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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My Feast of the Five Fishes (because 7 might have pushed me over the edge) Christmas Eve Dinner

My husband is half Neapolitan, the other half a mix of Swedish and Scottish. He definitely favors his Scandinavian side what with his stoicism and sometimes maddening calmness in the face of situations that would make me descend into hysteria. Whenever I indulge in one of my hot-blooded rants, (which I excuse myself for because I am Southern Italian) he inordinately looks at me bewildered. I’ve explained to him that these emotional displays are what I consider to be normal. Such “conversations” remind me of the Facebook group I once joined called, “I’m not yelling, I’m Italian, this is how we talk.”


Beautiful Sicily, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Nope, the husband doesn’t get it when I lose my cool. Let’s not forget he is a man. But I have to say, the more I spend time with him, the more his even-keeled nature rubs off on me. It’s a good thing, but there will always be those times when you just can’t deny your genetic programming. Sometimes a hearty rant just feels good to me.  

It was this same cool and collected fellow who volunteered me to host our very first holiday as a married couple. In fairness, our immediate family is quite small and I would only have to cook for 6 people. Not wanting to deny my 100% Italian blood (three quarters of which is Sicilian),  the traditional Southern Italian Christmas Eve meal better known as La Vigilia seemed like the right choice. La Vigilia calls for an all fish dinner of (yikes) 7 courses. There’s some debate in both Italian and Christian lore around why it should be seven dishes. Seven is of course the number of sacraments, and seven throughout the Bible is the symbolic number of creation and perfection. At any rate, I feel more comfortable making fish than cooking roasts, so I am glad that Italians, being observant of dietary restrictions on holy days, went with fish. I have a lot of practice cooking fish and shellfish, and it doesn’t hurt that they are my favorite foods in the world. Of course I like hosting parties and cooking - but the sum of all my perfectionist tendencies always heaps on the pressure. Here’s how I combat my natural tendency to panic by following two very simple practices that always make for a successful dinner party:

Planning and Organization – I am a planner. In most areas of my life I am well thought out, in others, not so much, but in the kitchen- always. This is one of the reasons that my Neurotic Kitchen is so therapeutic for me. It’s a place for me to take control of the “what-ifs” in my life, and most of the time, conquer them without breaking a sweat. As any good host will tell you, planning is the key to serving up a successful meal and making it appear effortless. To do this, read through all your recipes and write down the steps you need to take, day by day, to address all that goes into a dinner party. This list, or “battle plan” as I often call it, is more than just a shopping list. It is instead a day by day reminder of all key tasks, like cleaning your house, purchasing and arranging  flowers or any other decorative items, deciding what dishes you will use for what course (yellow sticky notes are a handy way to label your plates so that in the heat of the moment, you are clear on what goes where), setting your table, staging your kitchen with pre-measured ingredients for courses that must be prepared on the spot, and buying your wine and spirits (a strong drink always breaks the ice and sets the mood). Since I’ve mentioned that I like my parties to be largely “make ahead,” this plan will also tell you what days to prepare dishes that can be made in advance. On the day of, I always have a separate  document that I stick on my kitchen wall which tells me step by step what to do in the crucial moments before guests arrive (the time most common for mental breakdown), as well as during the time after the party is in full swing (when you may or may not have indulged in a glass or two of wine) yet you still have to remember things like when to dress the salad or pop the fish in the oven.

Know Your Limits - Though it pains me to share this, when I looked at my busy work schedule and prep schedule, I determined that making all 7 dishes would be dangerous territory for me. I  had already come up with 4 courses that could be largely prepared ahead, and one that would cook quickly with a bit of prep, but adding another two to be cooked while guests were here... that would be fertile ground for a stress-fest. Weighing my desire to uphold tradition, that only half of my guests are huge eaters like me, and my intent to deliver the meal without agita, I decided that I could live with five courses instead of seven!


Holly Bouquet, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
For a wonderful article about the classic Italian Christmas Eve feast, check out Greg Ferro's piece on one of my favorite foodie sites, Saveur:


Italian Christmas Eve Feast from Saveur


Next year I will make a more traditional dinner, perhaps with baccala and all seven fishes. But this year I was just getting my flippers wet. Our meal was a great success, so I am encouraged to try again next year and go bigger and better.


