Showing posts with label Feast of the Seven Fishes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Feast of the Seven Fishes. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanks are owed



To me, the holidays wouldn't be the holidays without these two wonderful women.

That's my Aunt Anna on the left and Aunt Rita on the right. By the look of things I would say that they are taking a well-deserved break from feeding a whole mess of us at some family get together long ago.

Time has altered their appearance a bit. Rita will be 90 very soon and Anna isn't too far behind.

Each lost her husband at a young age. For decades now they have lived together, currently in an apartment in Queens that is just above Cousin Joan's and near to several other members of our family.

My aunts are about as close as any two people can be. I know marriages—good ones—that aren't nearly as inspiring.

Anna and Rita are in my heart always, but never moreso than around this time of year.

I am lucky to be a member of the Christmas Eve celebration they host each and every year. It is literally a feast—the Feast of the Seven Fishes to be exact, totally worth clicking on and checking out—and I would no more miss it than I would lop off my right hand, or even that other one.

For a long time I used to wonder when the holidays might finally, inevitably lose their allure. After all, the years have a way of grinding away at the starry-eyed idealism that's required to truly love this time of year.



But I haven't grown at all weary. And in a very large way I owe this to the optimism and love of these two extraordinary women.

I am over-the-moon thankful to them for that.

Happy Holidays everybody.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Aunt Rita's fried shrimp


I'm man enough to admit that I've got nothing on this woman.

Just look at her. Eightysomething and still strong enough to carry a load like me.

I can only hope that the family genes are as reliably hearty when or if I get to that age.

You may know Aunt Rita from the occasional reports that I post here from the Christmas Eve dinner table. We celebrate the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes in our family, and the extravagant, multi-course, multi-hour meal is always expertly prepared by Rita, Aunt Anna and Cousin Joanie.

Over the years I have prepared most all of the various holiday recipes in my own home, but never Rita's shrimp. And so when charged with preparing an hors d'oeuvre the other evening I figured why not give it a shot.


These are the original. The photo was taken at the Christmas Eve dinner table. Which year I'm not sure, but it hardly matters. Rita's shrimp always look and taste exactly the same, which is to say perfect! In fact, only two dishes on the holiday table NEVER have leftovers: Anna's Baked Clams and Rita's Shrimp.

Considering how extraordinary my aunt's shrimp are, I was more than a little surprised to finally discover her secret to preparing them. Shocked is more like it.

"I don't need to look it up," Rita said when I called to ask for her recipe the other day. "It's only three ingredients. And I couldn't tell you how much to use of each."

It's not the lack of directions — for a recipe that the woman has prepared every Christmas Eve for decades — that shocked me. The cooks in my family often prepare dishes by feel, even those passed down through generations. I'm the same way. I'll write down ingredients and proportions when I know I want to share the recipe on this blog, but even that isn't an exact science around here. Sorry.

What threw me about Rita's shrimp recipe were the ingredients themselves. They just seemed so ordinary.

"I use Bisquick, beer and breadcrumbs, that's it," my aunt told me. "As for the proportions, what can I say, honey? You're on your own."


So this is two cups of Bisquick and a cup of beer. I arrived at these proportions by following the package directions for making pancakes, just not with the egg. (In hindsight, and having consulted with Rita's daughter Cousin Joanie, I would suggest going a little heavier on the dry mix than I did here, and making the batter a bit thicker.)


A whisk does a much better job than a fork and so I always go with that.


Rita's shrimp are always on the large size and so go with the biggest shrimp you can get your hands on. Dip them in the batter...


... then dredge in breadcrumbs (on both sides of course).


Line the coated shrimp on a wax paper-lined tray and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (Both Rita and Joanie insist that this step is critical.)


Then fry very quickly in hot olive oil. The trick here is to not overcook the shrimp. I've never had one of my aunt's shrimp that were hard or tough, in other words overcooked. Remember, shrimp cook extremely quickly. I doubt these cooked for more than a minute or two.


Line a plate with paper towels and allow the cooked shrimp to shed some of the frying oil. At this stage I also sprinkled the hot, just-fried shrimp with Kosher salt.


This step is a big variation, and so let me explain. Every time I eat Rita's fried shrimp they're on a dinner plate that includes Aunt Anna's Fish Salad, a traditional Christmas Eve dish. The thing about having both the shrimp and the salad together on the same plate is that I get to dip Rita's plain fried shrimp into the seasoned oils and garlicky juices of Anna's fish salad. Since my shrimp were being served alone I thought a little extra flavor was needed, and so I caramelized some garlic (in olive oil and with a few anchovy filets).


