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Southern-style mussels

Even non-Italians will love these Southern takes on Feast of the Seven Fishes dishes

In Southern Italy, many families celebrate Christmas Eve with a lavish seafood spread commonly referred to as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” Meat is off-limits, and most families spend the entire day preparing these seven separate seafood dishes, often consisting of salt cod, smelts, calamari and clams.

As Italian-Americans have carried on these traditions, many classic dishes have been adapted to reflect our more domestic seafood bounty. While the tradition remains popular in the Northeast, we asked ourselves: What would the Feast of the Seven Fishes look like in the South?

The key to successfully translating the Feast for the South is offering variety in types of seafood represented, as well as different cooking methods. Serving salads, stews, appetizers and an entrée not only keeps your guests’ palates piqued, but also maximizes the efficiency in your kitchen. Prepare some dishes in advance and cook others on a variety of surfaces (the grill, a deep fryer, the oven) so you can distribute the workload among a couple of skilled friends or family members.

Here's what we'd serve and how we'd get it done.
Two days ahead: Smoked Trout Salad with Green Goddess Dressing
For a flavorful, substantial salad, look towards smoked trout. These days, it's easy to find high-quality smoked trout at your neighborhood grocery store — build your salad from there. Smoky fish and creamy sauces, such as this cucumber-spiked green goddess, go quite well together, and both ingredients elevate simple, hearty boiled potatoes. Pickled onions add brightness and truly bring this salad to life. Go ahead and boil the potatoes and make the dressing and the pickles the day or two before, so all you'll need to do on Christmas Eve is toss everything together.
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One day ahead: Crab Cakes with Whole Grain Mustard Sauce and Buttermilk-Fried Oysters with Remoulade
Crab cakes made from real lump or jumbo lump crabmeat are what holiday indulgence is all about. The best crab cakes are made from largely all crab, with just enough breading to hold the cakes together. When mixing the cakes, take care not to break up the lumps of crab — that’s why you pay extra for the good stuff. Gently fold the crab into the seasoned mayonnaise with a rubber spatula. For a holiday feast, you can make the crab cakes a little smaller than the circumference of a silver dollar for more snackable portions. Make the crab cakes the night before and let them set up overnight in the refrigerator. They’ll be more likely to maintain their shape and not fall apart during the cooking process, and all you'll need to do before serving is pull out your cast iron skillet for frying.
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If you live anywhere near the Southern coast, you’ll likely have access to either Gulf or Mid-Atlantic oysters. These days, you can even find varieties like Bluepoint and Wellfleet at Publix. Since we already have chilled dishes as part of our meal, a fried component will bring warmth and crisp texture to the party. And chances are, there will be an oyster novice at your feast; fried oysters can be the perfect gateway experience to becoming a true bivalve lover. Make the remoulade the day (or two) before serving, and shuck the oysters after you prepare your crab cake. The oysters will keep just fine when stored in their liquor. Of course, in a pinch, you can always buy the packaged oysters next to the seafood counter. Bread and fry the oysters right before your guests arrive.
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In the morning: Pickled Shrimp Salad
A true Southern stalwart recipe that remains underappreciated is pickled shrimp. In its best form, large shrimp are poached, halved lengthwise, then left to cure — or pickle — in a marinade that resembles a loose vinaigrette. Aromatic vegetables, such as onions or fennel, add depth to the dish and make it more of a salad than an appetizer. Spiced crackers make an excellent accompaniment to the bright pickled shrimp. You can get the dish ready around lunchtime Christmas Eve — about 4 to 6 hours is the magic window of time for the shrimp to absorb the flavors of the marinade without toughening up.
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On the stovetop: Southern-Style Mussels
Before your guests dig into the main dish, you'll want to serve something that resembles a soup or stew. Taking inspiration from beer and vinegar-braised collard greens, these Southern-style mussels are a perfect Southern adaptation of a classic dish. Mussels are quick-cooking, so they'll be easy to turn out after appetizer hour is finished. If your beliefs dictate that you should abstain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, then feel free to leave out the country ham. Anchovies would actually be an excellent substitution, and could add yet another fish to your menu. Finely chopping the collard greens ensures that they cook faster than the more traditional rough cut. And be sure to serve plenty of crusty bread for sopping.
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Oven: Whole Roasted Snapper with Caper Butter Sauce
For the centerpiece of the meal, try roasting a whole fish. Stuffed with aromatic lemon slices, shallots and dill, this easy entree will certainly draw oohs and ahhs. A heavy-duty roasting pan will make the process of roasting a fish much easier, plus you can make a delicious pan sauce in the same vessel in which the fish was cooked. Keep it simple here: Some white wine, lemon, capers and butter are perfect. Red snapper or black bass work best in this recipe, but drum, redfish, or even trout would be fine selections.
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On the side: Crawfish Succotash
For a fantastic side dish, complete your Feast of the Seven Fishes with this crawfish succotash recipe. The vegetables in the succotash offer a textural contrast to the soft, moist fish, and the white wine pan sauce complements both the fish and the succotash. Available directly from Louisiana, crawfish tails can be found in the frozen seafood section of the supermarket.
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Photo Credit (Trout Salad): Lauren Booker
Photo Credit (Snapper): Ramona King
Photo Credit (Succotash): Ideabar

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Chef Jeffrey Gardner is a native of Natchez, Miss., and a graduate of Millsaps College and Johnson & Wales University. He lives in Atlanta and has served as sous chef for popular restaurants South City Kitchen Midtown and Alma Cocina. In 2013 he became executive chef for East Cobb restaurant Common Quarter and was named one of ten “Next Generation of Chefs to Watch” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He has appeared on TV shows including Food Network’s Chopped and Cooking Channel’s How to Live to 100, and also filmed a series of healthy cooking videos with retired pro wrestler and fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife Wendy, watching game shows and “spending all his money on Bruce Springsteen concerts.”