On Christmas Eve, many New Jerseyans observe an Italian-American tradition brought to the US from Sicily: the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei sette pesci). The goal is to serve seven fish dishes as part of an extended — and filling — holiday meal.

Catholics used to fast from meat on the vigil, or night before, of certain religious holy days, especially Easter and Christmas. Now, the tradition has become a bit of a feast rather than a fast. (Witness Fat Tuesday and the Mardi Gras carnival before Lent precedes Easter.)

Most folks try to make seven dishes with a variety of types of fish — seven fishes, seven days, seven seas. There are lots of myths around the tradition, but what is true is the fishy deliciousness of this Southern Italian import.

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Local supermarkets in New Jersey — if they know their community — feature lots of fish to cook on Christmas Eve. Salted cod — baccala — is a wrinkly feature in the fish department. There is, of course, shrimp, squid (calamari), octopus (pulpo), mussels and clams, some served in a steamy, spicy red sauce.

For a contemporary take on this Italian festa, NJ Flavor is sharing a recipe for roasted bronzini with fresh herbs, lemon and olive oil. While some people may know the bronzini fish better as the Mediterranean sea bass, this fish tastes surprisingly like red snapper and is similar in appearance and size to a medium-sized trout. 

Bronzini is often served whole in restaurants, but this recipe calls for filets with skin.

Roasted Bronzini with Lemon, Herbs and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

½ cup plus 1 Tbs. olive oil

¼ cup chopped fresh thyme

¼ cup chopped fresh dill

2 Tbs. chopped fresh chives

1 tsp. lemon zest

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 bronzini fillets with skin

1 pt. cherry tomatoes

1 Tbs. melted unsalted butter

Lemon wedges and fresh dill sprigs for garnish.

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In blender or small-bowl food processor puree ¼ cup oil, thyme, dill, chives, lemon zest and 1/8 teaspoon salt until smooth.

Transfer to small bowl; whisk in another ¼ cup of oil. Season herb oil to taste with salt and pepper.

In a roasting pan with sides, combine tomatoes, butter and 1 Tbs. olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in oven until tomatoes are bursting and skin is beginning to char, about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle filets on both sides with a little bit of salt and pepper. Heat enough oil to coat bottom of large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat.

Add 3 fillets, skin-side down.

Sauté for about 3 minutes. Transfer fillets, skin side down, to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining fillets.

Drizzle each fillet with about 1/2 Tbs. herb oil.

Roast fillets until just opaque in center, about 9 - 10 minutes.

Place fillets on serving platter; drizzle with remaining herb oil. Arrange roasted tomatoes around fish. Garnish with lemon wedges and fresh sprigs of dill.

Salud!

Read more on NJ Flavor:

Recipe: Lemon Ricotta Hotcakes, a Perfect Holiday Breakfast or Brunch Treat

How to Make Perfectly Crispy Little Latkes (Even if You’re Cooking them Ahead of Time)

Impress Your Guests with One of These Signature Cocktails this Holiday

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Got a story you'd like to see on NJ Flavor? Email Jackie Lieberman at jlieberman@tapinto.net.