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 familyâ€™s Christmas Eve dinner comes to mind.
My dadâ€™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, â€œThe Feast of the Seven Fishesâ€. 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 â€œmeatlessâ€ as it was the night prior to a holy day and it was considered a vigil.
At the Neroniâ€™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 Momâ€™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 menuâ€”as a chef, I think it is a huge menu! We began with fresh fennel, along side EVOO, Kosher salt and cracked pepper â€“ 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 â€œItalian high ball,â€ 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 familyâ€™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 feastingâ€”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
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
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 clamsâ€”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 â€œpasta sizeâ€ 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.