A Modern Feast of the Fishes

By Janet Kalandranis of Food Beautiful

It’s part tradition, part modern feast and a whole lot of seafood deliciousness. On Monday, November 7th, the Culinary Guild of New England hosted its very first Feast of the Seven Fishes at Hotel Commonwealth. With special guest and cooking demonstrations by Jeremy Sewall of Island Creek Oyster Bar (ICOB) the night was filled with more than just yummy eats.

Jeremy Sewall gives a chef demo of searing scallops.

I think many people forget that seafood is a great (and acceptable!) option for a holiday feast. Lucky for us New Englanders, our location provides fresh fish all year round. But what is this Feast of the Seven Fishes you ask? Well that’s just the mystery – this Italian American tradition celebrated on Christmas Eve features a multitude of fishes with no rules or guidelines. It seems every family and every region has their own specialties, their own dishes, and their own fishes. And why the number Seven? No one really knows – maybe the Seven Sacraments for the Catholic Church or the Seven Virtues or maybe that’s the number of fish one household could handle! Whatever you choose, the goal is always the same – to have a fish feast that can become a tradition.

Our first Feast of the Seven Fishes did not disappoint. In an amazing space in the Hotel Commonwealth (right above ICOB – one of the best seafood restaurants in the city if you ask me!), greeted with local wine from Lower Falls Wine Company how could the night not get off to a great start! With a glass of sparkling white – think delicate, Prosecco-like bubbles – I perused what was offered for some of our first bites of the night.

Fish One: Island Creek Oysters with lemon and mignonette

If you’ve never had an Island Creek oyster, you’ve never had an oyster. Okay, maybe I’m biased since I live down the street from the Island Creek Oyster Farm, but I do believe them to be some of the tastiest oysters I’ve ever had. Full of texture and flavor, these oysters simply stand on their own and can be the star. And for a little entertainment all of the oysters were shucked right in front of us as you waited with plate in hand to receive this yummy first course.

Fish Two: House Smoked Salmon, Trout & Sturgeon

I find something extremely refreshing about an appetizer of raw fish. It’s light on the palette and if fresh and served correctly is the perfect start to a seafood-filled night. Of course our friends at ICOB didn’t disappoint. And since the tray of perfect and pretty fishes was gone in no time I think this was a hit.

Fish Three: Jonah Crab Beignets with smoked paprika aioli

This dish was the start of tradition meets modern as these crab beignets use a familiar fish in a very new and tasty way. Not heavy but delightfully light, I’m now in love with crab beignets. Don’t you think everything should be made into a beignet – okay maybe not everything, but most things.

Fish Four: Roasted Sugar Pumpkin & Shrimp Bisque

Soup in a shot glass??? Yes please! I’m not a huge fan of bisques. I tend to find them heavy and missing the flavor mark. However ICOB has made me a bisque believer. And when you put anything in a shot glass I’m pretty much in love. Want to know the secret to why this bisque is so delicious…fresh seafood stock. A must-have in Chef Sewall’s mind – and now in mine too.

Fish Five: Tuna Crudo with olive & basil relish

I’m Greek and I don’t eat olives. Except when they are prepared as a lovely and delectable relish to accompany tuna crudo. Fresh, simple and perfect party food for a night of seven fishes. I love how the tuna was the star and the relish simply enhanced every tuna flavor you tasted. Sometimes simple is best.

Fish Six: Maine Lobster Stew with fall vegetables & sherry cream

And now for the main feature of the night. Once everyone was content with nibbles and drinks it was time to learn a little more about cooking fish from Chef Sewall. His entertaining and calm personality made it seem as though anyone can pull off a Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Chef started with a lobster stew that screamed with the flavors of fall. Using his go-to, homemade fish stock (from ground up shrimp shells – seriously it was heaven) and adding whatever root vegetables he had on hand he created the base for some fresh Maine lobster. I love the way this dish resonated holidays and home. I’m also pretty sure I could have eaten an entire pot of Chef Sewall’s lobster stew.

