Sweet and Savory Eel – Feast of Seven Fishes

I grew up in a very closely knit Italian-American community in the suburbs of New York City. Nearly everyone I knew as a child was related to me by blood or marriage. It was a world of cousins. There was an Italian-American club where old men played bocce, crazy car-horns that played the tarantella, and there was the great, carnival-like Summer Festa, that seemed to bring the whole town out to Saint Anthony’s school to gamble, play games, and, of course, eat. Food was everywhere, and people loved eating – not just at the Festa but in everyday life. Sunday dinners were serious business, and you didn’t skip them without a really good excuse.

Serving Food at the Festa
Serving Food at the Festa

So, when Sasha Martin, of the Global Table Adventure, asked me to participate in her Feast of Seven Fishes event, I had to pause and wonder how I had missed out on this wonderful Christmas-Eve tradition growing up. A little research and I found out that it is specifically an Italian-American Christmas-Eve event that is practiced by people who came from southern Italy. (That would rule out my ancestors who were from an area between Bologna and Ravenna.) It also is a relatively new concept that has been quickly growing in popularity since Mario Batali and other Food Network stars started demonstrating recipes for special Christmas Eve fish-only dinners. There are even restaurants that now offer special menus for people wishing to celebrate the Feast.

The seven fishes that either stand for the seven sacraments or the number of days that it supposedly took God to create the universe. Sometimes, there are more than seven dishes – nine for three times the holy trinity, or 13 for the apostles plus Jesus. No matter the number of dishes, there always seems to be an effort to couple them with an element of religious symbolism. A Christmas Eve fish-themed dinner. It must be an American concept. Americans love theme dinners.

On to my own recipe for Sasha’s Feast: Sweet and Savory Eel – Chinese Style. What is a Chinese dish doing at an Italian-American feast? Well, Silk Road, Marco Polo . . . it fits, in a loosely-tight sort of way. Actually, Italians of all varieties love eel and eat it when they can, and there are loads of wonderful recipes for it from the Mediterranean and beyond. Its my job to focus on the beyond. So, Sweet and Savory Eel. This recipe is adapted from a Chinese homestyle recipe, generously shared with me by my friend Dimon. It is delicious, easy to prepare, and well worth the effort of handling the slimy beasts. Lots of ginger and garlic form the base of the savory brown sauce with tangerine peel, maple syrup, and a few chili peppers providing the grace notes.

Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel
Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel

 

Sweet and Savory Eel

Ingredients
1.5 – 2 pounds fresh eel, cut into 1.5 inch sections
Tapioca flour as needed (for dusting)
3-4 tablespoons of corn oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small bunch (4-6) spring onions, chopped
2 -3 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Peels from 2 tangerines, dried and thinly sliced, or minced
3-4 dried red chili peppers, diced (I use Japones)
2 cups of brown rice wine
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (or a mix of dark and light)
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup water or fish stock
1 sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced

Directions
Dust the eel slices with tapioca flour, and tap on the edge of a plate when done to remove excess flour. Heat corn oil in a large sauté pan until smoking hot. Add the coated eel slices and sauté until golden. Remove eel from the pan with a slotted spoon and let cool on a plate.

Drain off most of the corn oil and add sesame oil to sauté pan and warm it up. Add spring onions and sauté until they start to soften. Then add the garlic and ginger slices and cook on low-to-medium, stirring often, until the ginger colors or the garlic swells. Add the tangerine peel and chillies and cook well, adding part of the rice wine to moisten as needed.

Add the rest of the rice wine and heat to almost boiling. Reduce the heat, and immediately add the eel slices. Cook on a low-to-medium simmer for five minutes, then add the dark soy sauce and the maple syrup, cover, and lower the heat to a low simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Then add water or fish stock to moisten the sauce and bring back to a simmer. Add the sliced peppers, then cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the eel is beginning to soften. Stir well and cook for another 10 minutes or so until eel is soft, and peppers are cooked. Depending on the desired consistency of the sauce, you may cook uncovered if you want a thicker sauce.

