On Christmas Eve, many Italian-American families will sit down to a special meal, the feast of seven fishes. The exact origins of the tradition are a bit unclear, but the eating of seafood derives from the Catholic tradition of abstaining from red meat on holy days. Now it is an opportunity to enjoy a variety of seafood dishes – and few people are better-qualified to tell us all about what to eat for this year’s feast than two-Michelin-star chef Michael Cimarusti who prepares the meal at his famed seafood-centric restaurant, Providence.
Rico Gagliano: What are the seven traditional fishes of the feast of seven fishes?
Michael Cimarusti: You know, I don’t know if there are seven traditional fish that you would serve, because in Italy, I think it’s all regionally-based. You would use the seven fish that come from your region, and of course, it’s gonna change all the time anyway, because, as any fisherman will tell you, they don’t all bite all the time, so you’ve gotta kind of settle for whatever is there.
Rico Gagliano: All right, so what’s biting for you this week?
Michael Cimarusti: I would say three that we’re using that are maybe sort of non-traditional. We are doing Nantucket Bay Scallops as one of our courses. They’re absolutely delicious. They’re like little gum drops you can just pop them in your mouth raw.
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Michael Cimarusti: Oh, absolutely. You know, every year when scallops come into season, which is usually in November, the very first batch that we get, I just go into the refrigerator and grab two or three and just pop them in my mouth raw. They’re not with us all year long, so you really come to appreciate them for what they are – which is one of the best shellfish that we have in this country.
Rico Gagliano: I’m assuming that you’re gonna make sure that you’ve sourced them well [to eat them raw.] You don’t just want to go down to like the corner bodega.
Michael Cimarusti: No, absolutely not. You know, we have a source we’ve been using for years, in Brooklyn, New York. He’s one of the most discerning fishmongers in the country and his scallops are consistently excellent.
Rico Gagliano: All right, so find that guy and that’s it. Just put them in a bowl.
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah. Chili flakes, a sumo tangerine, really good olive oil, a little bit of salt, some mint, and some toasted pistachio, and you’re done.
Rico Gagliano: All right, so not as easy as putting you know, chips in a bowl, but still sounds delightful.
Something else on your menu is monkfish, which I kind of know the few times I’ve had it, as being this kind of slippery, not very flavorful thing.
Michael Cimarusti: Well you’ve been eating the wrong monkfish. Monkfish, it’s got another name, which is ‘the poor man’s lobster.’ Monkfish live on the bottom of the sea, they eat whatever comes to them, they’re also known as angler fish. They have that little thing on top of their head. Absolutely delicious. Just moved from the red list by the Monterey Bay Aquarium into the yellow list, so they used to be on the ‘avoid’ list, and now they’re on the yellow list, which is a good thing.
Rico Gagliano: Monterey Bay Aquarium does sustainable fish lists, so that means it’s a little bit better to eat this year.
Michael Cimarusti: Absolutely. They did some research and they found the fisheries healthier than what they had thought before, and also the fishing practices are more sustainable now. I’ve always been a fan of monkfish, but for years we shunned it because it was on the red list. So we’re doing that this year. We’re gonna roast it on the bone and we’re gonna serve it family style.
Rico Gagliano: All right, one more. One thing I know I would like to hear about is eel, because I know that that’s actually pretty traditional in parts of Italy. They used to have huge eel catches in some part of Italy, but I mean, nobody really makes eel in America I think other than you know, you get them broiled in sushi. Would you ever think of doing that?
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah, as a matter of fact, you know, this is probably the first year, maybe this year and last year are the first two years that we haven’t served eel, and I always did traditionally because my grandmother used to make eel for the feast of the seven fishes every year. And I still have images of them. Like, she would take them, cut them around the head, and then skin them, like hang them in a doorway and skin them with a pair of pliers.
Rico Gagliano: No wonder you have that lingering in your head. It sounds like a nightmare.
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah, you don’t forget that. And then I remember she would flour them, cut them into sections, flour them, and then throw them in a pan and fry them in olive oil, and then add them to tomato sauce and braise them. And I still have an image in my head of these little bits of eel wriggling in the pan still because you can’t kill an eel, no matter what you do. I mean they are just unbelievable, hearty little buggers. But we’re not using them this year. It’s not a sustainable fish and so we decided not to use it anymore.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, my understanding is that it’s because they’re fed other fish because they’re carnivores, and the impact on other fish is huge to keep carnivorous eels fed.
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah, there’s that, and there’s also the fact that you know, most of that eel unagi, which is a freshwater eel, in spite of the fact that they might have been farm raised in China or Japan or wherever else, most of them originated here in the United States. They’re wild harvested, little tiny baby eels, which are called elvers. You know a little bag of baby elvers would go for three or four or five hundred dollars a pound live, and then those eels are then shipped to the East, but that’s a problem, because if you’re taking all the baby eels out of an ecosystem, then they’re never gonna mature to become big eels.
Rico Gagliano: And have other baby eels.
Michael Cimarusti: Yeah, exactly. As a kid, we used to fish for eels in the middle of the night. When I was a kid, we would catch them all night long, like five, six, seven a night. And now, I was just back at this same fishing camp in Princeton two years ago, and we didn’t catch a single one and we tried every night.
Rico Gagliano: All right, let’s try to end this on an upbeat note then. What are you replacing them with?
Michael Cimarusti: Well we usually do that with risotto, the eel. And so this year what we’re doing is, we’re doing a risotto with middle-neck clams, which are like one step larger than little-necks, so it’s middle-neck clam and abalone risotto.
Rico Gagliano: I know the first thing that anybody at home is going to be thinking is how do you make clams not rubbery? One quick word of advice to them?
Michael Cimarusti: Clams, you’ve just gotta treat them with respect.
Rico Gagliano: Even though they don’t have brains.
Michael Cimarusti: Yes. Number one, either stir them just in at the very last moment so that they’re just cooking for a brief period of time, or eat them raw, which is really just an absolutely fantastic way to eat them.
Rico Gagliano: You do these raw too? What I’m learning here is that really, you don’t do a whole lot of cooking at your feast of seven fishes.
Michael Cimarusti: Hey, clams on a half shell is like one of God’s great pleasures I think.