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Zuppe di Pesce, a twist on the Italian traditional Christmas Eve seafood feast

Stock photo: Fotolia

Christmas celebrations have evolved over the years for my family. We like to try new things, such as cooking a goose — that was an eventful year! But we also try to keep family traditions alive, such as our annual Christmas Eve gathering.

In years gone by this was held at my grandfather’s house. We would always decorate his tree, being sure to top it with an unnecessary amount of tinsel. Then we’d dig into a six-foot hero. The hero is now only three feet long and the Christmas Eve celebration is held at my father’s house. Yes, traditions may evolve over time, but they keep those past memories alive.

An old tradition my father always speaks of is The Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian-American tradition enjoyed on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting and the bounty of seafood reflects the absence of red meat. Anything with the word feast in it pretty much has my attention. Although there are no plans to fast at our house and I don’t think I’ll be picking up seven different fishes at the fish market, we have decided to try our own take on celebrating this Italian-American tradition by cooking up a pot of Zuppa di Pesce.

Zuppa di Pesce is a fish ‘soup’ or stew with tomato base and served over or alongside thick crusty bread. In Italy this dish varies by region. Theoretically you could make this dish with seven fishes and you’ve got yourself a whole traditional feast in one pot.

You might be familiar with the San Francisco dish Cioppino or maybe even the French dish bouillabaisse, these dishes are similar in a sense of being a fish stew but are technically not the same. Cioppino is more closely related to Zuppa di Pesce, tomato-based and filled with seafood from local fisheries, whereas a bouillabaisse has a base with flavors of fennel and licorice aperitifs.

Do not limit yourself with this recipe: eliminate or add your seafood of choice. Use what’s fresh and readily available and the crustiest bread you can find for best results.

Zuppa di Pesce
Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil
16 ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 small yellow onion chopped
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 pounds bay scallops
2 pounds 21/25 shrimp, peeled, devained
1 pound calamari rings
2 dozen mussels, cleaned
2 dozen little neck clams, cleaned
1 filet of haddock, monk fish or cod cut into chuncks
1 8 ounce can of jumbo lump crab
1 cup dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio
Salt and pepper to taste
Crusty bread and/or pasta for serving

• In a large pot over medium high heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften, 3-4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add in 2 tablespoons of the fresh chopped parsley, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes. Turn the heat to high and add the white wine. Let the wine simmer for 1-2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the crushed tomatoes. Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes or until the flavors begin to blend.

• Using a slotted spoon slowly add in the seafood, starting with the squid. After 10 minutes add the filet chunks, followed by the shellfish. Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered at a slow simmer for 15 minutes. Once seafood is fully cooked add in the lump crab. Season with salt and pepper.

• Transfer to a large serving dish or keep in the pot. Sprinkle with the remaining fresh parsley and serve with bread or over pasta.

Kayleigh Van Vliet Baig
Kayleigh is a sous chef at the Meadow Club in Southampton. A Riverhead native, she is married and the mother of a daughter born in December 2016. Email Kayleigh