Guest post by APPCA member Nicole Gaffney:

Nicole with clams

Christmas Eve in our family is a big deal, unlike Christmas Day, when we lazily lounge around in our PJ’s all day. Each year there’s a huge Christmas Eve party with my extended Italian relatives from my Mom’s side. Each of my maternal grandparents came from a family of 13 siblings, so the amount of aunts, uncles and cousins will make your head explode. And of course, at the center of our gathering each year, is the food.

The vast majority of my family members made their living as commercial fishermen, so I never really thought twice about how most of the food on our table was seafood. When I got older, I learned about the Italian tradition of The Feast of The Seven Fishes and realized that our seafood-centric celebration was not just a coincidence.  I suppose having family in the business just makes it a little easier to pull off.

This tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve evolved from the Roman Catholic custom of abstaining from the consumption of meat products on holy days, much like during Lent. Many families, like my own, follow the tradition simply for the fun and deliciousness of it.

grilled fish

There are many traditional dishes served at The Feast of Seven Fishes, such as octopus salad, baccala (salt cod), fried smelts, stuffed shrimp, clams, and scallops. But to host a celebration of your own, any of your favorite fish dishes will do. The key to a successful spread is making sure you have the freshest seafood possible and not to overcook it.

Clams

Here are some of my family’s best tips for selecting and cooking seafood:

  • First and foremost, have a good, trustworthy fishmonger. Get to know them, and ask their opinion on what is best that day or time of year.
  • The flesh of fresh fish should look vibrant and firm, never dull and mushy. If buying fish whole, always look at the eyes and gills. The eyes should be ultra clear and slightly protruded, while the gills should be bright pink. An old fish will have cloudy, dull sunken eyes and grayish gills. Avoid this at all costs.
  • Ask your fish monger to filet and skin a whole fish for you; they should do it at no additional cost. This way you can select the freshest fish possible without having to wrestle with it at home.
  • Fresh fish begins to deteriorate quickly after its caught, so purchase as last minute as possible, and always store it on ice. It’s best to place the fish on ice in a perforated container over top of another container so the water can drain out, as you don’t want the fish sitting around in the water.
  • Choose bivalves like clams, oysters and mussels that are tightly closed. If some of them are slightly opened, give them a little tap. If they’re alive, they will snap right shut. If not, it means they are dead and should be discarded (or not purchased in the first place).
  • If access to a good fishmonger and fresh seafood is difficult, frozen seafood can be a great option, especially when planning ahead. Cold water fish spend their lives in near freezing temperatures, so freezing them doesn’t affect their flesh much at all. Alaskan king crab, snow crab, shrimp, and lobster tails are often flash frozen right on the boats, so they’re just as good as buying fresh. Always look for the words “vacuum sealed” or “flash frozen” when purchasing frozen seafood.
  • Defrost frozen seafood gradually – overnight in the refrigerator is best, or under cold running water. Never run under hot water, never leave at room temperature, and never ever microwave.
  • Ask your fishmonger if they have any leftover shrimp, crab, or lobster shells they can either give or sell you on the cheap. You can use these to make an incredibly flavorful soup or stock to use in pasta or risotto. I save my shells all year long and take them out at Christmas time to make the most delicious bisque. I love being able to utilize what would have been waste in order to make a luxurious and elegant soup.
  • To freeze shells properly, be sure to clean them thoroughly of all guts and remnants of meat. Dry them off and store in doubled plastic ziplock bags with as much air removed as possible.
  • When cooking fresh lobsters and clams, it’s best to pop them in the freezer for about 20 minutes (but no longer) prior to cooking. For clams, it helps them to open easier, while for lobsters, it temporarily paralyzes them making it much easier to get them into the pot. The same tip also works for opening raw oysters – a few minutes in the freezer will get them to pop open with ease.

 

lobster meat

Whether you opt for one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish, all 7 fishes or no fish this Christmas, the important thing is to enjoy it with the ones you love.

From my big Italian family to yours, we wish you a very happy, healthy, and whole holiday season.

New Jersey resident Nicole Gaffney is a chef, writer, and television personality best known for being second runner up on the 10th season of the reality cooking competition, Food Network Star. She runs a personal chef business called The Dinner Belle and is the author of the blog, Too Full for School.

Photos courtesy of Nicole Gaffney

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