Serve with rice, tangerine slices, more spring onions, or the condiments of your choice.

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NB: To be authentically Chinese, the eel should be a river eel or swamp eel. The salt-water eels often used in other cuisines would offer a much sharper flavor and change the recipe significantly.  The right type of eel are usually sold live at larger Asian markets. You can ask the fish mongers to cut and clean the animals to order, to minimize handling them. This is an important bit of advice to consider, because when eels get stressed (like when a fish monger reaches into a bucket, grabs them), they get even more slimy than usual.  If you ever taken a graduate genetics lab, and know what its like to handle stessed hagfish – this is exactly the same.

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The Feast of Seven Fishes undoubtedly has its roots in the traditional Italian vigil feast, which is celebrated all over Italy. However, unlike those feasts, the Feast of Seven Fishes is a fish-only extravaganza with the number of dishes symbolically tied to Catholic themes. At a traditional vigil feast, for example, one would be unlikely to find meat dishes (at least in a strictly Catholic home), but you would find meat-based soups (like a chicken broth with tortellini or “cap-lets” as we grew up calling them), sauces with meat stock or broth in them, butter, cheese and eggs – all meat products.

Also, how the Church has defined, “meat” over the years is really fascinating. Generally, the prohibition extends only to terrestrial mammals and birds; whereas aquatic animals of all types were allowed. At different times in history, the Church has also allowed Catholics to eat mammals that spend a lot of time in water during lent and other no-meat fast and vigil days. This means that Catholics in Quebec ate beaver and Latin Catholics ate (and still do eat) capybara on no-meat Fridays or in times of fasting. Likewise, reptiles and amphibians are on the Lenten or fasting menu in places where it is traditional for the secular populous to eat them.

What I suspect is the Feast of Seven Fishes was a tradition in a very local part of Southern Italy – probably somewhere deep in the foot of the boot – that immigrants brought with them. It spread within the neighborhoods they emigrated to and is now being projected back as broadly, “Italian,” by their descendants and others who have adopted the practice.

Although I am a stickler for detail, to me its wonderful and interesting that the Feast of Seven Fishes is taking on a life of its own in the New World of the 20th and 21st Centuries. It is the birth of a new food tradition, right before our eyes! And another example of how cuisines are constantly evolving. Whenever you try this recipe, whether for the Feast of Seven Fishes or at some other time, prepare it and share it with loved ones – now, that’s Italian!

Expand your Feast of the 7 Fishes menu with these delicious ideas:

Salt Cod Tomato Sauce with Linguine by Sasha Martin, Global Table Adventure.
Sicilian Citrus Shark Filets by Amanda Mouttaki, MarocMama.
Whipped Salt cod | Baccalà Mantecato by Deana Sidney, Lost Past Remembered.

To read more about Italy on the Silk Road, check my earlier posts.

Lots of other great Silk Road fish recipes here on the site, including a Bhutanese curry of Fish and Oranges

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photograph of Pete serving food at the Festa borrowed from a St. Anthony of Padua newsletter, photograph of Chinese Sweet and Savory Eel by Laura Kelley.)

A Roman Holiday

"Gladiactors" arguing outside of the Coloseum Metro Stop
“Gladiactors” arguing outside of the Coloseum Metro Stop

When in Rome – we did as the tourists do. We spent unspeakably hot days touring the Forum and Coliseum; spent a morning in the Capitoline Museum and an afternoon on the Palatine Hill under the pines of Rome. Being raised in my father’s Italian-American hometown, every face seemed familiar to me – dark hair, big brown eyes, aquiline noses – all faces I grew up with. One reminded me of my childhood friend Gina, another of my Uncle Salvatore who everyone calls Tutti, and yet another of childhood neighbor – Tony M.

