The Catholic Feast of the Seven Fishes, contrived to represent the seven sacraments, is one of the great Christmas Eve food traditions. From a seven-course extravaganza that includes seafood salads, fried, steamed, baked, stewed and raw fish, to a perfect zuppa, it’s a tour de force and a tradition enjoyed by any and all denominations, humanists, and atheists alike at my restaurants.
The secret of a good zuppa is making a great crab sauce base and then timing the cooking of the seafood so you don’t overcook anything! This is best served over light pasta like thin spaghetti or angel hair, or just served with a loaf of good Italian bread.
8 hardhell blue crabs or 2 dungeness crabs or two 1 pound lobsters
1 pound cleaned calamari, cut into thick rings
18-24 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, peels reserved
18-24 medium dry pack sea scallops
18-24 littleneck clams (scrubbed)
18-24 mussels (scrubbed and debearded)
1 ½ lbs firm white fish filet, cut into 6 pieces (hake or pollock are good sustainable choices)
extra virgin olive oil as needed
6 tablespoon onion, diced small
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 cups dry white wine
4 cups canned plum tomatoes pureed in a food processor
One small can tomato puree
2 bay leaves
2 cups clam juice (buy a quality, chemical-free brand)
crushed red pepper to taste
good dried Sicilian oregano
Italian parsley galore
Salt to taste
To make the “Zuppa Sauce” base
Clean the crabs/lobsters, both the same. Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Drop the crabs in and cook for 3 minutes, remove and rinse with cold water. Use scissors to remove the face. Pull off the back and remove the “dead man’s fingers” or gills.
In a heavy pot add some olive oil. If using lobsters, break the shells and remove the tail, claw, and knuckle meat and reserve. Sauté the shells. If using crab, add the crabs and reserved shrimp peels and season lightly with salt. Sizzle in the oil until the aroma releases and the shrimp shells are pink. Add the onions and the garlic and cook until soft but not brown.
Add one cup of the white wine and cook at a brisk boil for 3-4 minutes. Add the plum tomatoes and the can of tomato puree. If the crabs are not covered with liquid, add some water to cover. Add the bay leaves and a pinch of crushed red pepper and allow to simmer for at least 45 minutes to infuse the crab flavor into the sauce. Carefully remove the crabs from the sauce and allow to cool. Strain the sauce to make sure there are no stray shrimp shells or crab shell pieces in it, pushing everything through your basket strainer.
Pick whatever meat you can get from the crabs from the back and by cracking the claws to remove the meat there too. Add this to the strained sauce.
You now have a deep seafood-infused tomato base for the zuppa without having overcooked your fish! Keep this sauce warm or reheat it before getting ready to finish the dish.
Assembling the Zuppa... Timing is everything!
OK—get this. The clams take the longest to cook. Then the fish filet. Then the scallops and shrimp and finally the mussels and squid. Respect your seafood!
Use a heavy casserole dish with a lid for this. If you are serving pasta for this, have it ready. Don’t make the fish wait for the pasta.
Add enough olive oil to coat the pan generously. Turn up to high heat.
Add the clams and cook in the oil until they start to “piss and sizzle." At this point, add the clam juice, the reserved seafood-tomato sauce, the filet pieces and some oregano and cover. In exactly four minutes add your shrimp and scallops, cook one more minute and add the mussels and cover. Now cook one MORE minute hard, then add the calamari (and cooked lobster meat) and cook ONE MORE MINUTE! Add a fistful of chopped parsley and some more oregano and cover. Turn off the heat–you did cover it right?–and let it all gently steam for 5 more minutes before serving.
Ladle over pasta or into big bowls served with plenty of bread. Serve olio santo on the side (see recipe below).
1 large fresh, long hot pepper, stemmed and cut into half-inch pieces
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
pinch of salt
In a small pot, cover the pepper with oil.
Bring to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes. Allow pepper to steep in the oil.