After my sister remarked that our Thanksgiving table looked the same every year, we decided to do away with the turkey and do something different for our Christmas dinner this year. She mentioned that she had been dying to try Thomas Keller’s recipe for Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde for a while and felt that Christmas would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in something special. How about a potluck style seafood and vegetarian dinner, with everyone contributing at least one dish? :)
As we started planning the dinner, we realized that we didn’t want to do our shopping too far in advance because we wanted our seafood as fresh as possible. My sister suggested doing the dinner on Christmas Eve so we could shop on the 23rd without worrying about certain stores being closed on Christmas Eve. When I mentioned our Christmas Eve dinner plans to my friend, N., she remarked, “Oh, that’s what the Italians do! Feast of the seven fishes! And the dinner is held on Christmas Eve.” And there I thought we had hatched a new original Christmas dinner tradition! ;) Thank you, Italy!
Our Feast of the Seven Fishes
In a nutshell, the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Festa dei sette pesci) also known as The Vigil (La Vigilia) is an Italian celebration of Christmas Eve with a meal consisting of 7 different seafood dishes. The tradition originates from Southern Italy and celebrates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. The Catholic tradition of abstinence (no eating meat, though fish is allowed) on certain holy days is the inspiration behind the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
1st course: Salmon chowder by Henni
In hindsight, a chowder was too heavy for a 1st course. I will have to keep that in mind for next year, if we decide to do this again!
From Gourmet magazine, June 2007
1/2 pound red potatoes, diced
1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide strips
2 cups chopped scallions (from 2 bunches)
1 cup fresh or frozen corn
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic (3 cloves)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon dried hot red-pepper flakes
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 (1 1/2-pound) piece salmon fillet (preferably wild), skin discarded and fish cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt (I found this to be optional)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes, then cook in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside.
- Cook bacon in a 5-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pot, then cook scallions, corn, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and red-pepper flakes in fat in pot over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until scallions are tender, about 5 minutes. Add milk and cream and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat to moderately low, then add potatoes, salmon, bacon, salt, and pepper and cook, gently stirring occasionally, until salmon is just cooked through and begins to break up as you stir, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Discard bay leaf before serving.
2nd course: D.’s roast potatoes
D.’s roast potatoes with secret seasoning, garlic, and Parmesan are famous in our household. I’m not allowed to post the recipe here but you can always try to ask him nicely for the recipe. However, I don’t make any guarantees that he will comply with your request! :-p
3rd course: E.’s stir fried kale
‘Tis the season for kale! Stir fried kale with a bit of broth, garlic, and red pepper flakes. It’s a good accompaniment for seafood.
4th course: Lemonade’s Israeli couscous by L.
This was a great side dish/carb with lots of yummy mushrooms (L. used shitake and cremini)! Instead of Israeli couscous (aka pearl couscous), you can also use fergola (a Sardinian pasta) or grain such as farro or wheat berries.
Israeli Couscous with Lemon-Truffle Vinaigrette
(From The Lemonade Cookbook)
3/4 pound assorted wild mushrooms, such as crimini, shiitake and oyster, wiped of grit, stemmed and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup vegetable broth or water
1/4 cup Lemon-Truffle Vinaigrette (See recipe below)
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Put the mushrooms on a large baking pan, drizzle with the oil, toss to coat, and spread out in a single layer. Season generously with salt and pepper. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time, until the mushrooms lose their moisture, shrink, and begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a mixing bowl, and set aside to cool. The mushrooms can easily be prepared in advance, covered and refrigerated.
3. To prepare the couscous, place a large dry skillet over medium-low heat. Toast the couscous, stirring frequently, until it smells nutty and is golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Pour in the broth, cover, and simmer until the couscous is just tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Set the couscous aside to cool. The couscous can easily be prepared in advance, covered and refrigerated.
4. When ready to prepare the dish, in a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked, cooled mushrooms, couscous, vinaigrette, cheese and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Makes 4 cups.
Simply omit the truffle oil for an all-purpose Lemon Vinaigrette.
Juice of 2 lemons
3/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon white truffle oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1. In a small mixing bowl or Mason jar, combine the lemon juice, canola, olive and truffle oils; season with salt and pepper. Whisk or shake to blend.
