You can honor the idea of the Feast of Seven Fishes in a one-dish meal that takes a fraction of the time, but delights with great flavor!
I prepared the full Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve just once or twice. This Italian classic meal was lots of fun preparing, everyone adored the food, but it was 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., and I’m usually attempting to sing in the choir, so that means early arrival and we are not home until 6 or so. Too late to begin making seven dishes, and fish is not something that keeps well for hours if you try to cook beforehand. It just doesn’t work.
Make ahead – one bowl!
However, I came up with a one-bowl solution – a stew made with seven fishes that could be assembled in minutes the night of. I pat myself on the back for this one!
Many cultures have fishermen’s stews, usually from coastal areas using the catch of the day. This 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 just about any country that has a coast.
Not quite bouillabaisse, not quite cioppino, but definitely fishermen’s stew
One of my favorites of this family 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. They are generally happy to give them away or sell them for pennies. The best, if available, is red snapper bones, but any fish will work.
The stock is simmered for several hours and chilled overnight, unstrained. This allows all possible flavor to be extracted. The next day, I strain it, clarify, and 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 and vegetable trimmings from the recipe in a stock pot with a few cups of water to simmer for a half hour while you are doing everything else and use this as part of the stock. You will be amazed at the flavor, and it will add to the overall dish.
This quick seafood stew is reminiscent of both bouillabaisse and cioppino, 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, find and prep the fish in the morning, and your time to prepare on Christmas Eve will be just minutes!
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 what you find that is fresh and on sale, just include either mussels or clams, and shrimp to keep the flavors balanced. There is nothing wrong with making a feast of the four fishes! You can also add an additional can of tomatoes to stretch it a bit further.
P.S. This is both low-carb and gluten free.
Feast of the Seven Fishes Stew
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. (if you like, save the trimmings from these for the stock pot) Make a little space in the center of the bottom of the pot and add:
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 or 4 anchovy filets, rinsed andchopped (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 would like to drink.
Stir this for a few minutes to deglaze the pan and start cooking off the alcohol. Then add:
- 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- 2 large bay leaves
- Zest of one small orange
- 6 Cups of fish or shrimp stock or stock and water
- 1 large pinch of saffron
Bring this all to a boil, reduce heat immediately, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
This is the soup base, and you can make this the day before and refrigerate.
When you are ready to prepare the meal, bring the soup base up to a steamy simmer (heated to just below the 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 these are tightly closed:
- 1 pound of New England clams
- 1 pound of northern mussels, any beards removed
Peel and devein:
- 1 pound of 16-20 shrimp
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 for five or six minutes and check. They will probably need a couple more minutes. Once the clams just start to open up, add the mussels, cover and cook another five minutes or so. The shellfish will always tell you when they are about ready by beginning to open. Once they begin to open, add the shrimp, scallops, and white fish.
Stir everything together, cover, cook for a minute or so, just until you see the shells mostly pop open, then remove from the heat and let sit for 15-20 minutes, giving you time to herd everyone to the table and replenish drinks. Don’t lift up 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 top 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:
Substitutions: Clams are sometimes elusive in our markets on the day you want them, 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 fresh are not available and you want clam presence.
Tomato paste in a tube. Unless you need a lot for a recipe, tomato paste in a tube is the way to go. It is a bit more expensive, but it keeps for well over a month and I end up with absolutely no waste!
Anchovies in a jar. 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.
Stock from your fish monger. Most fish shops make their own fish stock and have it in their freezer section! This is a wonderful ingredient, and great in a pinch. Even if frozen, you can thaw this quickly in your pan. Check for this when purchasing your fish, it is always superior to what you would get in the supermarket, and will save you time as well.
© Copyright 2018 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read