Another throwback to my early years came from being surrounded by passionate people. People who burn intensely over everything from the quality of vegetables to the latest addition to parliament. Rarely on American streets does one hear a heated argument between co-workers – as in the photo of the Gladiators Fighting at the Coliseum Metro Stop – 21st Century Style, or lovers professing their feelings for each other and demonstrating their feelings with kisses and caresses. Also familiar to me was that the expression of powerful emotions didn’t have any baggage attached to it, as is so often the case in American culture. Romans yell – yeah, so what; they argue – doesn’t everyone? They make up with kisses and flowers – shouldn’t we all?

Returning to the font, I reveled in our cabdriver who spoke with his hands so much that he could moonlight as a sign-language translator. Passionately telling us stories as he swerved round corners and through changing traffic lights. Somehow, this master of the backstreets managed to get us from our hotel to the Vatican Museums without actually touching the steering wheel.

Bernini - Broken Angel
Bernini – Broken Angel

After that wild ride – we saw some of the greatest art that the West has to offer. Besotted on grandeur of the Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo in the collection, my favorite find was a temporary display of Bernini sculptural models for his angels in Saint Peter’s. These models had the same the same soft, beatific expressions as his finished marble masterpieces, the same verdant folds in the drapes of their clothes but they were rendered in clay, straw and wire. The straw that formed the base of the figures protruded in places where the clay had worn away like finite element models used by designers in today’s world. On some of the angels, the clay on the wings had long since crumbled – revealing the structural wires that lay beneath. Not a fallen angel, but a broken one. Not evil – these models were just a bit more mortal than his divine masterworks.

Food and the enjoyment of food is everywhere in Rome, form the wild figs growing along the city street side as a result to a carelessly thrown pith to an abundant fruit cart with offerings to cool you down on a summer’s day to fine dining from committed people who are passionate about food.

Hostaria Antiqua - Mausoleum Dining Area
Hostaria Antiqua – Mausoleum Dining Area

The great food-find of our trip to Rome was a restaurant out on the Old Via Appia – Hostaria Antiqua Roma. Not far from the San Callisto and San Sebastian Catacombs, it is a jewel of a restaurant not to be missed. My husband and I dined there to eat from its special Ancient Roman menu, but the dishes on the regular menu sampled by the kids were really phenomenal as well. The setting for summer dining is perhaps unique in the world, for when weather allows, guests dine outside surrounded by the walls of a Roman mausoleum that has been featured in several engravings by Piranesi in the late 18th century. My husband, the historian, was thrilled and amazed by this and kept on looking around and chuckling just a bit as he ate.

In addition to the fine food and the unique setting, the proprietor of this family establishment, Paolo Magnanimi, makes dining there a memorable experience. His attention to detail both in and out of the kitchen and the stories he regales you with make you feel more like a guest at his family’s table than a customer. The site was purchased by Paolo’s father, Massimo, in 1982 and the labors and love of their family have, over the years, turned the site from a “place abandoned by God and men” into a beautiful, welcoming and delicious place to dine.

Paolo
Paolo

Paolo’s personality and love of his work and restaurant shine though in conversation. Raised in the his family’s food and hospitality business, he likened the opening of the gate every evening to the rise of a stage curtain and his hosting and restaurant oversight duties to the performance of an actor. When touring us through the restaurant after the meal, Paolo told us that the first time the actor Harvey Keitel came to Hostaria Antiqua Roma that he thought, “It was like Jesus coming into Jerusalem.” The actor proceeded to come for dinner every night that week and by his last visit Paolo said Keitel “was like my uncle coming over to the house for dinner.”

For starters we had Antipasto Romano which featured wild-boar sausages, a roman mortadella, and sharp pecorino cheese. Included as part of this selection, we also had the Roman herbed olives (Epitryum Varium). This was served along with a Roman cheesebread called Libum di Catone, and an amazing spread made from Romano cheese and garlic called Moretum. Hearing about our love of food, we were also allowed to sample a delicious sweet and sour marinated eggplant that might be an adaptation of the classic Tybaris.