2. Keep any leftover vinaigrette covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes 1 cup.
5th course: Salmon cakes by my Mom and Dad
My parents made 2 types of salmon cakes: OG and Chinese black bean and garlic. The OG (original) style salmon cakes were from a recipe originally inspired by Bobby Flay. The Chinese black bean and garlic version is based on the Bobby Flay recipe. My Dad and sister kept talking about THE OG salmon recipe and I had no idea what they were talking about! Apparently my family started making salmon cakes when I went away to college and it became part of our family recipe repertoire. I won’t tell you how long I’ve been out of college but I’ve never eaten these OG salmon cakes before! Then I remembered that I did not acquire a taste for salmon until after college so that probably explains why it was never on the table whenever I visited home. :) In any case, these were very good! I know that my friend, N. would heartily approve! ;)
6th course: Mussels with Saffron and Mustard (Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde) made by E. Recipe from Bouchon
Of course, you can’t have moules without frites! Here are D.’s famous oven baked frites, which are so good that they are a meal in themselves:
6th course continued: D.’s oven baked frites
7th course: Sichuan water boiled fish in chili oil (tilapia) by Henni
Dessert: Cranberry, caramel, and almond tart by L.
When I asked L. the inspiration behind her choice for such a festive dessert, she replied that she wanted to use up the frozen cranberries she had left over from Thanksgiving! :-D Well, this “afterthought” was a tart with cranberries and slivered almonds swimming in an ocean of caramel in a pate sucrée crust (similar to shortbread). Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this tart turned out to be the all-in-one dessert that had it all: sweet, tart, crunchy, gooey, cookie, and pie rolled into one!
Cranberry, caramel, and almond tart
(From the LA Times)
Standard tart dough
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Let the butter sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, until malleable.
2. Place the powdered sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer or a large free-standing bowl. Add the pieces of butter and toss to coat. Using a paddle attachment with a standing mixer, combine the sugar and butter at medium speed, until the sugar is no longer visible.
3. Add the egg yolk and combine until no longer visible.
4. Scrape down the butter off the sides of the bowl. Add half of the flour, then begin mixing again until the dough is crumbly. Add the remaining flour and then the cream and mix until the dough forms a somewhat sticky mass.
5. Flatten the dough into a thick pancake, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours before preparing to roll out the dough.
6. Lightly butter a 9-inch pastry ring or fluted tart pan and place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a nonstick Silpat pad.
7. Once the dough has thoroughly chilled, cut it in half, then cut each piece in half lengthwise. Rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat, until you have 16 equal pieces. Sprinkle your work surface with a thin layer of flour. Knead the pieces of dough together until it forms one new mass and shape it into a flattened ball. Flour a rolling pin and sprinkle flour again on the work surface underneath the dough. Roll out the dough into a circle one-eighth-inch thick.
8. Dock the dough with a pastry docker or prick the dough all over with a fork. Transfer the dough into the ring or tart pan by rolling about a third of it around your rolling pin, lifting it and placing it into the ring. Gently pat the dough onto the bottom and up the sides of the ring. Trim the edges so that they are flush with the top. Put the baking sheet with the ring into the freezer for one hour. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature before filling.
Filling and assembly
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into eight pieces
1 cup granulated sugar
1 3/4 cup frozen cranberries
2 cups unblanched sliced almonds
1. Measure the cream and butter into a saucepan and heat it over low heat. When the butter has melted completely, turn off the heat.
2. To make the caramel, spread the sugar evenly in a perfectly dry 10-inch deep skillet and place it over medium-low heat.
3. The sugar should turn straw-colored, then gold and then a nutty-brown caramel after about 10 minutes. (If the caramel cooks unevenly, gently tilt or swirl the pan so that the sugar is evenly distributed.) Remove it from the heat and slowly whisk in the cream and butter. Be extremely careful about the sugar, which can splatter as the cream is added (long sleeves are a good precaution). If the caramel seizes, return it to the heat and continue to stir until it is smooth and creamy. Strain the caramel into a bowl and cool it for 30 minutes.
4. Stir the frozen cranberries and the almonds into the caramel and mix until all the fruit and nuts are coated. Spoon the filling into the partially baked tart dough mounding toward the center.
5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until juices and the caramel are bubbling slowly around the edges. Remove from the oven and let stand for one hour, then gently lift the tart ring off the pastry.
6. Carefully transfer the tart to a serving platter. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Overall, I think we did very well and made way too much food (yes, a real feast!). We didn’t quite have 7 seafood dishes but we did manage to create 7 courses plus dessert, including some Italian influenced dishes! We wanted our dishes to be a bit of a surprise so we didn’t do much group planning and ended up with 2 salmon dishes. We might want to plan a little better next year so we don’t end up with 7 shrimp dishes! ;) I really enjoyed this dinner because I had so many ideas. In fact, I had to save a few of my ideas for next year.
I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday! Buon Natale! Happy Christmas!
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