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A Healthy Feast of Fishes

A modern interpretation of a traditional Italian Christmas eve feast.

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I first encountered this italian tradition through a December cover article in Gourmet magazine that featured recipes for seemingly endless courses of piscatorial delight. But it wasn’t until I dated a delightful young lady whose family hailed from Sicily that I actually attended such an event and was irrevocably smitten (with both the girl and the feast!).

The origins of the Southern Italian tradition are shrouded in the mists of time, though all versions have one theme in common-no meat, a Catholic requirement on Fridays, as well as on Christmas Eve.

Thus you have plenty of latitude when creating your own version of this multi-course feast. And that’s fortunate, because I’ve found that many of the classic components involve ingredients that won’t necessarily appeal to modern guests-and use cooking methods that are decidedly less than healthy.

With that in mind, the following seven-course menu retains the essence of tradition without some of its overindulgences. Fried foods have given way to roasted or seared, vegetables have taken center stage along with the fish, and olive oil stands in for butter and cream, creating a modern take on the Italian classic that-we hope-will gratify the palate and fortify the system.

The Menu

White anchovies, assorted olives, chunks of Locatelli pecorino romano, and crispy flatbreads: If you’ve never had white anchovies, you’re in for a treat. Possessed of a firm, creamy white flesh and delicate taste, they bear no resemblance of any kind to those salty brown things in a tin. You’ll find them at your nearest Italian deli or specialty store.

White Bean, Shrimp, and Basil Soup(recipe below) This delicate soup will adapt to any sort of fish you care to toss into it; shrimp is lovely, but so is halibut or monkfish-or even a few fresh oysters.

Capellini with Dungeness Crab
Whole wheat capellini with olive oil, Dungeness crab, fresh snipped chives, and truffled cheese:Cook angel hair pasta according to package directions, toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil and a generous helping of crabmeat and chives, then shred a snowfall of a firm Italian truffled cheese on top. And a grind or two of fresh black pepper couldn’t hurt. … Molto gusto!

Bay scallops, hearts of escarole, shredded Tuscan kale, and wild arugula:
Toss greens with our Lemon-Balsamic Vinaigrette (recipe below). Sear the scallops quickly in an olive-oil-moistened pan, and scatter over the greens. For the more adventuresome, try calamari instead.

Roasted White Sea Bass with Mint Pesto (recipe below)
and Sautéed Rapini (recipe below)
I love our local white sea bass, but red snapper, halibut, cod, or any firm-fleshed white fish will work just as well.

Cheese & Fruit Plate
Hard winter fruits, such as apple and pear, combined with chunks of pomegranate and a scattering of seeds make a stunning presentation. Select two or three firmer cheeses such as an aged Manchego, an herbed Cotswold cheddar, and the rest of the Italian truffled cheese you used for the pasta.

Biscotti & Chocolate-dipped dried fruits and Espresso with Cointreau
Splurge on some truly authentic biscotti at the Italian deli. And though you can buy prepared chocolate-dipped fruit, it’s so much nicer to make your own. Start with some dried apricots, and maybe some pineapple and figs as well; melbittersweet chocolate, dip in each piece of fruit to cover half, then chill on a wax-paper-covered platter. Serve witht espresso laced with a splash of Cointreau.

Roasted White Sea Bass with Mint Pesto
Serves 4

3 Tbs. olive oil, divided

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

1/2 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 Tbs. toasted pine nuts

1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

Grind of black pepper

3/4 lbs. white sea bass, cut into 4 pieces

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine 2 Tbs. olive oil, mint, parsley, pine nuts, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in food processor. Purée until smooth, but with slightly coarse texture. Set aside.
  2. Moisten sea bass with remaining olive oil, and place on foil-covered baking sheet. Roast in preheated oven until opaque and just cooked through, 10-14 minutes (depending on thickness of fish). Transfer to plates, top each piece of fish with dollop of pesto, and serve with Sautéed Rapini (see below).

PER SERVING: 213 cal; 18g pro; 15g total fat (2g sat fat); 2g carb; 37mg chol; 189mg sod; 1g fiber; <1g sugars

Sautéed Rapini
Serves 4

1 large bunch rapini, woody stems removed and leafy part coarsely chopped

2 Tbs. olive oil

1/4 tsp. minced garlic

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)

1/2 tsp. microplaned lemon zest

  1. Heat oil in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes, if using, and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add rapini, and cook, stirring often, 3 minutes more. Add 2 Tbs. water, cover, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon zest, and serve.

PER SERVING: 85 cal; 3g pro; 7g total fat (1g sat fat); 4g carb; 0mg chol; 25mg sod; 2g fiber; 1g sugars

White Bean, Shrimp, and Basil Soup
Serves 4

1 Tbs. olive oil

1 Tbs. minced shallot

1/2 tsp. minced garlic

1 quart organic vegetable broth

1 cup cooked white beans

1 cup chopped raw shrimp

1/4 cup shredded fresh basil

  1. Pour oil in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add shallots and garlic, and cook over medium heat until softened, about 2 minutes. Add vegetable broth, and bring to a boil.
  2. Add white beans, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Add shrimp and continue to simmer until shrimp are barely opaque, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls, garnish with basil, and serve.

PER SERVING: 150 cal; 12g pro; 4g total fat (1g sat fat); 15g carb; 71mg chol; 570mg sod; 4g fiber; 2g sugars

Lemon-Balsamic Vinaigrette
Serves 4

1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar

2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbs. red wine vinegar

2 tsp. water

1 tsp. minced shallot

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

  1. Combine balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, water, shallots, and mustard in medium jar, and shake vigorously to combine. Add olive oil, and shake again. Adjust vinegar and oil to taste.

PER SERVING: 186 cal; <1g pro; 19g total fat (3g sat fat); 4g carb; 0mg chol; 64mg sod; <1g fiber; 3g sugars