Wild boar is one of my favorite meats and I have had it in many European countries, Africa and Americas. Still the boar sausage served at Hostaria Antiqua Roma was unique and earthy with a robust peppered flavor and overtones of perhaps cinnamon and cloves with a bit of anise to lighten. It was also a flavorful companion to the sharp pecorino it was served with. The olives were adapted from a recipe in Cato’s On Agriculture (ca. 160 BCE) and had cumin and fennel seeds along with touches of cilantro and mint in the white vinegar and oil marinade. The bread served with these Ancient Roman delicacies was a libum made of a softer cheese – perhaps a farmer’s cheese or ricotta – flour and egg and seasoned with a bit of bay leaf, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Traditionally, the Romans baked this bread on a sheet of bay leaves so that the flavor is lightly infused by the baking process making for a light biscuit or small loaf.

The star of the appetizer table was a simple moretum – a spread of garlic and grated hard cheese – like romano and a bit of olive oil for flavor and consistency. There was possibly the addition of a bit of salt, pepper and coriander seed, but if so they were only the most delicate addition to powerful ingredients that spoke for themselves quite well. Classical recipes for moretum often include the addition of a lot of herbs like cilantro, celery and rue, but these seemed to be absent in the version served at Hostaria Antiqua Roma – with no loss. On the tongue, the moretum had a flavor that started forcefully and mellowed as it spread. My husband and I struggled between the poles of personal desire and public politeness as we kindly bade each other to have some more of this delicious dish.

For main courses we had Paolo’s chicken with fish sauce – a recipe closely related to the Roman Pullum Frontonianum from Apicius‘ De Re Coquinaria, and a Ancient Roman lasagna which combined recipes for Lagane pasta and a Patina of meat, cheese, fennel and leeks. Despite its name, the chicken with fish sauce was a mild but flavorful roast chicken that was savory given the addition of garum fish sauce, grape syrup and ample portions of winter savory and ground black pepper. On the lighter side, coriander seed, dill and a splash of red wine vinegar brightened the dish.

Although delicious, I think in Roman times, the garum flavor of the chicken would have been more pronounced – partially because the Romans loved the flavor and partially because diners had the option to add mixtures of garum, wine, (sometime fruit) and herbs to their food as a table condiment called oenogarum. In conversation he told us that he used to make his own garum, but that he now uses off-the-shelf nuc mam imported from Asia. Although I understand the difficulties (primarily stink and time) of making garum, I think that this choice is a pity, because modern nuc mam has none of the wine, must and the selection of herbs such as oregano, coriander, mint, celery and pepper that Roman garum did.

The Roman lasagne served at Hostaria Antiqua Roma is nothing short of a miracle. Given how the modern dish is usually ladled with marinara sauce, we were both interested to see how the dish might have been made prior to contact with the New World and the spread of the tomato to the far corners of the globe. Roman pasta whether in sheets, strips or small shapes was fried and used to layer patina (as in the modern lasagna) or used to pickup and wrap food from a plate. Patina was any mixture made in layers and prepared in a dish called a “patina”. Some patinas were made from combinations of offal and spices; some were herbs, meats and vegetables; and still others had the addition of cheese or fruit. The patina that Paolo used for his lasagna was delicious and flavored with ground beef, grated romano cheese with a touch of ricotta, fennel, leeks, salt and pepper – and it was delicious. Interestingly, this dish was more like modern Greek “lasagnes” such as spanakotiropita, and pastitsio.

Full almost to bursting we shared a tiramisu that was made layered in a dish with generous amounts of cocoa powder on top – a delicious take on the traditional dessert and a wonderful way to end a truly memorable meal.
After our meal, Paolo toured us around the inside of the restaurant which is decorated in the rustic but beautiful manner of a country inn with wooden beams and warm, cozy colors. If not already evident – I highly recommend Hostaria Antiqua Roma. So when you are in Rome – you can eat as the Ancient Romans did. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos of Gladiactors Arguing at the Coliseum Metro, Bernini – Broken Angel; and Paolo Magnanimi by Laura Kelley; Photo of Mausoleum Dining Area from Hostaria Antiqua Roma website.)

