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FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES

Food is an integral part of my life and its no surprise that I came by this at a young age. I am Italian after all. I wish I could say I was born in Italy, and not Cleveland, which sounds more romantic. Still I do have strong ethnic roots that come to play whenever I am in the kitchen. Holidays especially bring it out in me. Our family’s Christmas Eve dinner comes to mind.

My dad’s father is from Ascoli-Piceno in Marche on the Adriatic Coast. Growing up I assumed this was the birthplace of the tradition we celebrated my whole life, “The Feast of the Seven Fishes”. As I got older I realized that it was a celebration that many Italians from all regions in Italy enjoyed, each with their own special nuance. Even the count differs–some areas celebrate nine fishes while others celebrate eleven. One thing is certain; the menu on this night is “meatless” as it was the night prior to a holy day and it was considered a vigil.

At the Neroni’s, Christmas Eve day started before daybreak with a trip to the west side market. From dried cod (Baccala) to fresh smelts-we kept the fishmonger busy selecting species that would marry well with our family recipes brought out year after year.

My alarm clock was in the form of Mom’s Marinara, scented with garlic and fennel, filling the house with its sweet tomato aroma. When I arrived in the kitchen, dad was at the sink measuring his ingredients for pizza while mom peeled garlic. This scene played out many times in my life, but on the morning of Christmas Eve, it meant the beginning of a long day of cooking.

As a boy I thought it was a huge menu—as a chef, I think it is a huge menu! We began with fresh fennel, along side EVOO, Kosher salt and cracked pepper – a way to stimulate the appetite. Then the fish courses were placed. First, a platter of large Steamed Prawns topped with horseradish sauce, followed by Pan-fried Smelts with aioli (garlic mayonnaise). Calamari, was stewed in a tomato sauce that would sometimes include crab or lobster, not usually both. The Baccala–Salted Cod, is my favorite now, not as a boy, and it was traditionally served with eggs and onions. If Clams were present, they were baked with oregano and breadcrumbs. Our final fish dish, Lake Perch, was simply baked with capers and lemon. Miraculously all these dishes made their way to the table at once, accompanied by spaghetti or some other pasta, a fresh green salad with an oil and mostly vinegar dressing that my dad loved and most of us got use to, stinky cheeses, a variety of olives, and of course, crusty Italian breads! Notice I have not describe the wines that accompanied these Fishes! No, indeed. Dad would serve what he called an “Italian high ball,” only one, and it would last the whole meal. It consisted of red table wine and gingerale. Dessert this day was never the focal point, but still an amazing array of our favorite cookies including biscotti, pizzelles, apricot fold-overs, thumb prints, rugelach, and pecan tassie. The sampler was available following dinner but as I recall there was a requisite that my sisters and I do the dishes before rewarding ourselves with cookies.

Today the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a little more extravagant to prepare than it was when we were kids. The varieties we served for holy days were very inexpensive, and at least then, were not given the gourmet status they are today. As they became more popular and mainstream in restaurants, they also became more expensive. This in mind, I do enjoy the challenge of creating the modern version of my family’s feast. As always, I stick to the local and seasonal products and usually have no trouble coming up with seven courses, especially when one dish has two or three species in it, like a Cioppino or a seafood salad. And for that matter why not a one pot feast containing all seven fishes? Now that is my idea of quick feasting—one pot fish stew that I pair with crusty bread, and a nice Chianti, or a Sangiovese blend, such as Oregon produced Farmhouse Red by David Hill. Buon Natale!

