The Feast of Seven Fishes, or the Festa dei Sette Pesci, is the traditional dinner that many southern Italian and Italian-American families will sit down to this Christmas Eve. (It is also one of the few appropriate times to pluralize fish as fishes.)
The significance of the number seven reels in many different theories: Some families say it’s for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, others say it’s for the seven hills of Rome, and still others say it represents the days of creation or stands as a reminder of the seven deadly sins. Other families’ traditions even allow for 10 or even 14 different aquatic dishes.
And just as the numeric explanations are allowed loose translations, so are the types of seafood served. The true meaning isn’t in the number or kind you choose, but with whom you decide to share your feast.
This Christmas Eve, Alex Guarnaschelli, chef of Butter in New York City and Food Network star, encourages you to serve the humble sardine atop lightly fried cauliflower, an ode to her mother’s Sicilian roots.
Fresh sardines – not the pungent, little canned guys – are delicious, inexpensive and sustainable, three wise choices for this holiday season.
Grilled Sardines with Cauliflower Fritters
sardines with cauliflower florets
For the cauliflower:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons canola oil, plus 1 quart for frying
Kosher salt to taste
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
18 ounces (1 1/2 bottles or 2 1/4 cups) pale lager beer
1 large head cauliflower, stem removed, cut into bite-size florets
1 tablespoon smoked hot paprika
For the sardines:
18 fresh sardines*, scaled, gutted, rinsed and patted dry
1/4 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons for dressing
1/2 to 1/4 small jalapeño, sliced into thin rings (about 15-20 rings total)
Preheat the grill.
Arrange the sardines in a single layer on a baking sheet and rub sparingly with 1 tablespoon olive oil (too much oil will cause them to flame on the grill) and season on both sides with salt. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 2 teaspoons canola oil, a generous pinch of salt, red pepper flakes and coriander. Stir to blend. Whisk in the beer. Set aside in a warm place. Like bread dough, it will puff up slightly.
Arrange the cauliflower pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet. Put the paprika into a small strainer and dust the cauliflower with an even layer of the paprika.
In a large, deep pot, heat the remaining 4 cups canola oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Monitor the temperature of the oil with a thermometer. Prepare a baking sheet or plate fitted with paper towels to drain the florets as they come out of the oil.
Stir the batter slightly. To test the consistency of the batter and the temperature of the oil, put a piece of cauliflower on a slotted spoon and submerge it in the batter. It should coat the piece lightly but completely. (If the batter is too thick, add a little water to thin it out. If the batter is too thin, sift and whisk in a little more flour.)
Dunk a cauliflower floret in the batter, shaking off the excess, and lower it into the oil. It should bubble slightly and the cauliflower should gradually rise to the top. Fry until light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, and transfer to the towel. If the batter doesn’t form a thin, crisp shell, don’t be afraid to drop it back in the oil and fry for an additional minute. After the test floret, fry the cauliflower in small batches; drain on paper towels. Season with salt while the cauliflower is still hot.
Place the sardines on the medium-hot grill until they start to lightly char, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a metal spatula to gently flip them over; grill the sardines on the other side for 1 to 2 minutes until cooked through. Check the interior of one to make sure it is cooked through without being dried out. Top with basil leaves.
Arrange the cauliflower pieces on a large serving platter, and top with the sardines.
In a small bowl, whisk the juice from 1 lemon with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and jalapeño slices. Drizzle over everything. Serve immediately.
*Note: If you can’t find fresh sardines, mackerel, trout or even bluefish can be used as a substitute.