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The Feast of Seven Fishes
© Sue Courtney
2 Jan 2006

This Christmas we stumbled across a tradition than none of us knew about, as we are not Italian, nor are we Catholic. It was only when I mentioned to wine web guru Robin Garr of that our Christmas meal was seafood and we had seven different types of seafood, that I learnt about the Feast of Seven Fishes.

This is not a biblical feast, though it does have religious connections, however searches on the Internet reveal that no-one is really sure what the origin of the feast is. It could be related to the Seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the seven days of creation, the seven pilgrimage churches in Rome, the seven days of the week or the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

It also appears to be a tradition that is practised mainly in southern and central Italy and not the north - perhaps because the seafood is more bountiful in the southern and central parts of the country. The tradition may have originated in Sicily.

Like southern and central Italy, New Zealand is surrounded by water and the bounties of the sea. With Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere being a sunny, summery affair, a Feast of Seven Fishes seems ideal for a New Zealand Christmas in the sun.

We had our feast for our Christmas Day evening meal and it although it wasn't planned to be a Feast of Seven Fishes, it just turned out that way. However the Italian tradition of having a seafood feast on Christmas Eve could be better in some respects as you can buy your seafood on the day you are going to eat it (the shops are closed here on Christmas Day). If it had been on Christmas Eve it would probably ended up as a Feast of Eight Fishes, with green-lip mussels in the shell being added to the menu, as you have to cook mussels in the shell that day you buy them.

Our Feast of Seven Fishes was born out of my sister's reply to my questioning of what I could contribute to the Christmas meal this year. "Bring a seafood platter," she said. I made a list of possible suspects to include - prawns, mussels, marinated fish, seasoned white fish fillets, smoked salmon and so forth but further inspiration came from the November 2004 issue of Dish Magazine that I was browsing through at her place shortly afterwards.

Snapper Salad with Fried Basil caught my eye as it is made with Thai Basil - my basil of the moment. Also the Salt and Pepper Squid with a Chinese Five Spice mix added to the salt and pepper. I copied the recipes out, promptly lost them and had to refer to the magazine again next time I called around. Now the aromatic, spice-crusted fish also caught my eye.

The platter had suddenly expanded from a plate of tempting morsels to seven separate dishes. They were: -

* Smoked Salmon Salsa with tomatoes, spring onions and Thai basil
* Marinated Seafood - island style with coconut, tomatoes, spring onions and red capsicum
* Salt and Pepper Squid with Five Spice Powder adding the x-factor (from Dish magazine)
* Baked Snapper Salad with Thai Basil (from Dish Magazine)
* Aromatic spice-coated gurnard fillets (from Dish Magazine)
* Fresh cooked Pacific Rose prawns
* Smoked Blue Cod with Tsaziki

The best thing I liked about this Feast of Seven Fishes is that there were many courses, and although they were all put on the table at once, we tended to try one dish after another with lots of conversation and wine interaction. A slow food feast.

In New Zealand, sauvignon blanc flows like water and new season's sauvignon blanc, with its vibrant acidity and fresh zesty flavours, is a terrific match to many seafood dishes. We opened the gold medal winning Te Whare Ra Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005 with was excellent with four of the dishes. But we started the evening with the Hunters Marlborough Brut 1996, a beautifully aged methode traditionelle with creamy, Champagne-like yeasty characters, which was the best wine to match to the salmon salsa. The other wines served at dinner were Dry River Craighall Martinborough Riesling 1998, which had taken on a deep gold colour and lovely aged limey characters with hints of kero, and a perfect Te Mata Elston Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 1997- rich, creamy and seamless.

These recipes were made to feed 4 to 5 people.

Salmon Salsa with Tomatoes, Spring Onions and Thai Basil
Choose 'pieces' rather than 'slices' of smoked salmon pieces for this recipe. Pieces are cheaper to buy and with their irregular shapes, they are perfect for dicing into small chunks. Cut up one medium to large-sized tomato into small dice and to that, add an equal amount of diced salmon. Slice up one spring onion and a handful of Thai basil, which has a faintly aniseed flavour similar to dill. Mix all together into a small dish to let the flavours fuse. Serve as the first course with Methode Traditionelle, or Champagne.

Marinated Seafood - island style with coconut, tomatoes, spring onions and red capsicum
In Auckland you can buy marinated freshly seafood from good fishmarkets, such as SeaMart in Auckland City and Mairangi Bay, or Oceanz Fishmarket in Silverdale. Otherwise follow my recipe, "Aunty Edna's Marinated Fish" by clicking here. Use spring onion rather than normal onion and add some finely diced tomato as well. This is simply delicious with new season's sauvignon blanc.

Smoked Blue Cod with Tsaziki
Buy a fillet of smoked blue cod, or smoked white fish of your choice. Flake the fish into a bowl for serving and accompany with Tsaziki. My Tsaziki is made with half a cup of grated cucumber, squeezed after grating to rid some of the moisture, and a heaped half-teaspoon of fresh minced elephant garlic ('Top Shelf' brand available from markets). Mix the cucumber and garlic with about a cup of Greek yoghurt at least six hours before using, to let the flavours infuse. I served the food on a long narrow platter with the tsaziki in the middle, the smoked fish on one side and strips of iceberg lettuce on the other side. This fairly strong-flavoured dish is best with sauvignon blanc. An oak-aged sauvignon blanc would also go well.

