Christmas cookie exchanges and cocoa with Santa notwithstanding, here's a culinary tradition worth trying during the month of December: the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Traditionally celebrated by Italian-American families and fans of Italian food on Dec. 24, the meatless Italian meal features seven courses (and sometimes many more), each with a different seafood.
Even though it's a relatively new tradition born in the U.S. (it's virtually unknown to Italians living in Italy), the fish-forward feast is thought to have roots that stretch back centuries to southern Italy. Abstaining from meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays, including on vigilia di Natale, is a precept of Roman Catholicism. So the best guess is that when Italian immigrants arrived in America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they wanted to bring a taste of home to their new country while also creating their own traditions.
That there are seven dishes is also something of a mystery. Its religious significance — the number seven appears throughout the Bible — could convey the week it took God to create the Earth, or the number of cardinal sins or sacraments in Roman Catholic theology. Another possibility: Ancient Rome was built on a group of seven hills.
However the tradition came about, all that really matters is that the Feast of Seven Fishes offers an occasion, and reason, for families and friends to come together for a good meal and celebrate their heritage.
This recipe, adapted from Serious Eats, puts a spicy spotlight on mussels. 'Nduja, a soft and spreadable pork sausage made with Calabrian chilies, goes into the pan along with crushed tomato and white wine, creating a rich, tomatoey sauce that pleasantly burns on the palate. (Hint: You'll want lots of bread to soak up every last drop.)
When buying mussels, look for shells that are tightly closed and smell fresh and briny, but not fishy. It's best to cook them the day you buy them, though you can refrigerate them, removed from the bag and covered loosely with a damp paper towel, for a day or so if that's what your schedule mandates.
They don't take long to cook; you'll know they're done when the shells open. Any mussels that fail to open during cooking should be discarded — that means they were dead and unsafe to eat.
Spicy Steamed Mussels with 'Nduja