But without further adieu, here is the result of NK’s "Feast of the Five Fishes – because 7 might have pushed me over the edge – Christmas Eve Dinner:"

Christmas Eve Table in Gold, Bronze and Red - Gold
Pine cones, Red Pillar Candles, and Poinsettia, Photo: NK

Hors D'Oeuvres/Cocktail Hour
Italian hors d'oeuvres can be simple and are very adaptable to each cook's own interpretation. My goal was to wet the appetite but also not fill up my guests too much. In general, nothing's easier than cold Italian Antipasti for quick, ready to assemble pre-dinner snacking. Buy high quality ingredients and present them simply so they shine.

Here's what I served:

Jarred Vinegar Peppers sliced in strips
Bocconcini - Mini Mozzarella Balls tossed with a bit of salt, pepper and a drop of oil
Ubriaco - a delicious Italian wine cured goat cheese with a pungent but appealing flavor
Mixed Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes in oil
Antipasti, Photo: NK
Some Crackers and a few slices of bread 

Pre-Dinner Cocktails:
St. Germain and Champagne Cocktail - A splash of St. Germain Liqueur (Elderflower) topped with champagne

Bellinis - Peach or Pear Nectar topped with Prosecco at a ratio of about 1:1

Candle with Fresh Cranberry
 Photo:NK 

First Course - Crab Cocktails in a Martini Glass (Serves 6)
This is one of my favorite easy, make-ahead starters. I like to serve it at the end of cocktail hour in the living room to kick off the meal. One can of Lump Crab goes a long way and makes an impressive but easy appetizer. The addition of the martini glass as a serving vessel makes it feel luxurious. 

Method:
Several hours before your party, take one can of chilled, pasteurized lump crab, rinse carefully, and pick through the meat to check for any shells.  Gently pat dry crab and toss with salt and pepper to taste plus a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. Just before serving, line glasses with a few lettuce leaves cut in half - Boston lettuce or hearts of romaine work well. Fill glasses halfway with 5 or so pieces of lump crab.

To finish, garnish with chopped chives and add a lemon wedge to the side of each glass.
Serve and put out a communal bowl with cocktail sauce and another with extra horseradish.
Enjoy! 
Crab Cocktail, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Second Course - Shrimp Puttanesca (Serves 6) 
Note: This and all subsequent courses are served at the table 

Puttanesca is one of my  all time favorite Italian sauces. It's delicious over pasta, but also makes a great accompaniment to milder fish fillets or shrimp. I wanted to serve this in a bowl with bread to make sopping up the tasty sauce easier. Next time I will use a larger bowl because I noticed my guests struggling a bit to cut the shrimp in such a small space. Live and learn! Still, this was an easy and yummy starter. The sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance, in fact it is better the longer it sits in your fridge. 

Method:
Prepare your sauce a few days in advance and set it covered on the stove just prior to your party. 

I've tried a few versions of Puttanesca over the years, but my favorite is from Food and Wine's chef, Grace Parisi. Her recipe is quick and has a great flavor balance. Here's the link:


In the morning or the day before your party, clean 18 large shrimp, leaving the tail on (or better yet have your fishmonger do it). Ten minutes before serving, heat sauce on a low flame. While you wait for it to warm, season the shrimp with salt and pepper and sauté them in a non-stick pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil for about 4 minutes, turning them midway. Shrimp should turn bright pink and be slightly firm to the touch. Assemble as pictured and serve right away. NK Tip: Don't forget your garnish. A little pop of green from fresh parsley or other herbs goes a long way to upping points for plating. 

Shrimp Puttanesca, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Third Course - Cold Seafood Salad (Serves 6)
I started with a Rachel Ray recipe and tweaked it considerably to make it easier (lobster tails vs. whole lobster because I don't like boiling the poor guys alive) and appropriate to my dinner party size (hers served 25). The key to this recipe is to taste it before serving to make sure it is sufficiently lemony. Lemon is key! I like it served slightly chilled rather than room temperature as Rachel suggests. After purchasing your fish, inspect everything and make sure it is just right. You can prepare this the day before and refrigerate in a gallon plastic bag. Be sure to rotate it every 8 hours or so to distribute flavors and take out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before serving so that the oil can return to a liquid state (it may solidify a bit in the fridge).

