I cook because cooking makes me happy, and there’s no day of the year that this rings truer than on Christmas Eve.
Devout Catholics, as you may know, abstain from eating meat on certain days, and for Roman Catholics the most sacred one of all is Christmas Eve. But there is a loophole! Since Noah did not take any fish onto the Ark (or so the story goes), seafood is fair game. Thus in Italy, La Vigilia has long been celebrated with a magnificent dinner—how else would Italians celebrate?—based around seafood. When Italians came to America, they took the tradition with them and implemented a symbolic quota to the abundance, and so Christmas Eve dinner became known as, “The Feast of the Seven Fishes.”
Growing up, I loved helping my grandmother prepare her version of the Feast, an unbelievable spread that featured baked smelt and eel, stuffed calimari, lobster, mussels, clams, and, of course, baccalà. Nowadays I delight in carrying on the tradition myself, and for the last ten years I’ve prepared the Feast with a more modern and more West Coast interpretation. Over time, it’s grown from a relatively modest three-course dinner into a seven course blowout showcasing thirteen fish that takes me three days to pull together.
Try as I might with all of this “love and wet flour” stuff, nothing I’ve ever served on Christmas Eve has been as well-loved as my seafood salad, which I’ve been making basically the same way since my first Feast. Really, it’s the exact opposite of the cucina povera approach that inspires this blog’s title: We start with exceedingly luxurious ingredients, and then do as little as we can to them so as to not muck anything up.
The initial version back in 2007 was my take on the recipe from Rao’s, substituting Oregon Dungeness crab, which is typically in perfect season for Christmas, for lobster, which is rare and pricey on the left coast. Over the years, my Feast grew to include a course for each of the seven sacraments and at that point I starting including lobster alongside the crab (the salad represents matrimony, and I like the symbolism of having the most-loved crustacean from both coasts on the same plate). Then in 2015, Dungeness season didn’t start until after Christmas and so I substituted Alaskan king crab. I absolutely loved the king crab in the salad and so it remains, and it worked wonderfully this year as a complement to the Dungeness.
Unlike Rao’s, which assembles the salad from its constituent parts just prior to serving, I prepare this in the more traditional way and assemble a day prior to serving so it can marinate in the dressing overnight. I find it to help bring all the flavors together into a complete palette pleaser (especially important if you’re trying to symbolize matrimony!), and it’s great to have a course more or less completely prepared ahead of the chaos of Christmas Eve cooking.
It should go without saying (at least on L&WF!), but this recipe is certainly not meant to be followed rigidly. If you can’t find good crab or lobster (or don’t want to spend the money it), bay scallops are a cheaper and arguably more traditional substitute. Mussels are another common ingredient that won’t break the bank, and look striking served in their shells. There’s not a lot of seafood that won’t work, really, particularly with the right mates. If you start with good fish and cook everything properly, it’s hard to go wrong. Think about textures of the fish—texture and, to a lesser extent, color are crucial to the overall success of this dish—and let your taste buds be the final judge when you’re preparing the sauce.
Brian’s Famous Christmas Eve Seafood Salad (8 Servings):
- 1 lobster
- ~3-4 Alaskan king crab legs
- 1 Oregon Dungeness crab in perfect season (or you can substitute two puny California Dungeness crabs, if you must)
- 1 lb medium shrimp
- 1.25 lbs calamari tubes and tentacles
- Zest & juice of 1 lemon
- High-quality extra-virgin olive oil (about the same amount by volume as lemon juice)
- ~2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon high-quality balsamic vinegar, preferably aged
- 1 small handful fresh parsley, chopped fine
- 1 small handful of fennel fronds, coarsely torn
- Salt & pepper to taste
- ~4 lemons for serving
- 1 excellent bottle white wine (for drinking, not cooking. Probably optional but highly recommended…)
- Mario Lanza Christmas music (not really optional in my book but YMMV)
Step 1 is the only real chore involved: prepping the crustaceans. You can probably buy the Dungeness cooked and pre-cleaned (i.e., with the back plate and tomalley removed), but you’ll probably need to dispatch and cook the lobster yourself. Make sure you salt the water well and watch your cooking time. Then, pour yourself a nice, big glass of wine, crank up the Mario Lanza, and start extracting that glorious crab and lobster meat from the shells. Reserve the shells (and especially the cleaned-out lobster head!) for stock, and pile the meat into a big mixing bowl. Cover it and refrigerate.
Step 2: Prep the shrimp and calamari. I’m usually able to buy my shrimp deveined but not peeled, which is perfect in my book since I hate deveining but love using the shrimp shells in stock. You’ll want to take the shell and tail both off for this salad. For the calamari, you see them more in tubes-and-tentaces form than intact nowadays, which is good, because they’re a pain to clean. If you can find the pre-cleaned parts, all you’ll need to do is slice each tube into 1/2-inch rings, and cut off the long, slimy bits from the tentacles.
Step 3: Bring a sauce pan of poaching liquid to a boil. I usually use about a quart of salted water, with a sprig of parsley, a few slices of lemon, and a pint of stock made from all of the shells. If you’re missing any or all of these throw-ins, just use salted water—I doubt you’ll taste any difference. Once the liquid is lightly boiling, cook the calamari rings first. Cook them for precisely three minutes and fish them out into a waiting bowl. Do the same with the shrimp, although they’ll probably need only two minutes, and then the calamari tentacles for three minutes. Note that this order is crucial for aesthetic purposes: We want the rings to stay bright white, and the shrimp and (especially) the tentacles bleed their color into the water.
Step 4: Finally, put it all together! I like to cool the calamari and shrimp for 30 minutes or so in the refrigerator before combining it into the salad. While it cools, you can make the dressing by combining the lemon juice and zest, olive oil, and balsamic in a small bowl. Crush the garlic clove and add, then season to taste, adjusting the ratio of oil to lemon juice to your liking. When the shrimp and squid are cool, add them to the crab and lobster meat, pour the dressing over, add the parsley and fennel fronds, stir, and let it marinate overnight.
I like to serve each plate with lemon half that’s been seared in a cast iron pan, along with several slices of crusty bread for mopping. A white wine from a coastal region where the grapes grow in the sea breeze will absolutely scream with this salad. Ligurian wine is nice here, but for my money, an Albariño wine from Rías Baixas is even better.