The cornerstone of my seafood world is the annual celebration that we hold in my home around Christmas time. It is loosely based on the Italian Festa di Sette Pesci, traditionally held on Christmas Eve. Keepers of the feast would eat a meal that featured 7 types of fish or shellfish. The meal would not necessarily be 7 courses. You could knock out most of the 7 in just one bowl of cioppino. Patrons would complete the meal just in time to attend a midnight Mass. My wife’s grandparents kept this feast loosely, and our version is an even more loose interpretation of the tradition. Each year, we hope to capture the love, the delicious food, the friendship, and the generosity that they captured. While we don’t take issue with the religious significance, we don’t go out of our way to highlight it either. The most common prayer uttered at our event is at the end when we all say, “thank God there isn’t another course left.”
You don’t have to hold a seven course feast for 25 people to celebrate the gifts of the sea and you don’t have to cook elaborate meals to expand your culinary horizons, although I highly recommend it. Our feast forces us to purposefully grow our repertoire of dishes each year. It provides an outstanding venue for showcasing all that we have learned in the past year and it allows us to bond with our closest friends in a way that few people are able to bond. It creates a familiarity that I’ve never found in any other event and it brings together all the different circles of friends in my life in such a way that new friends quickly become old friends. It is a key part of our Christmas season and it is absolutely my favorite day of every year.
If you plan to hold a feast of your own, start simple and make sure that your head is in the right place. The number one factor that will ensure you have a good time is mentally shedding any pressure that you might put on yourself. We embrace failure and learn from it. Hopefully, all of your failures are minor and happen when you are testing dishes before the feast, but in the event that you burn one of your dishes into inedible charcoal, everyone will get a funny story for their trouble. Don’t beat yourself up about it and make some notes for next time. I highly recommend that everyone write all over their cookbooks. This will help you constantly improve your recipes and refine your cooking techniques.
Beyond preparing your attitude, the next critical aspect is preparing for your feast. Step one is to determine what you want to feed your guests. I like to choose all of the species first and then go find a dish that will highlight that animal. By choosing a fun mix of sea creatures from the beginning, you can ensure that your meal will have some variety and balance. Locking in the proteins from the beginning will motivate you to find some new and interesting dishes for each particular fish. I try to feed my guests at least one new type of fish or shellfish each year. I hope that everyone gets something they’ve never tried before. I also try to make sure that each one is substantially different from the others. Don’t serve tilapia and cod on the same night or salmon and arctic char. I usually try to do one white flaky fish, one steaky fish, one oily fish, a shrimp, a crab, a clam or mussel, and a squid or octopus. A word of caution here. Some items are seasonal. Make sure you can get them at feast time so you don’t have to make a last minute menu change.
Make sure to test all of your recipes a couple of times before showtime. It takes a great deal of pressure off of you so that you can have a good time. Of course, the side benefit of this is that you get to eat great seafood all year long as you work out these dishes. Make copious notes on the recipes and don’t be afraid to make them your own. It is OK to plagiarize a dish directly from the internet. The writers of your cookbook hope that you like them just how they are written, but it is also OK to substitute any ingredient you like. I recommend that you approach it scientifically and change just one or two variables at a time so that you can know the effect of the change that you made. The key is to write it down so you remember it next time. As you develop your skills and understanding of seafood, you can start to rip off your favorite restaurant dishes. All of this can be a progression that helps you grow into the seafood guru of your social circle.
Whether you are cooking a two course meal or a ten course meal, it is important to make sure the dishes have a flow that makes sense and that you vary the textures, flavors, and the weight of the dish. With seafood, a common mistake is to build a menu that is all meat. If you serve a fried fish, followed by a boiled shrimp, followed by a lobster tail, followed by a grilled fish, you will quickly notice that everyone feels really full and sluggish. It is hard to digest a 5lb meal of straight protein. Make sure you include some dishes supported with vegetables. You can include a curry to vary the textures. You can make one a pasta dish. There can be soups, sandwiches, or ceviches. Variety is key here. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit!
