Feast of the Seven Fishes

 

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The Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei Sette Pesce is traditionally associated with southern Italy and celebrated on Christmas Eve. Also known as La Vigilia della Natale, it is a day in the calendar where abstinance of certain foods allowed the participant to prepare for the birth of Jesus. I encountered it a few years ago whilst working in Boston’s Italian neighbourhood, the North End. As a cook, I was fascinated by the various details involved in such a menu. I kicked off mine with Donegal oysters from the north-west coast of Ireland. I prefer mine plain.

 

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Grilled Sardines on fennel confit with grilled focaccia. The abstinance of meat, meat products and dairy on Christmas Eve is a general theme throughout southern Europe.

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Sauteed monfish with green olives, garlic, capers, tomato and herbs.

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A warm salad with garlicky shrimps, carrots and radicchio.

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This is one version of many of Caldereirada, the Portuguese fisherman’s stew. I used squid in my rendition.

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Lightly cured, oven baked mackerel with thyme, scallion and Aleppo pepper, dressed with pomegranate-balsamic vinaigrette.

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Roasted cod with onions, olives and lemon. Eat like

 

 

Feast of the Seven Fishes.

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The origins of the Feast of the Seven Fishes (or Festa dei Sette Pesci, in Italian)can be traced back to early Roman times in Sicily. It was celebrated on Christmas Eve as an act of purification or cleansing to prepare for the birth. The feast can also be can also be called “La Vigilia di Natale” or the vigil. The Feast required people to abstain from meat and dairy.

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This is smoked mackerel, parsnip and leek soup in a porcini mushroom base, accented with thyme and bay leave. This was a great way to use up the end of the leeks from my garden.

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The notion of abstinance and anchovy’s together can seem like punishment to some people.

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But there is a school of thought which contends that the feast has its origins in ancient Egypt and the Nile. In which case, the feast is regarded as a festival of abundance. I think I prefer that particular aspect.

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This flatbread or focaccia is based on a traditional Apulian recipe using onion, anchovy, olives and rosemary. I used scallions instead  to brighten up the flatbread. The absence of dairy or cheese reminds me of the original Neapolitan pizzas. Though I try to use only New England fish species, these anchovies from Italy are the exception this year. The baby Jesus wept!

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Venice is well known for its seafood risotti. On this occasion, I traded in the butter that I would normally use to make a risotto and used grapeseed oil in its place. This crabmeat risotto includes carrot and both red and green chiles. The chiles are mild so as not to dominate and the carrot adds a sweet element. Because there is no egg employed to bind the rice cakes, they are very light and need an even lighter touch when it comes down to their handling.

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I like to carmelize a slice of lemon. I like the stronger, more robust lemony flavor added by keeping the lemon rind attached. Preserved lemon would also make an an attractive, simple garnish to accompany.

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Salting cod to preserve is a seasonal activity at this time of year. I like to make my own salted cod . I prefer it over what it available commercially. In fact, there is no comparison with the flavor. I like to use thyme from my garden, lemon zest and thinly sliced, whole dried cayenne pepper in the cure. I cure or dry the codfish for  up to four days.

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Polenta is another mainstay from the Veneto region in Italy. This is peasant food at it’s most simplest. Essentially, it is coarse cornmeal and water stirred together. I like to fry the polenta in grape seed oil. In my opinion, fried food never really tastes oily or greasy when using grape seed oil.

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Combining polenta and salt cod in tomato sauce is a classic pairing. It is even better when the tomatoes are ones that have been preserved from the summer. It is fair to say that I use a lot of extra virgin olive oil. All of the plates will be enhanced by drizzling, nay, pouring generously ……..lots of good quality oil over each plate  one to finish.

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One of the things I like to try to do for this menu is to try to include as much vegetables from my garden as possible. I saved the peas in the freezer and that’s why they get to be used. Berbere is a spice mix from Ethiopia.  It gets its color from ground up hot dried peppers and paprika.

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Seared sea scallops with pea puree, Ethiopian spices, lemon zest and extra virgin olive oil.

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The nice thing about this menu is that you get to eat your favourite items. I love to combine fish and potatoes in any permutation. Add fennel and that leaves room for garlic and rosemary. The fish is scup, or porgie. It is a member of the sea bream family and  is fast becoming one of my favorite fishes to eat. For me, the advantages are that it is small/large enough to be cooked whole and it is relatively inexpensive. The fish can also yield two nice sized filets plus the bones to make fish stock. With this fish, you have options. Best of all, there are still lots of this fish left in the ocean and it is what we should be eating. It’s not farmed either.

 

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Pan fried potato crusted scup with fennel “confit”. If the number seven is regarded as the most perfect number, then at least I’m consistent in my imperfections. I cooked six courses. There is always next year again and plenty of fish to be cooked in the meantime. Thanks for reading and eat like a peasant.