RECIPES

Libum Di Catone
Ingredients
2 cups ricotta
½ – 1 cup flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 teaspoons fennel seeds (optional)

Method
Mix cheese in a mortar. When you have made it smooth, knead the cheese into the flour. Add one egg and knead again. Add salt and fennel seeds if using and form one large loaf or smaller loaves. Place them on a bed of bay leaves and cook at 350 degrees for about 25-30 minutes for smaller buns and longer for a large loaf.

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Epityrum Varium
Ingredients
3 ounces of whole green olives
3 ounces of whole black olives
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds
1 medium bunch of cilantro leaves (25-30 sprigs)
A sprig of rue (or substitute arugula or cress)
2 or 3 springs of mint
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Method
Buy pitted olives, or use olive pitter. Grind cumin and fennel seeds in spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Finely chop the coriander, rue or substitute and mint. Roughly chop the olives, dress with olive oil and vinegar. Add the herbs. Toss ingredients together in a bowl. Add a drop more vinegar if desired. Serve with plenty of crusty bread.

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Moretum
Ingredients
10 medium cloves garlic (more or less as desired)
1/2 pound Romano cheese, grated (could use parmesan)
½ teaspoon salt (or as desired)
3-4 teaspoons of fennel seeds, ground
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (more as needed for consistency)

Method
Grind garlic along with the salt in a mortar and pestle or food processor, and then add the grated Romano cheese and blend thoroughly. Add the olive oil as needed for the consistency of a smooth paste. Garlic Flavor will be less strong if it is allows to sit for several hours or overnight. Optional ingredients for this amount of moretum can also include: a small to medium bunch of cilantro, chopped; ¼ cup chopped celery and two tablespoons of young rue or fennel leaves. If herbs are added, the consistency will have to be adjusted with the addition of more olive oil. Serve room temperature or slightly cool.

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Chicken with Fish Sauce
Ingredients
1 free-range chicken whole or in parts
3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 leeks, chopped
3/4 cup garum or liquamen
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup strong red wine
1 teaspoon fresh dill
1 teaspoon fresh savory
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped (10-20 sprigs)
1/4 -1/2 cup defritum (thick grape syrup)
2-3 teaspoons ground black pepper

Method
In a small bowl, combine the garum or liquamen, the red wine vinegar and the red wine. Whisk in the dill, savory and coriander and 1 teaspoon of the black pepper. Let sit for several hours or overnight until the spices permeate the liquid. Sauté the chicken until the skin starts to turn golden. When done, set aside. Spray or rub a baking dish and line with the leeks. Place the chicken on or above the leeks if using a baking rack. Pour the garum and spice mixture over the chicken. Place in preheated 350 degree oven for at least 1 – 1 -1/2 hours (baking times will vary with the size of the bird used). Baste and turn as necessary.

As the chicken is cooking, in a small saucepan, heat the grape juice to a boil to make the defritum. Use only 100% unsweetened grape juice. I prefer the juice of concord grapes, but use any type or mixture of dark grape juice you desire. Once boiled, reduce heat immediately and cook over low heat, stirring often, until the juice is reduced by at least half and is beginning to thicken. Continue cooking over low heat until a syrup is formed. be careful not to scorch or burn the syrup. When done remove from heat and set aside.

If leeks dry out, add a bit of water or broth to moisten along with a bit of unsalted butter. When the leeks are done, remove them from the pan and continue cooking the chicken.

When chicken is done, let it rest for 10 minutes and place it on the serving plate. If desired, place the chicken on a bed of leeks. Pour or baste the defritum over the chicken and season with freshly-ground pepper. If syrup has hardened while cooling, reheat over low heat to a spoonable or basteable consistency. Garnish with more freshly chopped cilantro. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley.)