Portion size is really important. The first instinct is to make a dinner sized portion of each course, but that will make everyone walk away feeling overserved and regretful. The goal is to have everyone wanting one more bite of each course, but completely full at the end. Obviously, the number of courses has a huge bearing on portion size, but when in doubt, go smaller than you think and make a few spare servings just in case. There always seems to be one hero ready to clean up the leftovers at the end.
The final consideration should be timing. You want to schedule the meal so that the dishes come out in a reasonable flow. If something takes several hours, schedule it first so that it comes out just as your guests arrive. Many seafood dishes cook very quickly, so take a break between dishes so they don’t all come out at once. I like to shoot for one every half hour at the beginning and maybe stretch out to an hour between the last couple. Since some dishes may take longer than half an hour, you may have to start one before you serve another. A little forethought goes a long way in this case. If you’ve made these dishes before, you will have some good information to help you time them properly. Make sure not to double book your kitchen appliances. You probably have a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, and a barbecue grill. You can rotate through these to make sure that the one you need is available when you need it.
Once you have chosen your sea creatures, chosen your recipes, decided what order to serve them in, and tried them a time or two, you are ready to start dialing in the details. You need to be sure where you can get your proteins on feast day. In many cases, we pre-order our seafood to remove any doubt or worry that our proteins might not be available on feast day. You need to make sure that you have purchased all of your other ingredients. Get a correct headcount or a contingency plan for unexpected extra mouths. You need to decide what you are going to do ahead of time. My wife and I take this a bit to the extreme. A few days before the feast we plan out a schedule that details down to the minute when to begin a course, fire the grill, preheat the oven etc. We also make a comprehensive list of all Mise en place (fancy French term for having all your ingredients measured, cut, peeled, sliced, grated, etc. before you start cooking) so we know exactly what needs to be prepared before our guests arrive. Your friends may be really impressed with how fast you can chop bell peppers, but they came to spend time with you, not to get a lesson in chopping. The more you can do ahead of time, the more you can relax and enjoy the event. This applies to any size dinner party. I’ll even go so far as to pre-mix the ingredients that go together, pre-measure them, and lay them out in order on my counter. This frees you up to socialize, and it keeps you out of the weeds. If you are doubling or tripling a recipe, doing the math on the fly, especially after a few glasses of wine, is dangerous.
Of all the things that makes a feast outstanding, the one that I think contributes the most is the one that I can’t share with you. It is the satisfaction of creating such a fun and special event with a great partner. Cooking with my wife is without question my greatest joy in life. We work together so well in cooking as in life, but at the feast it is on display for all of our best friends. Cooking the feast and preparing for the feast and testing dishes is a huge part of the identity of my little family unit. The kids are involved and we talk about it all year long. It shows our children that we are loving and connected and generous. We test dishes, we give critiques and make adjustments, and everyone’s input is valued. We decide who is the better person to perform each task. I’m the better butcher. She is the better saucier. I couldn’t do this huge event without her and I wouldn’t want to. The relationship improves the event and the event improves the relationship. I cannot tell you how to accomplish that in your own home, however, it can be anything that you tackle as a team that you both enjoy. One way that you can maximize this at a feast meal is to plan ahead and talk it out before you start cooking. Knowing who is responsible for each part of the meal will help promote harmony throughout the event and will make it more likely to be pleasant and successful.
All in all, the biggest success you can have after a feast of your own is stepping back and looking into a room of your closest friends and family. Their laughter and enjoyment of an evening spent drinking wine and eating delicious food is what should make your heart smile. If you choose to do a feast, the preparation is extreme, but the payoff is as well. Make sure you take the time to enjoy a conversation and connection with your guests. Take some pictures, make some toasts, and don’t let the details bog down the overall happiness of an event like this.