Living in a small space, after time, becomes as easy as any habit; even with two-and-a-half people and another on the way, it’s not too big of a deal. You get used to traffic patterns and flying elbows and running feet and picking up pajamas; if six astronauts can live in a space station for six months, we can manage our space for a good deal longer. At least we can go for walks without bringing an oxygen tank.
But what to do when you want to invite the cosmonauts over for some blini and vodka? Having other people in your space–people who are used to living alone, or living in houses, for heaven’s sake–can stretch the limits of any small apartment. And when it comes to cooking the roast beast, fuggeddaboudit–a 42-square-foot kitchen quickly shrinks to the size of a (smaller) tent when you’re dealing with multiple courses. So even though I had my trepidations about hosting Christmas Eve dinner, I also knew several things: 1) I didn’t want to haul a toddler out on Christmas Eve; 2) I didn’t want to haul my pregnant tucchus out, either; and 3) I definitely didn’t want to deal with hailing a cab. So a month or so ago, I invited four friends over for a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes, Rocket-style.
In years past, we’ve celebrated Christmas Eve with a rollicking seven-fish bacchanal at my mother-in-law’s beautiful Dupont Circle apartment. They set the table a day early, but one look at our breakfast-nook-sized table (the one I found down the street, missing a leg) and I knew that wasn’t a possibility. I did want to make a festive table, though, so I went to Crate and Barrel and bought some red foil chargers, which were surprisingly cheap at $3.95 each! Throw in a white tablecloth and these holiday stripey napkins and Christmas crackers for all, and presto: instant holiday festivity. (Pardon the blur: we’re still getting used to our fancy new camera.)
Looking at that picture, I’m suddenly a bit grateful that Barbara, one of our invitees, spent Christmas back East.
On to the food: generally speaking, the seven fishes are served over several courses, starting with some bouquerones and shrimp appetizers, maybe, followed up by baccala, a seafood risotto, and a main fish dish. No way was this Rocket going to be messing with courses in our kitchen. So what better than soup? Pitch it all in the pot and let ‘er go. Even better, it’s Dungeness crab season, and what better than cioppino for a San Francisco feast of seven fishes? The day before, I headed to Whole Foods and picked up mussels, halibut, sea bass, bay scallops, crab, and squid; we already had shrimp in our freezer. After researching a dozen or so recipes for cioppino, I knew two things: 1) the only requirements are a tomato base and crab; and 2) Giada de Laurentiis’ recipe is totally posing because it has no crab in it.
The most important thing about cioppino is the timing of the fish. Unlike beef or pork, which loves a nice long braise, fish overcooks right quick and turns into a rubbery and/or chalky mess. The only exception is squid, which either wants a long, low braise–40 minutes or so–or a short, extremely hot cooking time, as with fried calamari. After that, it’s all gravy di mare.
I started the base around 2 PM–a 28-oz can of tomatoes, sauteed onions, fennel and garlic, white wine, fish stock, two parmesan rinds, oregano, basil, and red pepper flakes–and let it simmer until 5:30. At that point, our guests had been there for 15 minutes, antipasti in tow, and we were all enjoying the fruits of Dave and Jen’s trip to Lucca: mortadella, prosciutto, coppa, salami, stuffed cherry peppers, olives, artichokes, yum, yum, yum, etc., etc. (Important key to entertaining in a small place: get a friend to do the antipasti plate.) Into the pot went the squid and the liquid from steaming the mussels, and–
(Just a note here. I’m still irritated with the fish guy from Whole Foods. I asked for “half a dozen or so” of mussels, knowing, of course, that every fish guy worth his brine chucks in a few extra in case some of the shellfish are bad. I got exactly six. Which is to say, after checking them (one cracked, one open and not closing) and steaming them (one doesn’t open) we have exactly THREE mussels for the stew. WTF, I say!)
–another 40 minutes pass of gentle simmering of the squid. Meanwhile, my thousandth attempt at my mom’s bread is in the oven, baking away; a simple red sauce is simmering on the back burner next to boiling water for gnocchi, as we have a vegetarian guest in the house. (My favorite red sauce, from Marcela Hazan’s classic cookbook: one 28-oz can of whole tomatoes, pureed; one peeled onion, halved; a half a stick of butter; a 1/2 tsp of salt, and 1/4 tsp sugar. Simmer for 45 minutes. Easy-cheesy, and best sauce to go on gnocchi, ever.)
The apartment smells awfully delicious.
Around 6:15, in go the white fish; fifteen minutes later, the shrimp, crab and scallops. We’re pushing aside the coffee table in the living room, lifting the leaves on the table, setting out the Christmas crackers. Five minutes before serving, in go the mussels to warm them through, and presto: cioppino a la Rocket.
Into the bowls go the soup and the gnocchi; serve up my nearly-successful Mom’s Bread (now nicknamed “That Bread Made With a Pound of Yeast” by our friend Scott); happy yummy sounds ensue. Of course, no room for bread at the table, so we kept it and the wine on a small three-legged round table I bought a century ago at Walgreen’s. One of the best purchases I ever made: the legs come off and it stores flat, and we bring it out of the closet every six months or so when we need a few square feet of table room. I can’t find anything like it online or I’d share a link.
All in all, the guests were happy with the meal, and I was happy that we had only three pots and five bowls to clean. (Considerably more wine and cocktail glasses, of course.) Fantasy Fudge was our only dessert, which was just enough sweetness to round out a lovely meal.
Best of all, I was settled down for a long winter’s nap by 10:30 PM, with a clean apartment, sleeping baby, and gently tipsy husband. Merry Christmas to us.