Thursday, December 31, 2009

Seven Fishes Redux: Maybe the Best Ever.

It remains my favorite meal of the year. The Seven Fishes Dinner at the home of Joe & Sandy Attanasi in Cranford, NJ, to which I've been fortunately invited for around 12 years now, and for which I've been contributing a dish to or two every year for the last half dozen. It is a marathon (and not a sprint), beginning just around 6:30pm and winding down after midnight, and it's always rollickingly good. And it's usually more than seven fishes. We mingled over crackers and salumi and cheese and drinks as people gathered, though some were arriving mid-dinner and later. Joe's son Mark, his wife Christine and daughter Brooklyn were in town from Oklahoma City, a terrific surprise, and I'm sure a joy for Joe and Sandy, as well as Mark's siblings Faith and Joe Jr. Mark and Chrsitine were talking up the restaurant that they are planning in Harrah, OK, and that made for lively conversation throughout the meal. Christine took photos of every course as it was brought to the table. The photos you see here are hers. There's food porn in Oklahoma, too, I guess. Joe Attanasi Sr. serving guests at his Feast of the Seven Fishes Dinner
The Best Damn Linguine With Clam Sauce Ever. Ever.

Eggplant Parmigiana....

Duet of tuna filets: orange glaze (top) and Cajun-dusted (bottom)

Saddle of wild salmon with maple glaze
Tilapia in soy and ginger.....

The incredible scallops wrapped in prosciutto!
Scungili salad

Scungili (top) and Octopus (bottom) salads

Bacala Salad
......and Venison!

wait! the desserts!
...and the cookies!

This year I think the food was raised a notch above Joe Sr.'s already high standards. We started as always with icy shrimp cocktail, big, sweet pink rascals with an especially zippy cocktail sauce (I know Joe Sr. doctored the sauce, I know it); it was followed by still the best version of linguine and clam sauce I've ever encountered. Joe Sr. coaxes ever drop of sweetness out of the chopped clams he uses, and simmers his sauce for a good while. This is the only course in which people ask for seconds. Ben and Sophie opted for red sauce on their linguine and a pot was at the ready for those who didn't care for clams. Joe Jr. provided a slection of craft beers for the dinner; he and I enjoyed a Victory Prima Pils or two with the first three courses.

A duet of tuna filets followed, a choice of an orange glazed version or a Cajun spiced-dusted one; both were toothsome yet flaky, the orange glaze worked very well on the tuna, while the Cajun was more flavor than heat, but both were just terrific. Also served up at this stage were tender, peeled, steamed spears of asparagus and a platter of rustic, individual eggplant parmigianas.

My menu contribution to the night was a spice-rubbed saddle of wild salmon in a maple glaze, and I was proud of how it came out, very moist with just enough nutty sweetness to cut the more strongly flavored wild salmon. Joe Jr. and I opened a Dogfish Head 60 Min. IPA at this point and it went very well with the salmon and the succeeding courses.

Next came tilapia filets done with soy sauce, ginger and scallions, simple, elegant and sweet-salty-sour-spicy altogether. Spectacular.

But the highlight for me, and many others at the dinner, was the next course, another example of Joe Sr.'s uncanny instinct for simple flavors that work well. Joe Sr., wrapped big sweet sea scallops in prosciutto, dusted them lightly with dill and broiled them. This take on "rumaki" blew the bacon-wrapped version away, the saltier, richer prosciutto was so much better a foil for the sweet scallops. Truly stunning, and maybe the best dish I've enjoyed at these dinners so far. Several of us couldn't get enough of these, as late into the dinner as it was. That's how utterly brilliant these scallops were.

The seafood orgy concluded with three cold seafood salads: chewy sliced octopus with garlic, lemon and parsley; scungili (conch) with mushrooms, soy and garlic; and my favorite, bacala (dried cod) with garlic, olive oil,parsley and hot peppers. The peppers and garlic in the latter salad were deliciously assertive and the cod was sweet, clean and bright, the best version Joe Jr. has made since I've been a part of these dinners. In fact, he did a great job with all three salads.

I don't know where this addition to the meal comes from, but Joe Sr. then brought out a platter of roasted venison, sweet-earthy and tender, and passed it around. Most of us were just too stuffed to take more than a tiny slice.