Cold Seafood Salad - Adapted from Rachel Ray's "Grandpa Vic's Xmas Eve Seafood Salad"
Ingredients:
3 4 to 6 ounce lobster tails 
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails removed
1/2 pound bay scallops 
1.5 pound calamari, tubes only, pre-cleaned
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced. 2 cloves if you are less of a garlic lover
2.5 celery stalks, sliced lengthwise down the middle and sliced
Juice of 4 lemons
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
Juice of 2 lemons  + extra lemon juice to add just prior to serving
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil plus more as needed.
Method: 
Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add the lobster tails and cook until the shells are bright red, 4-6 minutes. Remove from water and let cool.

While the lobster tails cool, add shrimp to the same pot the lobsters were cooked in and cook for 2 minutes, or until they are just pink; use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked shrimp to a bowl to cool. When all the shrimp are cool, cut them in half and place them in a large mixing bowl. 
In the same pot, cook the scallops for 4-5 minutes, or until tender. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and let cool. Repeat with the calamari, cooking for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Scoop them from the water with a slotted spoon and let cool. Discard all but a quarter cup of the cooking water.
Once calamari is cool, slice the tubes as thinly as possible to create rings. If some of the tubes don't seem tender enough, toss them. Nothing is worse than rubbery squid. 
When the lobster tails are cool enough to handle, crack the shells and remove the meat. Remove the vein, rinse, pat dry, and cut into bite-size pieces. Add the lobster meat to the bowl with the shrimp. Add the cooled scallops and calamari.
Stir together the chopped celery, garlic and parsley and add them to the bowl, stirring to
distribute them throughout the seafood. Add the juice of 2 or 3 lemons, the oil and 3 tablespoons of the cooled seafood-cooking liquid and stir again. 


Refrigerate the salad, stirring every 6-8 hours. Just before serving, add more lemon juice, oil, and salt to taste if needed. Serve with lots of lemon wedges - again, the key to a good seafood salad!  

Cold Seafood Salad, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

Fourth Course - Linguine with White Clam Sauce  (Serves 6)
In a recent conversation, I told friends that this dish would be my chosen last meal - if ever I were in need of a last meal. My long-standing love for linguine with white clam sauce is well documented. I have eaten this dish in most every Italian restaurant I've visited more than once in my lifetime. I love it. There are really two styles of linguine with white clam sauce: the oily kind prepared with minimal clam juice, and the brothy kind, swimming in delicious liquid perfect for sopping up with a piece of crusty bread. I am a broth girl. Below is my father's recipe for this dish and I find it the most delicious interpretation I've tried. I make it often, and I've even converted a few non-clam eaters with it. Best of all, this recipe is easy and fast to make. For the purposes of our party, I adapted my father's recipe so that it could be made ahead. I also changed it so that clams were served outside their shells (not my usual preference) so that guests wouldn't struggle with clam shells on a night where they were all dressed up. 

Dad's Linguine with White Clam Sauce (Serves 6 as an appetizer course)
Ingredients:
1/2 to 3/4 bottle of clam juice
3 dozen littleneck clams (the smallest available), well scrubbed in cold water
3 large cloves of garlic sliced very thinly
1 can chopped clams with juice (optional, if you like it extra clammy)
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or less if you like it more mild

Method:
Place butter and olive oil in a very large pasta pot over medium-low heat until butter melts. Add garlic, stirring occasionally until just slightly golden. If you burn the garlic, be sure to toss everything and start over. Burned garlic can ruin the delicate flavors of this dish.

Next, add about half of the clam juice and optional chopped clams with their juice.
Heat on a moderate flame for 3 minutes or so. 

Add black pepper to taste, crushed red pepper to taste, and half the wine.  
Continue to heat until the liquid is just bubbling. 

Add clams and cover for several minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Continue to heat over moderate flame until clams begin to open and then toss in the remainder of the wine.

As each clam opens, pull them out immediately with tongs and set aside. 
Stir the clams still in the pot a bit to make room for them to pop open. 

Once clams are open and removed from pot, turn off the burner and let them cool until they can be handled. Be sure to discard any clams that do not open. 