Feast of the Seven Fishes in one Pot
As needed EVOO
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 shallots, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1 medium carrots, diced,
1 bulb fennel, diced
1 cup red wine
2 16 oz. cans diced tomatoes with juice
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cracked coriander
1 lb fresh or frozen calamari (squid), cut into small pieces
2 medium potatoes, peeled, diced
2# mussels
2# clams
1# rockfish, 2 inch chunks
1 # salmon, block cut 2×2 inch
1 # link cod, 2 inch chunks
1 # bay shrimp
1 # crab, picked and clean
1 bunch fresh basil, sliced just before adding
Crusty bread

Method:
Add EVOO to bottom of preheated Dutch oven. Add first 5 ingredients and cook until vegetables are aromatic and still firm. Add tomatoes and wine, sea salt, oregano and coriander. Bring to simmer and add calamari; cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add potatoes and continue cooking an additional 30 minutes. Test the calamari for tenderness, and if not, continue cooking until it is. Hold warm until service.
At service: Add remaining seafood in the following order gently stirring after each addition:
Mussels and clams—cooked cover for 3-5 minutes,
Add rockfish, salmon, and link cod for 3 minutes,
Add bay shrimp and crab last. Replace lid and about a minute just to heat through.
Taste the broth and adjust seasoning with sea salt, coriander, and black pepper.

Dish up into large “pasta size” bowls. Drizzle with your favorite EVOO and top with shredded basil. Serve with crusty bread and a great Chianti.

Serves 6-8 generous portions with leftovers.


Winter Feasting

Growing up in the Midwest brought with it a variety of cuisines. I think many people think one dimensional if you mention Chicago, Detroit or even Cleveland for its perceived lack luster food and concord style grapes that are relegated to jams and jellies and never wine. The truth is that these cities offer a melting pot of culture and great food. Growing up in Cleveland (Ohio) I often reminisce of the Friday morning drives to the market with my dad in his grand Cadillac (it always seemed grand to me) and the stops we made along the way. One such stop was the Lebanese bakery, about three miles from our destination and the best coffee and pita in the world! Well, you will have to take my word on that, but it is hard to beat the aroma and flavor of freshly baked pockets of dough hot out of wood fired ovens, slathered with sweet butter and served alongside dark roasted coffee….euphoric.

On the other hand it only got better as the day went on. Ice cold buttermilk from the dairy farmer, only hours old and artisan cheeses, cut to spec as you watched with anticipation. Charcuterie made old world style from Italy, Germany, Lithuania and Poland, all reeking of exotic aromatics from their points of origin.

Multitudes of fish from the great lakes cut and cleaned from tanks where moments earlier they swam without a care in the world.

All this fresh food made us appreciate the effort put forward by the craftsman and women who rose before dawn and slept little to deliver the fruits of their respective labors. I am confident that this is one reason I work as I do today. The other without question is due to my childhood where cooking was an integral part of the Neroni household. With a Jewish mother and Italian father, I often joke that there was a lot of good food and greater guilt! All kidding aside, being the youngest with four sisters, it was part of the daily routine to be in the kitchen with mom and dad preparing, playing, testing and eating new and old family recipes. One such recipe that I often recreate is Dad’s Braciola.

Braciola (bra-chee-oh-la) is kind of an Italian pot roast. My dad’s version used lesser, tougher cuts of meat like chuck or clod that were fanned out, stuffed and rolled jelly roll fashion. A favorite stuffing was sautéed escarole, pine nuts, garlic and golden raisins. After stuffing, the meat is usually tied with butcher’s twine, seared for browning, and then slowly braised in a marinara sauce until the tomatoes and garlic fussed with the beef turning it tender and succulent. Fresh made pasta drizzled with olive oil from Galucci’s downtown always accompanied my dad’s Braciola! The recipe comes together pretty quickly and simple substitutions can be made if needed. One thing will be clear as your Braciola is cooking—garlic is good and you will want to have a lot of crusty bread so that none of it goes to waste. Enjoy!

