Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The feast of the seven fishes.

One of my favorite holiday traditions is the southern Italian "Festa de la Vigilia," or the Feast of the Vigil. On Christmas Eve, Italians gather as families to wait for the midnight birth of the Christ child. Since Christmas Eve is the last night of the penitential season of Advent, this is a fast day in the Roman Catholic Church. As such, no one can eat meat. So Italians being Italians, they eat fish. And lots of it. Seven types of fish, in fact. The fish represent the seven days of creation. Or the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Or the seven virtues. Or the seven deadly sins. Or seven of something important. Yes. This is my history. These are my roots. These are my people.

Well, not quite.

As I was doing research for this article, I found that this is actually an American tradition, not the quaint Italian one that I (and many, many other second- and third-generation Italian Americans) thought it was. I felt that a part of my childhood had been taken away from me. Surely I remembered Nonna and Zizi Angelina slaving away in the kitchen making a feast that would feed scores and last well into the night! That memory can't be false, can it? In desperation, I called my father. "Dad, I have a question. Did Nonna do the seven fishes?"

"No, she never did."

"What? But I remember her doing it! She made stuffed calamari and clams oreganata,  and scungilli marinara!"

"Nope. She did make octopus salad and bacala, and Nonno made eels, but that was it."

"So, when was the first time you heard about it?"

"Hmmmm. Freddy Larca first told me about it when we were working together."

"So you were an adult?"

"Yeah. Freddy and I didn't work together until I was in my 30s."

"Thanks, Dad."

Crestfallen, I hung up, and thought about my own family, and how, for the past 25 years, I've been making my own variation on the feast, creating my own memories of a youth that didn't exist.

But then, a Festivus miracle happened! I realized that what I'd done was to start my OWN tradition! One that my son may someday carry on (or not)! One that I could still talk about, and write about, and share with you!

You can make any kind of fish, of course, but here are some of my favorite recipes. I'll provide recipes for some of the dishes listed above as time goes by, but here is my version of la Festa de la Vigilia!

1. Ensalata di pulpo (octopus salad). OK, don't let this one throw you. Trust me, octopus is one of the great underrated seafoods out there, and this salad is a delicious way to enjoy the odd-looking cephalopod. To begin, go to your nearest Mediterranean neighborhood and find a fish market. Spanish, Greek, Italian, doesn't matter. Any of them will have octopus. And don't worry if it's frozen. Like most fish, octopus is frozen the moment it's caught and cleaned. In fact, it might even be better if it's still frozen, since you have no way of knowing how or when it was thawed. Also buy a head of celery, but get one with a lot of leaves on it. Buy two, if necessary.

If the octopus is frozen, put it into a large bowl of cold water to let it thaw. Put two corks from wine bottles into a large pot of cold water, and bring to a boil (the corks help to tenderize the octopus, and that's not just an old wive's tale). Rinse the octopus under running water to remove any sand and grit, and gently place it in the boiling water, Lower the heat to a high simmer/low boil and let cook for about an hour. Note that cooking time will depend on many factors, so you'll have to test the octopus for doneness. Pierce the thickest part of a tentacle with a sharp knife. If it pierces easily, it's done. If not, allow it to cook longer. While the octopus cooks, peel six to eight cloves of garlic and slice medium thick. You want bold garlic flavor here, so don't be shy. Remove all the leaves from the celery, and place into a bowl of cold water. Gently lift the leaves out and place on a clean kitchen towel to drain. Remove the stringy fibers from two ribs of celery (use a vegetable peeler), and cut them into ¼" slices. Put the garlic, celery leaves and sliced celery into a salad bowl.

When the octopus is done, remove it from the pot, and place it into a bowl of cold water. Let cool completely. When cool, peel (the skin will come off quite easily), and cut off the tentacles as close to the head as possible. Cut into bite-sized pieces and place in the salad bowl with the garlic and celery. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste, and add ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup of lemon juice (you can use a good wine vinegar as well, but never use balsamic vinegar). Mix well. Nonna used to store this in a mason jar in the fridge for a couple of days to let the flavors meld. I think that's the way to go, too.

2. Gambera bollito (boiled shrimp). For each person, take six large shrimp, head on if you can get them. Bring a large pot of salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to the boil. Add the shrimp, cover, and remove from the heat. Let sit for three or four minutes until the shrimp turn pink (or red). Remove from the water, and plunge into an ice bath. Serve with lemon.

3. Cozze cotte a vapore (steamed mussels). Buy two pounds of mussels, either wild or cultivated. Clean them by scrubbing them with a sponge under cold water. If any are open, tap them with another mussel. If they don't close, discard them: they're dead. Likewise, if any of them feel particularly heavy, discard them: they're full of mud and dead. If they're cultivated, they'll have no beard. If they're wild, use a paring knife (or pliers) to remove the beard (back of paring knife on one side of the beard, thumb on the other, yank free). Leave the mussels in a bowl of cold water for about an hour so they spit out any grit. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Peel and roughly chop two shallots. Chop ½ cup of Italian (flat leaf) parsley.

