Thursday, December 27, 2012

Feast of the Seven Fishes

I just cooked my first Feast of the Seven Fishes on Sunday the 23rd. Though I have been to several such feasts, I have never cooked said feast myself until this year. Ann and I started thinking about the menu on her birthday at the beginning of October and really, the only trick was in selecting dishes that would work well on a buffet. Originally, we were going to serve seven separate courses over the course of a long afternoon, but when I got to thinking about it, that seemed like way too much work for me on a rare day off and besides/more importantly, I wanted to spend time eating and talking with our guests, rather than cooking. I spend enough time in the kitchen as it is.

I kept the menu fairly Italian-themed, but since it is an American invention anyway, I didn't go too overboard. Ann wanted me to roast branzini for the main fish dish, but I decided to go with rockfish. Rockfish is running plentifully in the Bay right now with another week to go before the season closes. Because it won't be until March that rockfish opens again, and because rockfish holds up so beautifully for buffet service, I had my fish vendor send me a whole 4-pounder.

The lens for my camera is so slow that I have given up trying to shoot people indoors with it (without flash, and I don't use flash), so no people photos: they're just a waste of bits. With us were Kelley and Marco Due, Amanda and Dimitri, Bob and Mary, Mike and Dennis, Ann and Tom, and of course, Ann, me, and Carter for a nice total of 13 people.

Scallop Crudo with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Lemon Zest, Fennel Fronds, and Fleur de Sel
Baccalà and Potato Cakes with Saffron Aïoli
White Clam Pasta with Pancetta and Parsley
Squid, White Bean, and Arugula Salad
Roasted Rockfish on Fennel Lentils
Octopus in Marinara on Polenta
Mussels Steamed in Salsa Puttanesca

Scallop Crudo
This scallop crudo was the star of the day, without a doubt, and one of the greatest dishes that I have ever made. I sliced each of the super fresh scallops into about seven or eight slices and arranged them on the platter as you see. Then I drizzled them with really awesome Greek olive oil, zested a lemon over them, and sprinkled them with both fleur de sel and fennel fronds from the garden. Light, sweet, ethereal and way more than the sum of its parts. Pat the chef on the back!

Baccalà and Potato Cakes with Saffron Aïoli
Ann wasn't a big fan of these baccalà cakes that I made from fresh cod that I salted and local Yukon Gold potatoes.  I was; I just loved these cakes. My homemade salt cod is so, so much better than anything made commercially. I did notice that Ann wallowed in the gorgeous golden saffron aïoli, so full of garlic she said, that it "stung my lips." This is one of my favorite fish condiments, and so easy to make by pounding garlic, salt, and saffron in the big granite mortar, then making a mayonnaise on top of that.

White Clam Pasta with Pancetta and Parsley
White clam pasta was next up and although I like to use long pasta for this dish, long pasta does not hold up under buffet service, so I went to a short cut, gemelli, whose thickness can withstand sitting warm on the buffet better. Shallots and a good bit of my own Berkshire pork pancetta got rendered and finished with clams, clam broth, white wine, butter, and copious amounts of grated pecorino romano.

Squid, White Bean, and Arugula Salad
Almost as good as the crudo was this phenomenal squid and white bean salad. I made the white bean salad the day before, dressing cooked cannellini with lots of olive oil, lemon juice, minced red onions, and oregano. I also cleaned several squid the day before, sliced them, and poached them for about 5 to 7 seconds. That's it folks. Either you just barely cook squid or you braise it all day. Your pick. I marinated the poached squid overnight in olive oil with a touch of salt, garlic, and oregano. All that was left at service was to toss everything with baby arugula and plate. Truth in advertising: I ripped this dish off from a great restaurant in Richmond and although it is not unique to that restaurant, I learned the seasoning from one of my former sous chefs who used to work there. This is one of my all time favorite dishes.

Chesapeake Bay Rockfish
I have cooked a ton of seafood in my chef career and it may be the thing that I am most known for, so I have learned what fish can and what fish cannot survive buffet and banquet service. And we are most fortunate that this is prime season for rockfish (striped bass elsewhere) locally. Besides being the king of American eating fish, rock also holds up extremely well during restaurant service. I asked my fish vendor for a 4-pounder and this little guy arrived bearing a Maryland tag. Maryland fish from the Potomac have a PRFC tag rather than a Maryland tag. Trivia you need to know. I scaled and gutted it, and removed the pectoral fins so that they wouldn't burn and placed it on a bed of parsley stems and fennel fronds from the garden. You might note that I rubbed it in olive oil and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and garlic.

Roasted Rockfish on Fennel Lentils
And here is our guy, all roasted and plated on a bed of lentils that I cooked with onion, pancetta, and lots of fennel. Did I mention there's a big shot of Pernod in there too? Ann and her mother Mary got the two pieces of honor, the cheeks. The leftover lentils ended up in soup the next day and they were and continue to be delicious. Am I the only person that loves fish and lentils together??

Octopus in Marinara on Polenta
And here is my least favorite dish of the day, though there was nothing wrong with it. I couldn't get a big octopus, so I settled for a dozen little guys, which after cleaning and cutting up, I braised in marinara for a couple of hours and then served over a big pile of creamy polenta. Nothing spectacular here and nothing wrong with it either; it's just that the octopus got overtaken by the tomatoes. Octopus is at its best grilled or smoked, but neither of those were options given the December weather.

Mussels in Salsa Puttanesca
Finally, I steamed a big bowl of mussels in a puttanesca sauce that I made the day before from tomatoes, garlic, red pepper flakes, fish sauce, capers, and lots of pitted olives.

Everybody brought a lot of different wine, so much that I couldn't keep track of it especially given that I was busy cooking just as everyone was arriving. I know we started with Prosecco as a cocktail with cranberry juice and with the scallop crudo, but after that things get a little fuzzy. Two of the standouts were wines that Dmitri brought, a deliciously fruity Xinomavro from Alpha Estate and a crisp, ripe, and minerally Assyrtiko that played beautifully with the scallop crudo. Had I not known that I was drinking Assyrtiko, I might have guessed Gavi di Gavi. For the Xinomavro, I might have guessed Dolcetto.

All in all, it was a great celebration with friends and family, but I am not sure that I will do it again next year. I fell asleep at 6:15pm and slept for the next 14 hours: too much work on top of a busy restaurant schedule.

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