My Dad’s Braciola, as I remember it!
BRACIOLA (say, “bra-chee-OH-la”) A braised beef dish that is served with fresh made pasta! Here it is with Spaghetti squash instead of pasta
1 ea spaghetti squash
1 ½# chuck roast*
1 head garlic, minced
1 large onion, minced
1 head escarole, chopped
2 TBS pine nuts, toasted
2 TBS currants
1 TBS dry oregano leaves
2 tsp dry thyme
4 oz bacon, minced, rendered (fat reserved), optional
2 quarts Marinara sauce

Squash method: wash and cut squash lengthwise; brush with EVOO and season with sea salt, pepper and coriander; wrap with foil and roast at 375ºF for approximately 45 minutes or until tender and squash-meat begins to pull away from the skin; remove and flake pulp into warm serving dish; toss with EVOO and adjust seasonings.

Braciola: fan out chuck and season with salt and pepper- reserve cold; heat 3 TBS EVOO in large sauté pan; add garlic and onions and cook until aromatic; add escarole and cook to wilt; add nuts and currants and cook to incorporate; add herbs and bacon and remove from heat – cool completely. Lay filling out over the fanned out chuck and roll/tie; meanwhile bring sauce to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Heat large skillet with EVOO and sear meat on all sides; cover with sauce and simmer/braise for approximately 2 hours or until tender. Remove twine and cut into individual portions.

*You might ask your butcher to “fan” out the beef so you can fill it when you get home. Or ask if he’ll fill and tie it for you if you bring in the stuffing. You can also use flank steak or top round steak, which do not require fanning.


Talking Turkey

This time of year, more than any other time, Americans are overwhelmed with the task of making not only turkey – but a better, new and improved from last year bird that will rival all other competitors. In all fairness, Holiday time is the only time we cook a meal of this magnitude. And so, it should be daunting! Friends, family and in-laws gathering around the communal table having anticipated the holiday’s culinary magic, puts pressure on even the most seasoned cooks. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit but it does seem to me there is a lot of energy spent this time of year on how to cook a better bird. So I offer this friendly discussion to help you in your decision making.

In most of my menu planning, I start by thinking about the big picture first. What flavors am I going for—will it be spicy, herbaceous, or refreshing. This line of thinking helps me create the sides and condiments, and the center of the plate follows. But when working with turkey,that bird gets my full attention up front.

Thinking about last year’s bird, I just want to make this one tastier and juicier!—tastucier! So I am in competition with myself now. To save some time I need to decide which of the myriad of cooking methods available will give me the best shot at ”tastucier!” Quickly I narrow down my choices to brining the bird or oven roasting!

Brining the bird – the purpose of brining is to tenderize meat proteins and add flavor. In the simplest sense, salt is dissolved in water and the meat submerged for a period of time, depending on weight. Sugar or sweeteners like honey or maple syrup may be added along with seasonings to make it more interesting. There are also recipes substituting water with other liquids such as fruit juice, wine or beer. But simply salted water will produce juicier meat. Brined items should be patted dry once finished and then cooked. But cooked how?

Oven-Roasting is a common method for cooking turkey. It is a technique of dry heat cooking at generally higher temperatures for more tender pieces of meat, utilizing small amounts or no fat/oil. This works best on small cuts of meat. Whole roasted turkey is often too large and results in becoming too dry! I think this is where the foil wrapping or “baking a turkey in a bag” probably started. In my experience it is the white meat that is dry from roasting, because by the time the dark meat is done, i.e. no longer raw and is safe to eat, the white goes beyond done. I have had pretty good roasting results when I flip the bird over on its breast for the first half of the cooking. This way all the juice flows into the breast making it less dry—so the hypothesis goes. I think it is more because it takes longer to cook since the breast is buried below the roasting pan. So why not combine the best of both methods?

After brining the bird, simply place it breast down on the roasting rack, and roast uncovered at moderate heat until the bird is in its last hour, at which time you flip it right side up and turn up the heat to brown its chest! Results look great, the dark meat is fully cooked and if I do it right, the breast meat temps just below 165°F while the leg and thighs come in at 175°F—perfect! Adding fat, like olive oil goes a long way to keep the breast meat moist, so after turning it right side up, I also “baste” like crazy with EVOO!