Put a tablespoon of olive oil (not extra virgin) into a 12" saute pan (a saute pan has high sides, a skillet has sloping sides; use a saute pan). When hot, but not smoking, add the garlic, shallots, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and saute gently until they just turn translucent. Add the mussels and 2 cups of good white wine. Cover, and let steam until just opened. Add the parsley, and squeeze a lemon over the mussels. This needs to be served hot, with the broth that accumulates around them and a loaf of crusty bread.

4. Vongole sulla conchiglia (clams on the half shell). Get six little neck clams per person. Shuck, and serve with lemon juice or homemade cocktail sauce (it's easy enough to make, for god's sake).

5. Prime ostriche (raw oysters). Get six to 12 oysters per person (Blue Points are fine, but I really love Kumamoto oysters from the West Coast). Make a mignonette by whisking together two tablespoons of finely chopped shallots, one tablespoon (or to taste) of freshly cracked black pepper, and ½ cup of good red wine or sherry vinegar. Shuck the oysters and drizzle with mignonette. For a nice kick, get a fresh pomegranate. Squeeze one tablespoon of juice into the mignonette, and put three or four seeds on top of each oyster.

6. Capesante bruciati(seared scallops). Get six diver (or dry) sea scallops per person. Heat a cast iron skillet until it's super hot. Add a tablespoon of peanut oil (or another oil with a high smoke point), and place scallops into pan. Sear for 90 seconds. Flip, and sear on other side for 90 seconds. Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of Tabasco.

7. Merluzzo in salsa di pomodoro (cod in tomato sauce). Traditionally, bacala (dried, salted cod) was used for this dish. The fish had to be soaked for two days, changing the water four times a day to remove the salt and rehydrate the fish. But I don't like bacala, so here's the method for using fresh (and don't get on my case for eating cod). Since we're doing seven fishes, one pound of cod will serve four people. Peel and crush three cloves of garlic. Dice one medium onion. Remove the pits from a dozen kalamata olives, and cut the olives into thirds. Chop ½ cup of Italian parsley. Drain one 28-ounce can of good quality whole Italian tomatoes (canned San Marzano tomatoes are the best for this; if you can't find canned San Marzano tomatoes, use Pomi brand chopped tomatoes). Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. When hot, add onions, garlic, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. When onions and garlic have begun to color, add tomatoes (using your hands, crush the whole tomatoes into the saute pan) and olives. Let cook for 15 minutes, then add the cod. Cook until the fish is done, and flakes easily. Remove from heat immediately and sprinkle with parsley and the juice of one lemon.

The best way to enjoy this feast is family style, with everyone gathered around the table, laughing, telling stories, and creating memories. Serve with good bread, good wine, a green salad, and start a tradition of your own.

Buon appetito amici miei!

Friday, December 11, 2009

A cut above.

Of all of the literally thousands of kitchen tools and gadgets a cook can have, a good knife (or set of knives) is the most important. Oddly, it's the one to which most home cooks give the least thought, and the one on which they spend the least amount of money.

I began collecting knives over 30 years ago. As a wedding gift, I was given a mixed bag of German and French stainless steel knives: an eight-inch Wusthof chef's knife, a six-inch Henckel utility knife, a 10-inch Sabatier carving knife, and a four-inch Sabatier paring knife. I still have two of these, the six-inch Henckel and the four-inch Sabatier (the eight-inch chef's knife took one fall too many and the blade snapped, and god only knows what happened to the 10-inch Sabatier) and I still use them, though only rarely.

I have, of course, heard from "the experts" that the best blades are high-carbon steel, and that stainless blades are great for beginners, but that no serious cook would be caught dead using one. (This last bit is patently untrue. Most restaurant kitchens are equipped with the cheapest stainless steel knives that management can get away with for the simple reason that good knives tend to either get damaged or go walkies.) And while it's true that high-carbon is easier to sharpen, keeps an edge longer, and hones better than stainless, a good-quality stainless knife – that's maintained properly – will provide years of service.

Over the years I've added to my early collection with mixed results. My best buy is a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 100+-year-old French chef's knife that I got at a church rummage sale for $1.00. It's an amazing knife that sharpens easily, hones beautifully (more on the distinction between sharpening and honing in another blog), and is easy to maintain. My second-best buy was a mixed lot of knives that I got at an auction for $12.00 that contained a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old German chef's knife that, while tarnished, is as sharp as a razor, and a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old butcher's knife (a thin, flexible, curved blade that's designed for tight work around bones). These three knives are the workhorses of my kitchen. I reach for them for everything from halving acorn squash to slicing tomatoes to carving chicken. With these knives in my arsenal, I knew I'd never need another knife again.

