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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“You have to be slightly insane to do a competition like this!”

That’s APPCA member Nicole Gaffney, owner of The Dinner Belle Personal Chef Service in a new Food Network commercial for their Summer Sundays line up of shows. And, given what Nicole has been up to as a contestant in season 10 of Food Network Star, she’s not kidding.

Week 1 had her offering a party bite for 100 people that demonstrated her culinary point of view (“I want to bring a splash of the ocean into kitchens all over America and be your Food Network star de mare.”). The sesame-crusted tuna with spicy soy glaze was a hit with the judges, as was her presentation.

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Week 2 was successful enough. Cooking simultaneously with chef Alex Guaranaschelli, who had to orally follow Nicole’s instructions to make a couscous salad with arugula, had the judges enjoying both the salad and Nicole’s tips, but wishing she had more energy. Still, she made it to week 3.

And that was the Cutthroat Kitchen challenge. In her mini group everyone was to make spaghetti and meatballs, but Nicole forgot to pick up a package of spaghetti in the pantry–and then was thrown a couple of curve balls by her fellow competitors. The first was having to grind her meat in a spice grinder. The second was a Lucy-inspired grape stomping–so far her most memorable moment of the competition. “Cutthroat Kitchen was really hard but you had no choice but to have fun with it. I had to stomp and fill up a carafe, so I might was well laugh and dance and have a good time.”

Stomping the grapes

Not only did she show grace under pressure, she also displayed resourcefulness–after all she still had that spaghetti and meatball dish to get out. No pasta? No problem. She made the meatballs with pan-fried breadcrumb gnocchi. And got through to this past Sunday night’s competition.

Week 4 was all about social media, something Nicole is quite accomplished in, so she dove into the first challenge–making a 60-second personal video selfie that required her to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the show and a favorite cooking tip. “Social media is all about being memorable and being real so people will follow you,” she said. “I need to look at this camera as my best friend and just get real with it.” So, she ran around the set, giddily pointing out the “sick” pantry and its fresh ingredients before stopping at a counter to demonstrate peeling ginger with a spoon.

Then things got whacky, as the competitors were divided into teams of three to make a viral marketing video for YouTube featuring a Hersey’s candy. Nicole’s team got Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. With Cuban-American Reuben Ruiz playing a Spanish teacher, Nicole played the tone-deaf student who couldn’t get the accent–until she ate a Reese’s. Then the r’s began to trill. The judges loved her craziness and on she goes to Week 5.

Reese's Pieces

How did this even happen for a second-generation Sicilian American girl from Atlantic City? Let’s just say strong family influences got her into cooking, the APPCA helped her develop a thriving personal chef business, and her own drive and ambition and fan love of the show motivated her to audition.

Nicole’s Sicilian grandfather was a huge influence on her. A commercial fisherman, along with his father, brother, and uncles, he immigrated to Gloucester, Mass., and eventually made his was down to the Jersey shore. When he returned from month-long fishing trips at the end of the summer with clams and lobsters–by-catch from hunting down giant bluefin tuna–there would be a huge family feast with corn, potatoes, and, says Nicole, lots and lots of butter. Leftover lobster would go home with Nicole’s family to make lobster salad.

“I never realized how unique that was when I was a child,” she muses.

When on dry land, Nicole’s grandfather loved to cook, making homemade bread, fishcakes, pizza, and fried dough for dessert. “He loved to watch people eat it. He’d have the biggest grin on his face. I have his smile so I find myself doing the same thing.”

He taught Nicole his bread and pizza recipes, but like most of us who enjoyed dishes made by family members, she is convinced she can’t get it to taste the same. Nicole also spent hours in the kitchen with her late mother and grandmother making really great pies, she says. “We still get together–aunts, cousins, and my grandmother–to make the pies.”

Nicole attended Louisiana State University, majoring in communications, before returning to Atlantic City, where she worked in sales, modeling, and managing an Italian market. But Nicole realized she wanted to immerse herself in the culinary world so she attended The Academy of the Culinary Arts. After one semester she left to get back to work. Having been a waitress she knew that lifestyle and environment and wanted no part of it as a career so while holding down a desk job, she did some computer research and came across the APPCA.

“After scouring the site, I felt like ‘let’s give this personal chef thing a try,'” she says. “I did the training program and started my business, The Dinner Belle Personal Chef Service, in June 2010. It gets really busy here in the summer, so I got some clients.

Nicole's dishes

“It’s been a lot of hard work but has been incredibly gratifying,” she adds. “Once you get that first client who is a great fit, it really catapults your business because it gives you a steady income.”

Nicole says that the APPCA helped her get the ball rolling, get a business plan together, taught her how to approach clients, pricing–“everything! It really gave me the backbone to my business, which is what I really needed,” she says. “The web forums are really helpful. I could see other people’s problems and really learned from the feedback.”

teaching

Nicole also does dinner parties and teaches cooking classes, which has given her the poise and self-confidence she needs to be in front of the camera. So, after she turned 29 last September–looking to shake things up a bit in her life–she decided to make an audition tape for Food Network Star, with her husband’s encouragement.

“Next thing I knew I was on a plane to L.A. to tape the show,” she recalls. “It’s an extensive application and interview process. They ask you everything and do a thorough background check.”

Making dishes on the fly for each challenge could be tricky, but Nicole tries to stick to what she knows. “You have to be inspired but you have to be smart about it and make something you know you can cook within the time limit. I just wanted to make sure I always finished. And I wanted to not rush through everything to make sure I did it the right way.”

judges

She also had to focus on not getting psyched out by the situation or the competition–or simply being in the presence of judges Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay. “That was probably the biggest challenge throughout the time I filmed. When you’re out there you don’t have any contact with family, friends, or spouses. And you work so many hours in a day it gets tiring. You’re really running on a lot of adrenalin. Being in the presence of Alton, Giada, and Bobby, you try to stay calm and not act nervous, even though it’s so overwhelming. So you have to keep coaching yourself. I love the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ So, I just had to try to keep thinking I’m good enough–but it’s hard to not get psyched out.”

Now, as viewers and competitors alike wait for August when the competition concludes and we all learn who is the next Food Network star, Nicole is adjusting to life in the spotlight even as she returns to cooking for her longtime clients.

“This has been so exciting! It’s a wonderful time in my life. I’m just trying to sit back and take it all in and enjoy it!

What’s your ambition as a personal chef? Do you have any questions for Nicole about her experience on Food Network Star?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

Photos courtesy of the Food Network and Nicole Gaffney

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