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.

Simple Deep Winter Peasant Cooking

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This is the calm before the big storm. 18 inches of snow forecasted ….. maybe. Time to hunker down and plot a Spring kitchen garden. And eat enough carbs to shovel out the driveway.

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Finally….it is near the back side of the chicken. This “minestra” is composed of pulled chicken, smoked prosciutto, celery root, rutabaga, herbs, beans and fregola.

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Cornmeal for grits or polenta. I chose polenta. I love how coarse the grain has been milled….chunky, gritty, bits of this, bits of that. Polenta is the reason Italian grandmothers can beat you at arm-wrestling……..all that stirring. And all that stirring really needs is a little bit of attention and patience. Polenta is about as peasant as you can find. I also like the color. It seems just a little brighter. Hello, sunny day. I must try this for breakfast one of these snowy mornings. I’d go with honey and yoghurt.

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Cornmeal mush with tomato sauce. This is perhaps as basic as it gets. Master how to make polenta correctly and you will be King of the Mountains. Peasant cooking is all about humble ingredients. The tomato sauce were from tomatos I grew. I made the polenta with water only. No milk, no cream but, in truth, I added a knob of butter and a little Parmigiana and folded it in. The polenta is creamy enough without the addition of dairy.

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What is the difference between kinky and perverse? Besides brined, flattened and marinated boneless skinless chicken breast. The action of the brine allows the breast to remain moist during cooking. I pounded and flattened out the brined breast using the edge of a heavy blade. And then it sat in a marinade.

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Kinky is when you use the feather of the chicken only. Perverse is when you use the entire  chicken. Swift thinking humor required here.

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That’s what I’m talking about……juicy and moist from the brine I used. Wash it down by wallowing it in good olive oil. I ate some smashed carrots and parsnips in butter as an accompaniment. Those tears you see are actually tears of joy. A lot of flavor for little work. Maybe see you again in six months, Chicken Little.

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Chestnuts……….open fire not included.

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Castagnaccio or chestnut cake with pinenuts and raisins. Rosemary and olive oil too. A peasant’s dessert, if he were so fortunate.

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This is my interpretation of the Tuscan classic. Thank you for looking at my story. Yes, please……more grappa. Forza Milan.

A Fish Cook

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Have some potato soup on this freezing night to warm you up. Taste a potato again for the first time and let me tell you what it is you need to know about fish. For the next time you go shopping.

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Cookbooks will generally classify fish in three ways. First, is the fish from salt-water or fresh water, the ocean or a river or lake, say. Is it a mako shark or a pike?
Second, is the fish oily or non-oily. Oily fish include the likes of anchovies, salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout and herrings. Examples of non-oily fish are hake, pollock and monkfish.

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And thirdly, is the fish flat or round. Flatfish species include sole, flounder, dab, turbot and halibut. Species of round fish are cod, bass and grouper. And let’s not at all forget shellfish.

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Dinner thus far: Coarsely pureed potato soup with little chunks. Because it is frigid outside, I added some Allepo pepper for some warmth. The pepper is named after a town in Syria. Next up were some skillet seared sea scallops seasoned with rosemary, chili flakes and chunks of sea salt. Once roasted, all they need is some lemon juice and olive oil.

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There is another method of classification that the books do not really get into and that is economics.

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Economics. Fish is expensive. Personally, I do not want to buy fish that has been flown in no matter how good it is. No New Zealand green lip mussels, no Chilean sea-bass, no squid from China. No jet-fresh sardines from Europe.

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If it is true to say that are costly fish which might even be called “luxury fish”, there are plenty of others that will give the simple home cook brilliant opportunities for first-class dishes.

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Another way to classify fish…….do you really need it or can you get by. Sometimes, I get in the mood for fish, go to buy and it looks like, well………I walk on by. And do without.

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My attitude and philosophy is buy the absolute freshest fish you can. And treat it simply. Simple cooking is perhaps the highest form of sophistication and will never go out of style or vogue.

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Simple cooking is that moment when you are being served at a restaurant, the calmness that envelopes the table. Actually, that serenity is brought on by the fore knowledge of the impending cliff of your dinner tab.

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Tonight’s supper was all New England seafood. For the sole fillets I made the breadcrumbs from scratch and seasoned them with salt, black pepper, chili pepper flakes, oregano, parsley, garlic and lemon zest. The lemon probably has a high carbon foot-print. No Scurvy here. My vegetable sides were sauteed kale and Macomber turnips. Macomber turnips are a big local favorite here in Massachussets. They are originally  from the town of Westport, Mass and named after the Macomber brothers.Thank you for looking at my cooking efforts.