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

Nicole Gaffney

We’re all a little too aware of the way personal chefs have been portrayed on reality food shows. The producers have long had a habit of selecting wackadoodle folks who have nothing in common with the craft and career path we’ve honed. So, when we learned that APPCA member Nicole Gaffney was selected as a finalist of Food Network Star, we knew that finally we’d be well represented to the public.

Nicole didn’t let us down. Indeed, she did us proud. On Sunday night we watched the finale with bated breath, hoping that as one of the three finalists in this long road she’d prove the winner. Unfortunately, viewers–in all their wisdom–selected cowboy Lenny.

On Rachael Ray

In our eyes, though, Nicole is truly a winner–and she knows it, too. Out of tens of thousands of applicants she was selected to compete. She made some gaffes (who didn’t!), but she learned from them. And, she was a trouper. Remember Episode 3’s Cutthroat Kitchen challenge when she got a spice grinder to grind her meat for spaghetti and meatballs and then, in the middle of making her dish, she was sent to stomp grapes? Who else could channel Lucy Ricardo and turn grape stomping into a charming comedic routine? That was our Nicole!

Stomping the grapes

“You have to be slightly insane to do a competition like this,” she laughed back then.

In that same episode, she came out of whatever shell they judges felt she’d been locked in and helped create a zany Hershey’s commercial selling Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, trilling her Spanish R’s like a nut in her blue poncho–and helped win the challenge.

Reese's Pieces

Nicole’s Coastal Cuisine point of view (our Jersey girl “Food Network Star de la Mare”) was consistent, week after week. Okay, she had to get over her self-acknowledged “resting bitch face,” and find her bubbly side. And she did. She came to be at ease in front of the camera. The turning point came in week six, when Giada told her to just let go and stop being wound up so tight. “Be who you want to be.”

Green screen dreams

That was what she told call-in viewer Traci from New Jersey on finale night. “When Giada told me I was wound up too tight, I realized I needed to relax.”

Presentation counts for a lot, clearly, on a television show. But the food can’t fail. And in every challenge, Nicole’s food was praised by the mentors. They loved her food from the first–from her sesame-crusted tuna with spicy soy glaze that was her introduction to us, her couscous salad that chef Alex Guarnaschelli had to follow her on, her spicy pork kabobs with pineapple that she demoed at Knott’s Berry Farm, her fried frogs legs with spicy tamarind glaze and cucumber mango slaw along with her desconstructed s’mores dessert in Las Vegas, and even her spicy shrimp and vegetable lettuce wraps–even though it wasn’t a hit with the little kids. Okay, there was that brush up over prosciutto versus serrano ham–but let’s just let that go…

Vegas pool party

When Bob opened that first red envelope on finale night and it turned out that Nicole had hit third place, you could see the disappointment on the part of the judges and Susie, who told her, “I’ve always thought the world of you and just seeing you today so elegant and such a lovely person… It would have been a pleasure to have you join this family.”

With Robert Irvine

Bobby Flay told Nicole that she had a natural ability to be on camera. “I was rooting for you all the way. This is just a bump in the road to your success.”

And here Nicole showed all the class she’s demonstrated throughout the competition. “It’s been a huge dream of mine. It was life changing. I’ve grown so much as a person and learned so much about myself. Maybe I’ll get to be on TV someday.”

Ronnybrook Milk Bar

Nicole, no doubt your dreams will be realized. But whatever you do and whatever path you take, you’ve already shown the world what a real personal chef can do and be. You’ve been one of the best ambassadors for our career that we could dream of. Bobby’s right. This is just a bump in the road. Your journey is just beginning and there are great things in store for you! We will avidly be reading your blog Too Full for School to learn what’s up next!

#teamNicole

What did you think of Nicole’s run on Food Network Star? Is there a cooking show you want to audition for?

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.

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