BELLOWS FALLS—I prepared the full Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve just once. This classic Italian meal was lots of fun to make, and everyone adored the food. But it required a great deal of work on a day when time tends to be quite limited.
Our church has a beautiful candlelight service on Christmas Eve at 4:30 p.m. I’m usually attempting to sing in the choir, so that means early arrival and not returning home until it is too late to begin making seven dishes.
Moreover, fish is not something that keeps well for hours if you try to cook beforehand. It just doesn’t work.
However, I came up with a one-bowl solution — a stew made with seven fishes that could be assembled in minutes on the night of. I pat myself on the back for this one!
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Many cultures, usually from coastal areas, use the catch of the day to make fishermen’s stews. Such recipes began as humble food. Whether the ever-changing cioppino from San Francisco, bouillabaisse from Provence, or New England fish chowder, stews of this sort appear in the culinary tradition of just about any country that has a coast.
One of my favorites to make in the slow food category is bouillabaisse, the rich French stew that uses fresh seafood, the flavor combination of fennel, orange, and saffron, and lots of time.
I begin the day before by making my own stock. This means begging large fish carcasses from my fishmonger, who is generally happy to give them away or sell them for pennies. The best bones come from the red snapper, if they are available, but any fish will work.
The stock is simmered for a couple of hours and chilled overnight, unstrained. This allows all possible flavor to be extracted. The next day, I strain, then clarify, the stock. And then, I’m ready for everything else the dish needs.
We’re not doing any of that here, although I highly recommend placing the shells from the shrimp you’ll be using into a small pot with a few cups of water to simmer for a half hour while you are doing everything else. Mix this liquid into your stock. You will be amazed at the flavor, and it will add to the overall dish.
Quick seafood stew
This quick seafood stew is reminiscent of both bouillabaisse and cioppino and offers some of the best favors from both, but it can be made in a fraction of the time with a few shortcuts. You can make the entire soup base the day before, then find and prep the fish in the morning, and you will need only minutes to prepare on Christmas Eve!
Because you gently poach the fish off the heat, you will not overcook it. This is not a cheap meal; it is definitely a special splurge for a holiday.
But this recipe makes enough to serve 8 to 10, depending on appetite, and you can freely substitute, add, and subtract ingredients that are fresh and on sale. Just combine your choice of mussels or clams with shrimp to keep the flavors balanced. There is nothing wrong with making a feast of the four fishes!
Soup base: You can make the soup base the day before and refrigerate.
In a soup pot, heat:
¶2 Tbsp. olive oil
¶2 medium or 3 small leeks, white and light green, diced
¶1 bulb fennel, diced
¶1 tsp. fennel seeds, crushed
Sauté until the vegetables are translucent, but don’t let them color. Make a little space in the center of the bottom of the pot and add:
¶2 Tbsp. tomato paste
¶3 or 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped (yes, one of the seven)
Let this cook for a couple of minutes, then add:
¶3 cloves garlic, minced
Cook for another minute and add:
¶1 cup of red wine that you like to drink
Stir this mixture for a few minutes to deglaze the pan and start cooking off the alcohol. Then add:
¶1 can (28 ounces) whole, peeled tomatoes
¶2 large bay leaves
¶Zest of 1 small orange
¶6 cups of fish shrimp stock or water, or mix of both
¶1 large pinch of saffron
Bring this all to a boil, reduce heat immediately, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Make the meal: When you are ready to prepare the meal, bring the stock up to a steamy simmer (heated to just below a boil with a few bubbles around the edge) while you prepare your seafood. You can do this prep earlier in the day so that when it is time to cook it will take only a few minutes to put everything together.
Rinse and pick over:
¶8 ounces crab, preferably Maine or Canadian
Scrub, and check that their shells are tightly closed:
¶1 pound of New England clams
¶1 pound of northern mussels, any beards removed
Peel and devein:
¶1 pound of shrimp (16-20)
Cut into bite-sized pieces:
¶1 pound of saltwater fish (cod, haddock, salmon, etc.)
¶1 pound sea scallops
Once the stock is at a nice, hot simmer, add the crabmeat and the clams. Cover and let cook until the clams just start to open up. Check after 5 or 6 minutes; they will probably need a couple more minutes.
Add the mussels, cover, and cook another 5 minutes or so. Once they begin to open, add the shrimp, scallops, and whitefish.
Stir everything together, cover, and cook for another minute or so, just until you see the shells mostly pop open, then remove from the heat and let sit for 10-20 minutes, giving you time to herd everyone to the table and replenish drinks. Don’t lift the lid during this time if you want everything perfectly poached.
Discard any shellfish that did not open.
When plating, I make sure there are a few mussels and clams in each bowl, and a visible shrimp or two. Then, I top each serving with a little fresh parsley to pretty it up.
Serve with a crusty baguette to sop up the juice and a little simply dressed salad on the side.
Kitchen notes on ingredients: Clams are sometimes elusive in our markets, so if they are absent, mussels will work fine. You can also add a can of whole baby clams and its juice to the pot if you want clam presence.
• I buy tomato paste in a tube. It is a bit more expensive, but it keeps for well over a month, and I end up with absolutely no waste!
• Seldom does a recipe require a whole tin of anchovies. They are best bought in a jar packed in olive oil. Again, you use only what you need and have no waste.
• Most fish shops make their own fish stock and have it in their freezer section. Check for this when purchasing your fish; it is always superior to what you would get in the supermarket.