Fish Seven: Seared Scallops with citrus & chive risotto

To end the night Chef Sewall talked a lot about fish in general – a topic I could discuss for hours on end. Mentioning the recent topic of mislabeled fish, Sewall gave some helpful tips to being a savvy fish shopper.

    • If it smells like fish, don’t buy it
    • Buy from a reputable fish retailer
    • Ask lots of questions
    • If it seems like you are a getting a steal on an expensive fish – be weary

While he was chatting away, Chef Sewall effortlessly created the last dish of the night. Perfectly sautéed scallops in an easy risotto. The comforting risotto was nicely offset by the fresh scallops and the addition of citrus – something I wouldn’t have thought to add. I like to think of this dish as tradition with a twist. All accessible and everyday ingredients but rearranged to become the start of a new tradition.

Feast of the Seven Fishes with Jeremy Sewall

Interview and article by CGNE member Maggie Brooks
As the owner of Coolidge Corner restaurant, LiNEaGe, as well as the executive chef for Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, Chef Jeremy Sewall knows a little something about seafood. For CGNE’s Feast of the Seven Fishes, he’s taking a traditional Italian Christmas Eve celebration and bringing it to New England. I sat down with Jeremy to talk about how he prepares for such an iconic celebration and cooking for a group passionate foodies.

How did you learn about CGNE?

The restaurant’s PR company reached out to me about [CGNE] and I’m looking forward to getting involved. I think it’s a great organization.

Are you preparing for this event differently than you would be for an event of non-food experts?

Not that differently. It’s really fun to be able to get in front a group that’s so passionate about food. I have more freedom to show recipes that are a little more exciting.

You wrote the menu for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Were you familiar with the feast? How did you approach something so traditional to make it more modern?

It wasn’t something I grew up with so I had to do some research. I spent some time reading recipes to familiarize myself with the meal and where we could take it. The key to the tradition is how regional the food is, so it’s using a modern American flair while staying to true to local food and what the meal is about.

What kind of dishes can we look forward to?

Definitely some oysters. We’re having a raw bar, plus serving fresh ceviche. We’re giving a nod to the traditional with a lobster casserole. Basically it’ll be local fish and seafood prepared our way.

You’re also doing a presentation. Is it intimidating to cook in front of food industry folks?

Not at all. It makes it more fun for me to cook for people who love food.

What are some of the most common seafood handling mistakes that you’ve come across?

Probably not storing seafood correctly. Like covering shellfish. Those guys are alive so covering them just kills them. Also buying quality. Don’t go looking for a bargain when buying seafood or meat.

What are your favorite holiday seafood dishes?

I’m from southern Maine and my family have been lobstermen for years, so lobsters are always a huge part of our holiday. I still get all my lobster from my brother. Littlenecks are a must for me. My father-in-law is a scallop fanatic so we have to have those too.

Are there any holiday menu specials we should be looking forward to at your restaurants?

Eastern Standard does an amazing prix fixe menu. We’ve worked for several years to make this good. It’s all of our classics plus a roasted turkey entrée. LiNEaGe is closed for Thanksgiving, but we do have a meal-to-go option that’ll be really great.

The Guild is partnered with Future Chefs, a program is dedicated to giving opportunities to aspiring young chefs.  Any words of wisdom?

Wow, lots. Stick with it. This is challenging, demanding, and at times, frustrating business to be in. Having pride and humility in your work will take you far. It’s a craft to be constantly worked at your entire career, you’re never too good to [keep] learning.

On November 7th from 6:30 – 9:30 PM, CGNE is teaming up with Island Creek Oyster Bar and Hotel Commonwealth for a Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian holiday. Island Creek Oyster Bar will give their take on the Italian feast with a tidal wave of seafood. Come taste an array of seafood dishes, enjoy delicious wine pairings from Lower Falls Wine Company, try your hand at shucking oysters, and meet Chef Jeremy Sewall in person as he demonstrates lobster stew and seared scallop recipes. Cost for the evening is $55 for members and $70 for non-members and tastings of all dishes, wine, and hors d’oeuvres are included. Click here to register!