Bon Appetit, in writing about "How to Celebrate the Feast of Seven Fishes," acknowledges that there is no hard and fast way to go about this particularly Italian/Italian-American tradition:
What fish should be included and how they should be prepared can vary. Some people cook seven courses; some choose to make 12 (in deference to the 12 apostles). Some just put a bunch of seafood in a stew and call it good. Many families keep their own traditions, but everyone who celebrates can agree: Seafood should be prepared and consumed on Christmas Eve. Preferably with wine.We adhere to a full seven(plus)-course meal (my father, and his mother, and probably her parents before that insist that one stew with seven fishes is cheating) in our family, and this year's menu promises not to disappoint:
1 (& 1a): Salmon Two Ways: Smoked on the Big Green Egg (a la this recipe) and Cured Side of Salmon, based on the Cured Salmon recipe in Charcuterie.
2: Garlic Shrimp: This sautéed shrimp dish (this dish from Pioneer Woman is reminiscent of the one my brother makes, but not exact) is a hit with those few (they do exist) who come to Christmas Eve and don't actually eat fish. We'll serve with pasta or bread or both for a carb hit.
3: Baccalao Mantecado: In recent years, we've broken with family history by preparing Baccala Mantecato--and I'd argue it's one of the better Christmas Eve decisions we've made of late. (We used to make a baccalao olive salad and trust me, it's worth breaking with tradition to turn dried salted cod into something delicious and divine instead of something that tastes like fish-flavored sawdust.)
4: Seared Tuna: This dish breaks with the traditional Italian flavorings that grace most of the other plates on Christmas Eve, but the bolt of cold tuna with Asian seasoning is a welcome relief from some of the heavier dishes of the evening. Similar to this recipe, though it's not exact.
5: Crab Salad: We're Marylanders at heart, you know? And Oh, We Want Crabs for Christmas. So crabs we will have--in a cold salad kind of like this one. With more Old Bay and less other stuff.
6: Smelts: This barely counts as one of the seven courses as really, who eats smelts? My father, brother, and husband, apparently. Personally, I think they're gross, but if you want to try them yourself, take a look at this.
7: Rockfish over Fresh Greens: At this point in the evening, we're all half in the bag and desperately in need of fresh greens. This one's a new addition to the menu, so no link to share until after the event. If you want to hear how it is, remind me to tell you how it is, yes?
8 & 9: Spicy Octopus & Squid Stew: There is an annual argument over whether Octopus and Squid in one stew dish really count as two fish or one fish. While I never make this stew myself, I believe it's something similar to this dish from Emeril.
Discounting the smelts, because I refuse to eat them, we reach 7 courses with 8 fish--so technically, it's a Feast of Eight* Fishes (*or Nine Including Smelts). But as Marco Canora put it when asked about how much the number seven truly mattered in the tradition,
I think something is not authentic or real when people want to do it all perfect. If there’s anything food culture is not, it’s perfect. And Italians don’t give a shit about these rules — they’re the most anti-rule culture there is! Rules are for the French. The number seven doesn’t matter. The meal is a heartfelt, imbedded thing. You eat fish on Christmas Eve, and that’s it.So we'll eat fish on Christmas Eve, and that's it.