Baked Snapper Salad with Thai Basil
Adapted from Dish Magazine, November 2004.

I drooled when I saw this recipe and so adjusted the recipe to suit. If you canít catch your own, then choose a fresh whole snapper from the fish market - make sure the eyes are bright, not cloudy. Choose a snapper that looks like it will feed the number of people you want to feed. My snapper weighed about a kilogram before it was gutted and scaled (if you are buying from the fish market, make sure you get them to gut and scale it, makes it easier than doing it at home).

You need about a cup or two of basil. I bought a pot of Thai basil and that perhaps was not quite enough. Cut the basil at the base of the stalks (at the top of the pot), then cut the stalks off below the leaves.

Rinse and dry the snapper, season the cavity with salt and pepper, slices of lemon and the stalks of the basil. Place the fish in an oiled roasting pan and cover with baking paper. Bake at 200 degrees C for 20-25 minutes. Fish should be cooked but not dry. Covering with paper, though not mentioned in the Dish recipe, helps to preserve the moisture. Let the fish cool then remove the skin and bones from the fish and break the flesh into bite-size pieces.

For the dressing combine 2 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon of freshly ground peppercorns, 1 teaspoon sugar, 45 mls of fish sauce and 75 mls of freshly squeezed lime juice.

Heat a tablespoon of neutral flavoured oil in a frying pan to a medium heat - I used rice bran oil. Fry the basil leaves in the oil for about 30 seconds until crisp. Immediately add it to the fish with the dressing, and toss to combine.

Place in serving bowl and refrigerate until required. This is a sensational match to Te Whare Ra Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005.

Salt and Pepper Squid with Five Spice Powder
Adapted from Dish Magazine, November 2004.

This is one dish that is best prepared just before serving. The Dish magazine recipe is served with a salad and dressing. I served just with the accompanying wine and the Sisters Salad, which was freshly picked green leaves and baby tomatoes from my sisters garden.

I allowed three baby squid tubes each. Wash and dry the squid tubes, open them up by cutting from the wider open end to the 'hood' along the 'seam' or fold, then cut in half by cutting from the base to the 'hood' along the opposite fold. Score the inside by making criss-cross diagonals with the tip of a sharp knife.

Make a mixture of 1 tablespoons of sea salt, 1/2 tablespoon of freshly ground pepper, 1 teaspoons of Chinese 5-spice powder and 3/8 of a cup of rice flour. In another bowl, lightly beat an egg white.

Heat 1.5 to 2 cups of rice bran oil in a small saucepan.

Place the squid into the egg white and stir to coat.

Taking a piece of squid at a time - or more if you are quick and adept, dip the squid into the flour/spice mixture then drop into the oil, cooking for 20 seconds. If the squid puckers up in the middle, turn once after 15 seconds and cook for a further 15 seconds. Place on a paper towel to soak up excess oil, then place in a dish for serving.

I preferred the squid with the sauvignon blanc, but others liked the creamy, melt-in-the-mouth texture of the squid with the Chardonnay.

Fresh cooked Pacific Rose prawns
This is the ultimate match for a rich, creamy chardonnay and the Te Mata Elston Chardonnay was sublime. Buy cooked prawns, or raw prawns and cook them yourself. Our fresh cooked prawns were in the fridge for a day, so they were reheated by cooking in a frypan for 30 seconds each side in sizzling hot butter. Supply finger bowls and plenty of serviettes.

Aromatic Spice-coated Gurnard fillets
Adapted from Dish Magazine, November 2004.

Fresh fillets of white fish had always been on the agenda for original platter but the Dish recipe idea added an extra dimension to the seasoning. I chose gurnard as the small fillets seemed an ideal size for a platter. This dish is best cooked just before serving, although some preparation can be done in advance.

Make a mixture using 1 teaspoon each of whole fennel, cumin, caraway and sesame seeds. The original recipe also required whole aniseed, but not being sure what this was, I added the seeds and some of the outer bits of star from two star anise to the mixture - mind you freshly harvested fennel seeds have an aniseed flavour. I suspect what was required was the seeds of the European anise plant, which is unrelated to the Chinese star anise, although the flavour is similar. Pound and grind the seeds in a mortar and pestle into a coarse blend. Add 2 tablespoons of rice flour and the grated zest of a lemon. You can prepare the spice mixture a few hours in advance and store in a small container. Just be prepared for the deliciously pungent aromatics when you open the container up again.

Cut each boned fillet of gurnard into two pieces, continuing along the seam where the bones have been removed. If the pieces are particularly long, they could be cut in half at right angles to the original bone seam. Press the pieces into the spice mixture that you have now put on a plate. Heat some rice bran oil in a frying pan and cook the fish on both sides until cooked right through.

Serve with the Chardonnay and the Sisters Salad.

* * * * * * *

In summary, the Feast of Seven Fishes was great and I'm looking forward to doing it again next Christmas.

Kia pai te kai

© Sue Courtney
January 2006

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