A great part of the holidays is tradition. Everyone knows what to expect and in fact looks forward to the comfort and reassurance of the same faces and same dishes at the holiday table.
It seems a pity, though, we live in a seafood paradise but seldom include a morsel from the salty sea on our Thanksgiving tables.
I know some people might serve a turkey stuffing that includes oysters or crab, but that is second line, isn't it? Why not make the main event all about the bounty we harvest from our own salty waters?
It is a good idea to break holiday meals up into several courses. It lengthens the time you get to spend with friends and family and takes some of the hectic edge off the day.
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A special meal should start with something already on the table when your guests arrive. An empty table, even if attractively set, seems cold. A loaf of crusty French bread, a few tabs of butter and a small piece of cheese makes for a better beginning.
Once everyone has settled in, broken bread and enjoyed a glass of wine, a second course will stimulate everyone's appetite. It should be a small serving; you do not want it to detract from the main course, but it also will serve as a buffer, allowing more time to talk and everyone to get comfortable.
Consider a few fried oysters for each guest, served on a bed of mixed greens and with a garnish of spicy mayonnaise or hot sauce and a bright, yellow wedge of lemon.
The main course should be a hearty seafood stew. The mother recipe for this course is French bouillabaisse with lots of fennel, but you can also find good examples in reef pasta, Italian-American cioppino, Italian cacciucco, caldeirada from Portuagal or paila marina from Chile; they're all delicious.
Fresh local oysters (three per guest)
Panko bread crumbs
Fresh ground black pepper
1 pinch of salt or several shakes of Tony Chachere's seasoning
Heat oil in a large pot to 360 degrees. Make sure not to overfill the pot, no more than half full is best.
Season the dry tempura powder aggressively with the seasonings. Drain the oysters and toss in the tempura, shake off the excess and place on a large plate. Allow the oysters to become gummy, it will take 5-10 minutes or if you are in a rush spritz them with water. Toss the oysters in the Panko and fry a few at a time. This is critical: the oysters are perfect after 1 minute, yes they are a little raw in the center, but that makes them so juicy and delicious. The longer you cook them the tougher they become. Serve on a bed of mixed greens with a little Valentino hot sauce on the side and lemon
This stew should be all about the freshest seafood you can find. That being said it will be greatly enhanced if you can add some in-the-shell clams. Be sure to check the date on the clams and if they have been out of the water too long pass on them. You also can add crab meat to this stew, but it should be added just before serving.
2 whole cooked crabs, quartered
1-2 cups of fish pieces
1 tablespoon whole black pepper corns
1 rough chopped onion
1/2 cup rough chopped celery
A good seafood stock is fundamental to this recipe. A mix of seafood and vegetables (the exact composition is not critical), carefully seasoned and simmered for at least an hour is the first step. If you skimp on this part of the recipe your results will be less. Add all of the ingredients to a stock pot, top off with water and simmer for 1 hour. Allow to cool, strain and reserve the liquid.
1 pound large shrimp
1 pound lemon fish cut into bite size shapes
1 bunch clams, thoroughly rinsed
1 chopped onion
1/2 cup celery
1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper
4-6 toes chopped garlic
1/2 cup sliced smoked sausage
1 cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Olive oil as needed
Optional: chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped basil at the very end, dried oregano.
Sauté the sausage in a large pot until well browned, remove and set aside. Add the onions and sauté for 10 minutes; add the celery and bell peppers and sauté for 10 more minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more. Add the wine and reduce by one half, toss in the sausage, add the stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer at least 30 minutes, 1 hour is better. Make sure to taste and re-season as necessary. Add the fish 15 minutes before ready to serve. The shrimp can be added 5 minutes before serving or they can be seasoned and cooked in a very hot pan to add some color before adding to the stew. Drop in the whole clams and simmer until they open (just a few minutes). If a few fail to open toss them, they're not safe to eat. Serve with toasted garlic bread and a cold bottle of white Burgundy or a good white wine from Provence.
This seafood stew also goes very well with pasta, but it would be better to add tomato sauce to the stock if you take up that option and make it a bit thicker.
Tip: star anise is a seldom used spice that has the amazing quality of bringing together flavors. If you have a stock or sauce that is not just right add one star anise for about 10 minutes, then remove and discard.