A bevy of cookies, desserts, coffees and cordials followed for the next couple of hours, and we "loosened our belts", put the kids in pajamas, and exchanged presents, giving Joe and Sandy a framed recent photo of Ben and Sophie; Ben and Sophie cleaned up with lots of LeapFrog books from their Aunt Faith, and even more terrific books from Joe Jr. and his wife, Cindy.

It was just past 12:30am when we carried the already sleeping kids into the pale moonlight and into the car, bundled in pajamas and parkas, hugs and kisses and well wishes in our wake, and made the 45 min. drive back to Lawrenceville. I still had a Christmas ham to roast and presents to wrap and place under the tree, but I drove off knowing I had just had the very best Seven Fishes Dinner of my life. So far.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Seven Fishes

As much as I love Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, as much as I like to savor a well-executed beer dinner, nothing even comes close to my enthusiasm for the Christmas Eve tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I have been cooking for and enjoying a big Seven Fishes dinner for years at the home of our good friends the Attanasis in Cranford, NJ, but I really get excited when I see restaurants planning one for their customers.

First out of the gate this year is Chef Ralph Pallarino, whose Stella Blue, Gypsy Saloon and Bella Luna Pizza Kitchen form an cozy culinary nexus in WestConshohocken, PA. His Feast of the Seven Fishes menu will be served at both Stella Blu (101 Ford St., 610-825-7060) AND Gypsy Saloon (128 Ford St., 610-828-8494) every Thursday in December, including New Year's Eve. At just $50 per person (minimum 4 persons, reservations required), Pallarino's menu is a tremendous value, simple and elegant, while celebrating traditional dishes from his family in Chicago:


Carafes of Italian red and white wine for the table

1st Course

Vegetarian Antipasto with Italian Tuna and Baked Oregano Clams

2nd Course

Baccala, Tomato Sauce, Creamy Polenta

3rd Course

Fried Smelts and Oysters

4th Course

Linguini with Mussels and Aioli Sauce

Shrimp Fra Diavolo over Fettucini
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Avalon restaurant in West Chester (312 S. High St., 610-436-4100) has also put forth its Seven Fishes dinner menu today; Chef/owner John Brandt-Lee will be reflecting on his own Italian heritage when he creates this dinner, served family-style, on Christmas Eve at his cozy, utterly romantic restaurant. This is also an amazing value at $45 per person, $15 children under 12 (child-friendly options available). Reservations required.
(served family style)

Fried Smelts, White Anchovies, Preserved Tuna & Fried Calamari


Black Linguini with Shrimp, Mussels & Crab in San Marzano Red Sauce

(choice of)

Skate Wing with Brown Butter Sauce and Crab Apple Mostarda

Tilapia Piccata with Capers, Lemon and White Wine

**Both served with Risotto Style Toasted Orzo

Insalta Digestivo

Organic Mixed Greens with Honey Broken Balsamic Vinaigrette


Fresh Fruit and Cheese served family style
(sweet dessert from regular dessert menu may be substituted)
Another Conshohocken restaurant, Trattoria Totaro (639 Spring Mill Ave.,610-828-7050 is also offering a Seven Fishes feast for a few days before Christmas. It can also be prepared for take-out. For $47 per person you'll get this family-style feast:

First Course
Seafood Sampler – A sampling of fried smelts, clams casino, garlic shrimp cocktail and bacala (codfish salad)

Second Course
Fruta di Mar (Cold Seafood Salad) Shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and calamari tossed with celery and onion with a garlic, olive oil, vinegar and
herb dressing, served over greens

Crab and Seafood Bisque

Third Course
A sampling of the following

Pescatore – Sauteed shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and calamari in marinara sauce over pasta. Also available in aiola sauce (garlic, olive oil, white wine sauce)
Flounder Porto – Flounder stuffed with lump crabmeat and spinach in a port wine cream sauce, then baked.
Calalmari Yolanda – Vince’s mothers traditional recipe: calamari tubes stuffed with sauté of vegetables, bread crumbs, herbs, pistachio nuts and raisins in marinara sauce or garlic, olive oil and white wine sauce

Dessert Sampler

Cranberry Bread Pudding
Chocolate Cake

I'll post Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner menus from other restaurants as I hear about them. I think this is going to be a big year for this kind of dinner. Stay tuned!