Well, so much for what I thought I knew.

I was recently given the opportunity to try a knife made by New West KnifeWorks, a small knife smithing company located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The knife is "The 9" from New West's Phoenix collection, and it's a real beauty. It's a 9-inch, forge-welded, Damascus steel chef's knife that features a granton grind. (Huh?)

OK, let me break that down into language that's easier to understand. Forge welding is a process by which layers of metal are heated and then welded together. This can be done using the same metal or different metals, which are heated, folded over one another, and then pounded. This is the process by which samurai swords are made, and it's no coincidence that these blades are made in Seki, Japan, which has an almost 800-year history of sword making (Seki is sometimes called "Sword City" and is often likened to Solingen, Germany, home of Henckel and Wusthof).

Damascus steel refers originally to steel made in and around Damascus, Syria, but today simply means a process by which a pattern is left clearly visible on the blade (again, think samurai swords). While this is primarily cosmetic, it is a byproduct of the forge welding process, and attests to the strength of the blades. Yeah, but what the hell is a granton grind? You know those knives with scallops in the middle of the blade? Those are granton grinds. They're designed to reduce friction when slicing through wet, sticky things like roasts and russet potatoes while at the same time allowing you to make paper-thin slices of just about anything.

The chemistry of the New West knives is different, though, than that of many others. In the case of Phoenix blades – and I'll only talk about them, since I haven't used the Fusionwood line of blades – they're A-8 Japanese high-carbon, stainless tool steel that's clad in 410 Stainless Damascus Steel (HRC 58-59). All of that means they're a very hard steel that's used in making tools such as saw blades, drill bits, chisels, and other cutting tools, that's been wrapped in steel that's got a high-carbon, low-chromium content. The tool steel is durable and strong, and the 410 steel is minimally tarnish resistant and holds an edge better than high-chromium content blades. The result is a thin, somewhat flexible blade that will stay sharp and will easily take an edge.

The shape of the blade is a sort of a hybrid between the classic German and French designs (German: more of a curve toward the tip of the blade – good for chopping by using a rocking motion. French: more triangular toward the tip of the blade – good for using a slicing motion) with just enough of a curve to make chopping possible, but enough of the triangular shape to make slicing its true function.

So there, in a nutshell, is the technical stuff, but how's this puppy perform? In a word: beautifully. I've used the New West "The 9" exclusively over the past two weeks, and it does everything it's supposed to do. I carved a roast chicken with it and its flexibility allowed me to carve right next to the bone. I sliced tomatoes with it and its sharpness and thinness gave me nice, clean cuts, with no torn skin. I sliced raw tuna with it and ended up with sushi-like pieces. I sliced onions with it and got beautiful, paper-thin, translucent slices. I diced onion with it and got perfect 1/16-inch dice.

Normally before and after I use a knife, I use a steel on it (contrary to popular belief, this does not sharpen the knife, it just maintains the edge; I could get ├╝ber geeky here and explain the differences between sharpening and steeling, but enough science for one entry – you'll just have to trust me on this), but in order to make this a full test, I didn't steel the Phoenix blade for a couple of days, and I must say that I'm impressed with its ability to keep an edge. After slicing, chopping, carving, and dicing, I sliced another tomato (my benchmark), and the blade pierced the skin nearly as cleanly as it did after steeling. And when I accidentally brushed my finger against the edge of the knife as it was sitting there on my board, the resulting wound was clean, deep, and paper-cut thin.

When I did steel the blade, it took the edge beautifully, returning to its razor-sharp original state. While this, like all knives, will need to be sharpened, it won't require as much maintenance as a high-carbon steel knife does. Kudos, New West Knifeworks.

As for fit and finish, the Phoenix "The 9" is a full-tang blade that comes with a choice of handles: either wood or a Corian-like material. I chose the latter, as I felt it was more balanced. For me, the wooden handle was too light, making the knife blade heavy. This seems to be true of the Fusionwood line of knives, as well, all of which have wooden handles. The blade and handle are designed so that there's enough clearance between hand and board when chopping. Included with the knife is a custom leather case that will protect the blade much better than any cheap-ass wooden block ever could, adding value to the Phoenix "The 9" and making it even more of a pleasure to handle and to use.

But what price quality? This knife will set you back $199.00, which may seem like a lot, but considering the quality of this knife, you'll probably own it for the rest of your life (and your grandchildren will probably fight over it). Compared to a $175.00, 10-inch Henckel, it's a real bargain.

You can find the full line online at newwestknifeworks.com, or, until Christmas, you can go to the Bryant Park Holiday Crafts Fair to see them live and in person. And no matter where you go to buy this or any New West knife, tell them that Chris, the guy with the blog, sent you.