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.

Heat

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Irish brown soda bread in the raw. See the lines or marks on the bread where I tried to tamp the bread down. I also deviated from the traditional round cake.

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From my oven to your interface.

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The mise-en-place or essentials for scallion risotto.

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Risotto con lo Scalogno…………..Scallion Risotto.

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Focaccia…………olive oil, olives, chunky sea saly and rosemary in the raw.

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Curried Lentil Soup with carrot, parsnip and potato. Nice and thick the way it should be for winter and loaded with lentils. Scallion risotto could be a nice accompaniment.

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Monkfish, otherwise known as the poor man’s lobster, in a marinade of olive oil,  scallions, garlic, lemon zest and Allepo pepper.

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It’s still white bread but I know what I put in it. I can live with that.

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Home style skillet roasted monkfish with garlicky braised kale.

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Lots of small plates for supper and left-overs will be great for padding out my lunch-box and flask.

For me, simple cooking is about making food from scratch, every day. Or eight days out of ten. there is something soul satisfying about it. I get to be up close to the food chain for a few brief moments or so each day.

And as I cook, sometimes my thoughts run…….we have managed, as a species, to climb to the very top of the chain. We can hunt anything, we can eat or devour anything in our path because we are the alpha predators on this planet. And look at how we do it.

Instead, I take heart from my food that I feed myself and understand that I am a contrarian in food terms, most of the time. Though I am neither vegan or vegetarian, it seems to be that is mostly the style I enjoy, without the tofu or tempeh.

Meat is over-rated and nobody needs to consume the amounts that we do. I might eat or cook beef a couple of times a year. On my terms. The same with chicken. Have to be in the mood for it. Rack of lamb, domestic, Australian or New Zealand, all over-rated. Rib-eyes, porterhouses, dry-aged this, beef tenderloin that……all over-rated. Duck confit this, lobster that…..all over-rated. Anything deemed expensive in a luxury class………over-rated.

For me, forever the contrarian, if I am going to cook and eat a plate of dead steaming animal protein, give me fish. Think of a dead cow and what you can do with it. Roast, grill, braise, or stew. But it is still the same dead cow every time you go to shop. From this cook’s point of view, it does’nt vary throughout the year. Whether you choose to grill bone-in rib-eye steaks or braise short ribs, it is still a large dead cow of questionable pedigree

I prefer cooking fish. There is a simplicity and sophistication about fish cookery. You can certainly apply the same classic cooking techniques but it will never be the same type of fish twice  in a row. I’m drawn to fish cooking over meat any day. I love it’s seasonality. And in this regard, I lucky to live in New England. I buy and cook local, New England fish.  Available to me in this season are mussels, clams, oysters, monkfish, flounder, cod, Maine shrimp and haddock. There is plenty of range within that listing for me and I do not eat a lot of fish either. Over-rated are fish that travel long distances to market. I’d rather the fish swim long distances to get here like the bluefish in late spring, striped bass in the summer or the swordfish in the autumn.

The reality is grains, legumes and vegetables are underrated. So is extra virgin olive oil. 90% of the time, that is all I need. Hopefully, the grains and vegetables come from someplace local. The best part about not eating a lot of dead animals is that clean-up is a breeze. And that’s important to me.

Despite cooking from scratch, I try to minimize my time in the kitchen. Recipes are rarely used. In terms of simple cooking (time and expense) most recipes are improved by the removal of an ingredient or two.

Recipes are great for reference, to use as a guideline. The only vegetables in my fridge right now are mostly roots. They are cheap and tasty so I cook with them……..winter style vegetables. Base vegetables like onions, carrots, turnip, potato, rutabaga and celery root. Greens like Brussels sprouts and kale.  And grains. Oats for breakfast, buckwheat too, rices, farro, spelt, barley, corn in the form of polenta, and lastly, wheat. I’m all about wheat, pasta, bread, pastry and whole grain wheat also, please. All non GMO. Legumes like lentils, chick-peas, favas and cannellini. Most everything else is overrated. Preferably, the only processing is the interaction between me, my blade and my cutting-board.

When I cook fish, I use classical techniques. I either use a court-bouillon to cook the fish or I fry, grill, poach or stew the fish. Steamed fish already sounds like punishment. Frying can involve either saute, shallow frying or deep fat frying. I’m not set up to perform the last detail. Why do I want fish and chips?

In terms of simple cooking, I try to think in terms of minutes rather than hours. We are all busy. Eat like a fish-monger. Thank you for reading my cooking efforts.