Every family has unique holiday customs they call their own. Growing up in a large, nontraditional, multispiritual family, our rituals were as diverse and distinctive as us. We pulled pages from cultures and religions around the world and imbued them with our own important traditions. Against this backdrop and our collective imagination, we created winter rituals that have stuck with me for decades.
For the first half of my life, I was blessed by my surroundings: the choppy grey-blue ocean and dense, lush green forests of the Pacific Northwest. One favorite family custom was heading out for a long hike through the woods in search of a sad, sorry, wimpy little tree, usually one that was getting crowded out by the surrounding fauna. We’d dig it up, haul it home, decorate it, and then replant it in a more nurturing location. This was our attempt to give it a better lease on life than it had in its original home.
We also took advantage of the opportunities presented to us by being so connected to nature and close to the sea. On our Christmas Day walk, we’d meander through dewy ferns and moss, often winding up at the beach—and frequently followed up with an insanely crazy group dunk into the frigid water! We’d celebrate the solstice and reminisce about the past year with a massive bonfire and hot cider from our orchard fruits. Our huge Christmas Eve potluck was always focused around the foods we’d grown and an abundance of local products. A turkey from the heritage land down the road, creamy goat cheeses from the island cheese farm, and boatloads of fresh seafood.
When I moved to Colorado, my adopted families introduced me to some new customs. I’ve since incorporated some of these with many of the nostalgic rituals from my youth to create my own special family traditions for the season. Unfortunately, I can’t visit the ocean for my chilly, salty, winter jump, but I’m grateful to still have access to delicious, high-quality seafood. This is where one of my own traditions has come to fruition.
Years ago, I came across the concept of “The Feast of Seven Fishes.” This Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration is loosely based off La Vigilia (the Vigil), which originated in Southern Italy. A day of fasting on Christmas Eve would be followed by a grand feast, typically containing seven different seafood dishes and eaten after midnight mass.
My family isn’t large enough—and I generally don’t have the time, desire, or energy—to justify preparing multiple seafood dishes for the holidays. But I love the idea of incorporating an array of seafood into a special meal that pays homage to both the nostalgic memories of my youth and the newfound customs of my latter years. Thus, I began preparing a seafood stew or soup containing seven (or more!) unique oceanic creatures to celebrate the season.
No one year is the same as the next. Sometimes it’s an Italian-inspired tomato-based soup like cioppino. Other years I’ll make a hearty, luscious chowder or an exotic spicy Thai coconut curry. The only rules are to purchase the freshest and most beautiful seafood I can afford and create a dish with a wide variety of tastes, textures, and colors.
This year, I’m planning a quick, simple bouillabaisse, a Provencal fish stew originating from the ports of Marseille. I say quick and simple because it’s traditionally served in two courses, and it features a specific group of fish direct from the Mediterranean. Throwing out the rules a bit, I serve the soup in one bowl. As I said, I also purchase a combination of the freshest seafood I can find (and that suits my wallet), and I’m never afraid to improvise and make do with my selection.
Like any good seafood stew that’s chock-full of assorted fin fish, shellfish, and mollusks, bouillabaisse is set apart from other fish soups primarily with the addition of fragrant saffron, which adds a unique element. It’s expensive, and unfortunately there’s simply no good substitute. However, a little bit goes a long way. The flavorful broth is accented with fresh fennel, chopped rustic vegetables, and creamy baby potatoes that soak up the seafood and spices. Topped with crisp croutons and served with an uncomplicated, minimalist salad, the meal is simple yet elegant, fresh and clean, and hearty enough to satisfy even the hungriest diners. It can even be prepared in advance, making a sophisticated holiday (or anytime) meal a practical and low-effort one as well.
There are traditionalists who claim there’s only one right way to make bouillabaisse, but whether you intend this as a seafood feast for the holidays or plan to enjoy it as an everyday meal, this nontraditional bouillabaisse will always impress your guests—and your taste buds.
Prep time: 45–60 minutes
Cook time: 60–75 minutes
Note: Do not use strongly flavored, oily fish in this bouillabaisse. And if you choose salmon, go sparingly on the amount as it can overpower the delicate flavor of the milder white fish.
For the croutons:
12–18 baguette slices, cut ½-inch thick
3–4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, cut in half
Flaked salt and freshly cracked pepper
For the soup:
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
1½ cups white wine
1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced, fronds reserved
¼ cup reserved fennel fronds, chopped
1 lb. baby red potatoes, halved or quartered
2 quarts fish, chicken, or vegetable stock, or water
Sea salt and cracked pepper
2–3 lbs. assorted mild fin fish (I recommend 3–4 types, such as halibut, cod, snapper, salmon, etc.), cut into bite-sized pieces (about 2 inches)
18–24 littleneck clams or mussels, or a bit of both
½ lb. peeled and deveined shrimp
½ lb. calamari squid, tubes sliced into rings and tentacles left whole or (if large) cut in half
¼–½ lb. bay scallops
racked crab claws, lobster, cockles
Chopped parsley, to serve
- Prepare croutons: Preheat oven to 275° Arrange baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Rub garlic clove over bread. Season with flaked salt and cracked pepper. Bake until crisp, about 20–30 minutes
- Prepare soup: Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onions and sauté 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and saffron. Cook about 1–2 minutes. Add white wine and boil until liquid is reduced by about half. Add fennel bulb, fennel fronds, potatoes, and stock or water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, clean seafood and cut into serving pieces if necessary. Add thicker pieces of fish and clams to simmering broth, cover pot, and cook until clams open wide (discard any clams that don’t open after about 5–7 minutes). Add delicate fish pieces and shrimp to broth. Cook until about ¾ of the way done, about 3 minutes. Add calamari and scallops to broth and simmer until just cooked through, about 2–3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Serve soup piping hot, garnished with croutons and chopped parsley.
Image from Briana Goodall.