This holiday season, consider borrowing from the festiveness of the Italian Christmas Eve tradition, The Feast of the Seven Fishes, and gather friends for a fish-focused spread. We've got a menu to get you inspired and a platter to help you play the part.
Allow us to suggest you begin your meal with freshly shucked oysters, paired with a bracing mignonette ,and a platter full of piping hot fennel cakes, a recipe from Angelo Garro, the blacksmith at Renaissance Forge and founder of Omnivore condiments.
Angelo's Fennel Cake Antipasto
- Wild fennel (or the feathery tops of fennel from the farmers market. In most grocery stores, the tops of fennel have been completely removed)
- 1 cup coarse bread crumbs
- 5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 cups of grated Parmesan
- 2 eggs
- Red pepper flakes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Canola or sunflower oil, and olive oil for frying
To make Angelo's fennel cakes, you will need to scout around the edges of roadsides or trails to look for tall, feathery wild fennel fronds. It’s important to harvest fennel when it is very fresh and tender and dark green, which is generally in the springtime rather than the winter. If you find young fennel bulbs at the farmers’ market with their tender tops still attached, you can use those too.
Finely chop the leaves and stalks of enough fennel to yield 4 cups, blanch in salted water for a few minutes and drain. In a large bowl mix the fennel, a cup of coarse bread crumbs, 5 cloves of minced garlic and 2 cups of grated Parmesan cheese. Add 2 eggs, freshly ground black pepper, and a big pinch of red pepper flakes and mix together with your hands. Take a rounded tablespoon and form a small cake about ¾ of an inch thick––it should be wet enough to easily mold, but not so wet that it feels loose and comes apart. Fry the cakes in 1 cup of canola oil mixed with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a medium cast iron pan until lightly browned all over (a couple minutes per side). Allow to drain on a folded paper towel. Sprinkle with flaky salt and serve hot.
Spicy Clam Brodo
- 10 smaller clams (like Manila) or 8 medium-sized clams (like Littlenecks) per person, so somewhere in the range of 3+ pounds for 8 people
- 1 large white onion
- 1 large carrot, peeled
- 1 large stalk of celery
- 1 bulb fennel 10 cloves garlic (about 1 head)
- 1 small can peeled tomatoes
- 1 bunch parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- Fennel seeds
- Sea salt
- Chili flakes of fresh bird's eye chilies, minced
- 1 cup white wine
- Olive oil
This is a very simple soup, scarcely more than clams, a few aromatics, and water. But it is exactly the type of thing to start off a longer, more indulgent meal, or to eat the day after a feast when your appetite is lean.
Wash and scrub your clams thoroughly in cold water and set aside. Make a mirepoix (that mix of uniformly diced vegetables that forms the basis of many dishes in French, Italian and Spanish cooking) using a large white onion, a large peeled carrot or a couple smaller ones, and a few stalks of celery. Add to this a large bulb of fennel, also diced. Finely chop the parsley and sliver the cloves of garlic.
Heat a couple glugs of extra virgin olive oil in a large, wide sauté pan and add the diced vegetables (reserving the garlic and parsley), along with a couple sprigs of thyme, the bay leaves, a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and a couple big pinches of red pepper flakes or a minced bird’s eye chili. Cook on medium-low heat, allowing the vegetables to soften. Add more olive oil if necessary to lubricate the mirepoix. Once the onions have become transparent, add the slivered garlic and the parsley and stir until the garlic is fragrant.
Add a few canned peeled tomatoes (loosely broken apart in your hands). Pour in three cups of water and a cup of white wine and bring the liquid to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. The idea is to make a broth out of this mixture that could almost live on its own flavor-wise, since the clams will only be cooking in it for a short amount of time, so make sure it tastes good and savory.
Add the clams (pouring in additional water/wine if you need it to fully submerge them), cover the pan with a lid and cook for about 5 minutes, or until all of the clams have opened. Pluck out the bay and thyme sprigs and any unopened clams and discard them. Ladle vegetables, clams, and broth into individual bowls and garnish with a little fresh olive oil and coarsely chopped parsley.
- Shrimp (about 2 pounds per person)
- 2 heads of garlic
- 2 inches of dried red chili pepper (you can also use dried red chili pepper flakes, or fresh bird’s eye chilies, just be careful as they vary in intensity)
- 2 lemons
- 1 bunch parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- Olive oil
- Salt + pepper
Look for the most sustainable shrimp option you can find and budget about 4 shrimp per person, so about 2 pounds of whole shrimp for 8 people, depending on their size. I like to use medium-sized shrimp, ideally from Santa Barbara or the Gulf of Mexico. Rinse your shrimp thoroughly in cold water and set aside.
Thinly sliver the cloves of the 2 heads of garlic and coarsely chop the dried red chili pepper. Thinly slice the lemons and coarsely chop a handful of flat-leaf parsley and reserve. Heat a couple big glugs of extra virgin olive oil in a large, wide sauté pan and add the chili and garlic and two bay leaves.
When the garlic is just beginning to smell fragrant, but before it begins to color, add the shrimp and a splash of dry white wine and stir vigorously over medium-high heat, until the shrimp are bright orange and cooked through (about 4–6 minutes).
In the last minute of cooking add the slivered lemons and parsley, a big pinch of salt, and some cracked black pepper and toss. Serve in a large bowl to pass around family style.
Whole Fish Baked in Lemon Leaves
- 1 whole seabass or other similar whole fish (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- Sea salt
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill or parsley or a mix (about 1 bunch)
- 4 leafy branches of lemon leaves (stalks of fennel, fig leaves or grape leaves – brined ok in a pinch — work here too)
- Olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Salt the fish well (inside and out) and stuff the cavity with the lemon quarters and herbs. Arrange the leaves in a rectangle nearly as long and twice as wide as the fish and place the fish in the center. Wrap the fish tightly in the branches and leaves, overlapping them to help seal the fish in, and transfer to the lined baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the leaves.
Bake until the fish is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. (Poke a knife into the flesh to make sure it’s cooked.) Peel the crisp leaves off the fish and set aside. With a knife and a spoon, pull the skin from the fish and discard. Then, gently remove the fillets from the bones. Drizzle the fillets with olive oil and more salt. Serve on a fish platter.