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Feast of the "7-10+" Fishes
Or, how I celebrated Thanksgiving
I have written about my boredom with turkey at Thanksgiving. It has nothing to do with the bird itself, which — although it takes care to cook well — makes a fine and obviously quite large roast. It’s just that, starting in 1980, every editor I ever had came to me around November 1 and said “So, what are we doing for the turkey story?” or some variation. (It was even worse when the question was, “What are we doing for the turkey cover story?”)
So my schoolboy nature set off, long ago, to do contrary Thanksgivings, those that featured crown roasts of pork, or curried turkey breasts, or seitan loaves, or giant rib roast, or whole salmons, or lobsters, or whatever. I’ve learned a lot from all of that. (Note that I’m not especially a pioneer among food writers in this. Calvin Trillin wrote hilariously for years about making spaghetti carbonara the national Thanksgiving dish.)
This year, finding ourselves headed to the Cape – me, Kathleen, Hannah (Kathleen’s adult daughter, a pescatarian), and Bina (a close friend, who has a dairy allergy) – I decided to be innovative in two ways. One was accidental, but I actually believe it’s the more important one.
The intentional innovation was The Thanksgiving Feast of Seven (in this case eleven) Fishes, an occasion usually reserved for Christmas Eve and celebrated by (for the most part) Roman Catholics, but one I’ve always enjoyed attending and have long wanted to mimic. You can count any fish you like, including the anchovies in your salad dressing, but we had no trouble surpassing the seven. The meal went something like this:
My friend Tony Pasquale had given me some salmon he’d hot-smoked, and I mashed that with cream cheese and sour cream for a spread; that was our only dairy. He also donated some rendered duck fat, which I promptly cooked with chicken livers and onions (both from Glynwood) for chopped liver; that made my grandmother smile down from heaven. We had it with Melba toasts made from my bread. Kat improvised an amazing cashew cream with cilantro and baby garlic from a farm down the road. I brought a piece of Gruyere from Murray’s in Grand Central. (You do not try to buy good cheese in Truro.)
We put that stuff out around two, and stood around drinking Prosecco (or something; I’m not going to embarrass us by naming the wines we poured down our gullets). Meanwhile, Hannah took pix and set up plates while Bina and Kat opened oysters — procured from Alex at Wellfleet Shellfish — which, needless to say, we ate as fast as they opened, probably two dozen or perhaps three in total. We graced some with lemon and others ate as they came; I do not believe in “mignonette” or “lightly baked” or any other bastardization. Oysters, like good strawberries, are best in their natural form.
By now it was maybe 3:30. There were supposed to be a couple more light courses before we really sat down, but I screwed up the order and started putting the finishing touches on what was probably the most complex dish (certainly the longest in the making), a broth I’d put together over a couple of days with the shells and trimmings of sea clams, lobster, and whelk (from Alex) and tilefish and squid (from Tony). On the Outer Cape, a lot of squid is caught off the Provincetown pier, and is beautiful.
I spent much of time hovering over that broth, trying to get the flavor right with various spices and aromatics (I could never write this recipe), and then finished it with minced whelk, sliced squid, chopped sea clams, and some scraps of tilefish, celery, and potatoes. Oh, and garnished with a little baby carrot in each bowl, and some parsley, both from this local farm that appears to have name. It was intense, and delicious. I kept the portions quite small, because there was more to come.
We spent a little time cleaning and building up the fire. Kat made a salad of winter greens, some from Glynwood and some from Truro, and I made what has become my standard anchovy/olive oil/sherry/garlic vinaigrette. Refreshing. This was quickly followed by thinly sliced raw Chatham scallops (thank you again, Alex), with pomegranate juice (from a Pom bottle) that I reduced to a syrup. Perhaps not genius, but with a bit of salt quite perfect.
It became dark outside. I broiled some especially meaty and good sardines (admittedly from Portugal, but that happens) – it took longer to gut them than it did to cook them, but this was all pretty easy – and served them with a dressing of “killed” shallots with a lot of parsley and sherry vinegar. Those were devoured. We were still hungry.
Cleaning. Building fire. Opening wine. It was probably 5:30 when I mashed, with olive oil and a little saffron, the beautiful Koginut squash we’d brought from home. I kept that warm and then sauteed a bit of lobster and tilefish, also in oil, to put on top. I love putting crisp sauteed things, especially seafood, on top of mushy creamy mash.
Much of this was improvised and inspired by what became available in the preceding 24 hours. But the final (savory) dish was predetermined by a variety of factors – personal tradition, the certainty of the ingredients, the fact that everyone loves — yes, pasta with little clams. The clams were from five miles away, the garlic and parsley were from one mile away, the pasta was from Italy, and the oil was from Stop & Shop. Terrific.
I counted eleven fish. As we settled in to watch an incredibly stupid romcom in hopes of it being otherwise, Bina presented a beautiful and delicious olive oil cake with pistachio and almond flours, seasoned with cardamom (which, sadly, none of us seems to have shot).
The lessons: It’s fun to do almost all-fish meals, and make a point of it. Vegetables are wonderful. Being a rebel against the turkey tradition is a good time.
But the revelation is that, at home – unlike in restaurants – it’s actually fun to do what amounts to a series of small courses over a long period of time. At no point was clean-up onerous. At no point was the table so filled with food that it was embarrassing. And at no point did I feel like I ate a week’s worth of food in forty-five minutes. I don’t know that I’ll do the six-hour ten course home-cooked meal all the time, but I’ll do it again. Maybe at another of the holidays I not-so-secretly dread, the one coming up.