After plating the shrimp I drizzled the garlic and anchovy over them, a little freshly chopped hot pepper, and some chopped parsley.


These shrimp were delicious, but they weren't my aunt's. For those you'll need to find your way to Queens the night of December 24th.

I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Scenes from a Christmas Eve


These are my aunts Anna and Rita. They cook an amazing meal for at least ten members of our family every Christmas Eve, and all of us love them very much. A lot of my friends ask me to email them photos of our annual feast, and so I decided to make it easy and upload a bunch here. I hope you all had a great holiday. We did.


I came across some lard bread in the morning and couldn't pass it up.


Neither could Joanna and Josephine.


Anna's baked clams. One day I hope to make them as good, but I'm not holding my breath.


Rita's angel hair with garlic, hazelnuts and almonds. Simple and perfect.


Rita and Joan's fried shrimp will make you weep. Two platters and not a single shrimp was left.


It's not Christmas Eve without seafood salad, and Anna's is excellent.


So much so that these two are always sliding it to their side of the table.


These mussels were a surprise dish. Simple and extremely tasty.


Broiled baccala with cherry peppers. Love, love, love it.


Also a baccala salad. Even the non believers were all over this salad; it was terrific.


Cousins Alec and Joan discuss strategy over the next dish to show up. Will they or won't they?


Stewed eel with olives and prosciutto. They did eat it. So did everybody else. One of the best eel dishes I've ever had, and I eat plenty of eel.


And of course a couple baked lobsters. Just in case we were still hungry.


I've said this before: Josephine may be the finest baker that I know. I always look forward to her Christmas cookies and biscotti.


Christmas Eve is also her birthday, and Goombah Joe remembered.


Anna went above and beyond this year and surprised us all with homemade pasticiotti. I damn near cried.


Yeah, we had a little wine. Just ask cousin Frank, he'll tell you.

We'll be back next year. I hope.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Feast of the Seven Fishes


I can't speak for the other members of my family, but Christmas Eve is my favorite night of the year. It is the one meal, the one gathering, the one event that I look forward to. Every day of my life.

And it is an event. We sit down to dinner together at around four o'clock in the afternoon usually; it's rare that anybody gets up from the table before nine.

We are a tightly knit group, this family of ours. There is Aunt Anna and Aunt Rita, Cousins Josephine and Frank and Alec and Joanna and Joanie. Brother Joe is on hand, of course, and the missus and me.

You have heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes? It is a Christmas Eve tradition, thought to have its roots (like my family) in Southern Italy. The meatless meal consists of seven different seafood types, though I have never met anybody who is strict on this point. We certainly aren't. I did a loose count of last year's Feast and came up with 10 different species on the table.

I had been planning to post this greeting straight from the Christmas Eve dinner table, but an illness is looking like it will cause me to miss the trip back home this year. I have been trying to remember the last Christmas Eve that I did not spend with the family. I can't. That's good, I guess. But it makes not being there this year all the harder. And not just because of all the great chow I'm missing out on.

Speaking of great chow, here are some scenes from last year's Christmas Eve festa. It's the best I could manage under the circumstances.

Enjoy.


Anna's baked clams. I don't know how, but they get better every year. (Which would mean that I am missing out on the best baked clams ever, no?)


All our meals have a pasta course, and on the Eve it's Rita's choice. (Last year she went with a marinara, but often it's garlic and hazelnuts.)


Rita's (and now Joanie's) fried shrimp. I'm not a big shrimp eater, but these just kill me. I probably down 10 of them during dinner, and they're huge. (There are usually two or three platters just like this one around.)


If there is a centerpiece dish on the Eve, this is it. Anna's seafood salad, with lobster, calamari, scungilli, octopus and shrimp. (The sliced olives were a new addition last year.)


Baccala (salt cod), a must-have dish, and usually prepared two ways; baked here. (My favorite.)


And the baccala salad. (Also very good.)


Mussels steamed in wine, and (back by popular demand in '09) stuffed calamari. (Broccoli is the only vegetable that is ever on the Christmas Eve dinner table, by the way, though none of us knows why.)


Stewed eel. (Yes, we all eat it.)


And baked lobster. (This has always seemed like overkill to me, but I do mange to find room for a taste.)

Merry Christmas everybody!
 
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