Carefully remove cooled clams from the shell and give them a course chop. 

Return clams to the sauce only once it has fully cooled.

Taste for seasoning and add salt only if needed. 
*The steps above can be done the morning before your party*
When ready to serve, prepare linguine as indicated. 

As your pasta cooks, heat the clam sauce on the lowest possible flame for 5-10 minutes.
Too much heat too quickly will make clams tough. Reserve some pasta water to loosen the linguine if needed.

To serve, use tongs to place a small portion of linguine in a deep individual pasta bowl. 
Scoop a good amount of clams onto the pasta, and then ladle a generous amount of broth over each portion. 

Garnish with fresh parsley and serve immediately with extra crushed red pepper. 

Enjoy with love from me and my dad!

Linguine with White Clam Sauce, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen
Fifth Course - Rao's  Broiled Fillet of Lemon Sole (Serves 6)
Oh my gosh is this delicious. The simple to prepare Rao's lemon sauce used in this dish is the same lemon sauce that goes on my most favorite lemon chicken dish in the world. Because this was a special meal, I included the two steps I usually skip in the preparation. These include making flavored olive oil and grating fresh breadcrumbs. Both of these steps as well as preparing the lemon sauce, can be done up to three days in advance. 

First - Prepare Flavored Olive Oil, for brushing the fish filets (Can be done several days in advance and stored at room temperature)

Flavored Olive Oil- Adapted from Rao's Cookbook

Ingredients:
1/2 Cup fine quality olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Method:
Heat oil in a small saucepan on medium-low heat. Add garlic and slowly simmer until garlic is just beginning to brown. Remove and discard garlic. Pour oil into a container and reserve, at room temperature, to use for frying or sautéing. If you feel like skipping this step, most good bakeries sell their own fresh breadcrumbs. They store in the fridge for 3 days.
Next - Grate some fresh breadcrumbs. This is Rao's tradition. It takes some elbow grease but it's worth it.

Fresh Breadcrumbs
Method: 
Allow a good quality loaf of Italian bread to sit for several days until stale and hard. Grate on a box grater until you have about a quarter cup. Store tightly covered in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Prepare Rao's Lemon Sauce (Up to 3 days in advance)
Note- this recipe will be more lemon sauce than you need for the Sole dish. Either save the rest for another use (see: Rao's Lemon Chicken) or adjust the recipe down to make less. 

Rao's Lemon Sauce - Courtesy of Rao's Cookbook
Method:
Whisk all of the following together in a jar: 
2 cups fresh lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Shake well before using.

Ok, and now for the Sole. Make sure to have all your ingredients pre-measured and ready to go in your kitchen prior to your guests arrival. Prep should take less than 10 minutes if you are well prepared. 

Rao's Broiled Fillet of Sole - Adapted from Rao's Cookbook
Serves 6 
Ingredients:
6 large pieces fillet of sole (grey sole works well)
3 tablespoons flavored olive oil*
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup bread crumbs *
2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
Paprika to taste
Approximately 1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup Lemon Sauce

Method:
Preheat broiler.
Lightly brush each fillet with oil. 
Lay on a baking sheet with sides that fit in the broiler. 
Dust with flour and sprinkle bread crumbs over the top of each fillet and dot with butter. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Pour wine and Lemon Sauce into the baking sheet to a depth of 1/8 inch and place in broiler. 
Broil, without turning, for 4 to 5 minutes or until fish flakes easily when poked with a fork. 
Serve immediately with a lemon wedge and parsley garnish. Spoon some of the pan juices over the fish. 


Dessert:
I didn't count dessert as one of our five courses because, well, I wasn't making it. 
The inhabitants of Neurotic Kitchen are not much for baking. Luckily, I have family and friends who are fantastic bakers and I am working on them for some guest posts on the subject. For parties, our solution to our baking aversion is that when guests ask what they can bring, we always say dessert. Our Christmas Eve meal featured a delicious dark chocolate tart that my sister in law made as well as a really beautiful and fluffy tiramisu from my mother in law's kitchen:

Tiramisu, Photo: Neurotic Kitchen

I hope you've enjoyed our easy and accessible Five Fish Feast. Standby for all seven next year. Buon Natale and happy eating to all!








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