities

    This is happening in my household!!! I love the FEAST of seven fishes! I just love a feast of one, but I will take seven over one, any day! :)

    December 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  10. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Question: How do you eat the sardines? does the fillet just peel from the side or do you go all Ozzie Osbourne on it and bite the head off first before eating it whole? I assume bones come into play even at that size.

    December 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • ∞ Weeds ∞

      Good question. Is this a fork and knife thing or finger food?

      December 6, 2013 at 1:35 am |
      • Sarah LeTrent

        It's definitely a hands-on sport! You can be daintier with a knife and a fork (and get all the elements in one bite), but if we're just talking about the sardines, dive right in.

        December 6, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  11. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Looks good to me

    December 5, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • The Witty One@Jdizz

      Heck yeah!

      December 5, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
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