Like so many delicious ingredients that Italians brought with them when they immigrated to America, the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” is one that apparently began in southern Italy and traveled with immigrants across generations and oceans to the United States.
While the origins are as murky as marinara, most agree that the tradition comes from a necessary religious abstinence of meat over the holy days surrounding Christmas.
There are no hard and fast rules about what fish must make it to the table, but there needs to be a lot — or at least seven and up to twelve if you are from the school that believes each apostle deserves piscine representation.
These days though, it’s becoming harder and harder to determine what fish are considered to be sustainable, or “well managed and caught or farmed in a way that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Luckily, the team at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. have done the sourcing homework for you.
Not even a year old, the venue is a fully sustainable seafood market and restaurant that only serves fish from “responsible seafood suppliers” with a mission to help “restore our marine and coastal ecosystems in the process.” Executive chef and owner Adam Geringer-Dunn and head fishmonger and owner Vincent Milburn have been receiving rave reviews for their quality seafood and ethical commitment since opening their doors in July.
To begin the meal, Geringer-Dunn suggests starting with oysters on the half-shell. Because they are considered “net positive” on the environment, he insists, “clams, mussels and oysters are fantastic choices.” Not only are they delicious, but also these shellfish filter the water and increase biodiversity. Geringer-Dunn also recommends topping the oysters with a wild domestic and/or a domestic sustainably farmed caviar; they are able to source roe from sturgeon, trout, paddlefish, wild salmon and others within 24 hours.
For the second course, Geringer-Dunn suggests staying in the shellfish family by moving onto baked cherrystone clams. Because it’s traditionally an Italian dinner, he recommends vongole origanate, or baked clams with oregano and breadcrumbs.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes usually includes a fried component because like meat, butter was traditionally eschewed in favor of oil. Fritto misto — or meat, seafood and vegetables dipped in batter and fried in olive oil — then becomes a logical third course, utilizing an array of local shellfish including any combination of squid, scallops, clams, oysters or mussels.
For course number four, take a break from cooking and serve an already prepared marinated squid salad sold at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. The cold dish is the perfect prelude to the heavy courses that are still to come.
Any respectable Italian feast has a few pasta dishes thrown in and the fifth course is the time to start chowing down on noodles. Chef Geringer-Dunn is a huge fan of pasta con le sarde (recipe below), translated to mean “pasta with sardines.” Sardines can be replaced with anchovies, smelts or mullets in this surprisingly sweet and savory dish.
There’s nothing quite like a whole roasted fish, and for this simple yet impressive preparation, Geringer-Dunn recommends sustainably farmed branzino from Greece. He points out that black sea bass, porgy, flounder, and fluke are also delicious served whole and roasted.
Finally, we’ve reached the seventh course and we can’t quit now. Few ingredients are more prized than lobster, which is why Chef Geringer-Dunn sells local Maine lobsters to make lobster fra diavlo, or lobster in spicy tomato sauce served over noodle pasta. It is the pièce de résistance of this meal, so let it shine.
Pasta con le sarde
½ cup currants (or raisins)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
½ cup plus 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 small cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fennel, bulb finely chopped, fronds chopped and reserved
2 pounds fresh sardines (trimmed
and deboned, should yield 1 1/4
1 pound pasta
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ cup capers, rinsed
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Combine the currants, red pepper flakes and wine in a bowl; set aside. In a small sauté pan, melt the butter. Add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until golden brown. Transfer to a bowl, stir in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and set aside.
2. In a heavy skillet, heat 1/2 cup olive oil over mediumlow heat. When hot, add the onion, garlic, and fennel bulb. Season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is tender, about 25 minutes.
3. Add the wine mixture and the sardines, breaking them into pieces with a fork. Bring to a boil and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Add enough salt to the boiling water so that it tastes salty. Boil the pasta until al dente, 6 to 8 minutes; strain. Return the pasta to the pasta pot and set over low heat. Fold in the fennel-sardine mixture. Toss in the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil. Add 3/4 of the fennel fronds, the pine nuts, the capers and a quarter of the bread crumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Divide pasta among plates and sprinkle the remaining bread crumbs and fennel fronds over each. Serve immediately.