When I was in high school in Brooklyn, I’d get invited to a friend’s house for the family’s annual Christmas Eve dinner, which was rooted in the Italian tradition of the feast of the seven fishes.
The hours-long meal was a seafood lover’s delight, with course after course of fish and shellfish, including what to me was most memorable – absolutely huge shrimp; bigger than an adult’s clenched fist – sliced lengthwise and stuffed with crabmeat and baked.
Though I’ve yet to get the gumption to try and do my own feast of the seven fishes at Christmas Eve at my house, I do dream. And, last year, I asked seven of Milwaukee’s best chefs to ante up a recipe that I could include on my menu, should I decide to take the plunge. Because the results were so mouth watering, I'm sharing them again this year.
Here’s what they served up ...
Mark Weber, Mason Street Grill
Washington State mussels with wine and herbs
"This is one of my absolute favorite dishes to serve and to eat," enthuses Weber. "The key ingredient that really makes this a special dish is the variety of Mussels we use. Long ago when wooden hulled ships were making their merchant trek from Europe to San Francisco and Seattle, mussels from the Mediterranean ocean that had been clinging to the hulls of trading vessels were dislodged into the pristine waters of our west coast and established themselves in the Toten inlet and the Puget Sound. The mussels flourished in these brackish waters and they established a sizable colony. A shellfish company discovered these mussels in the 1970s and began to develop methods for propagation. ‘Med’ mussels, as we call them, are much larger than black mussels from the east coast or Prince Edward Island and the meat is plumper and sweeter.
"They are not to be confused with New Zealand green-lipped mussels which also grow to a large size as the flavor is different. Mediterranean mussels also benefit from being rope grown up and away from the silt and sand from the ocean floor resulting in a super clean and tasty product. Med mussels are more expensive than east coast mussels but they are worth it!
"We like to use these mussels as weekly specials and often serve them with long pasta like spaghetti, linguine or bucatini. This recipe can be easily used as a sauce for pasta by simply adding the cooked pasta at the end and finishing it in the sauce."
- 1 pound West Coast mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
- 1 tablespoon chopped shallots and garlic
- 1 each bay leaf, a nice big one
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoon sweet butter, divided
- 2 ounces dry white wine
- 2 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley chives, basil)
- 4 ounces heavy cream
- Fresh ground pepper
Find a pot that will hold all of the mussels with room to spare and has a tight fitting lid. Put the olive oil and half of the butter in the pot and place it over low heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook over low heat for 5 minutes until very soft. A pinch of salt will help speed up the process.
Add the mussels and the bay leaf. Stir the mussels to coat them with the shallots and garlic. Season them with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to high. The mussels will start to open, keep stirring.
When about half of the mussels have opened, add the wine and put on the lid. Wait a minute or two until you can see steam escaping from under the lid. Open the lid and check the progress. When all of the mussels have opened, add the cream and the herbs. Remove the lid and simmer the mussels uncovered until tender. A few of the mussels will fall completely out of their shells while the batch is done.
Transfer the mussels to a serving bowl reserving the broth in the pot. Finish the broth by swirling in the remaining butter and adjust the seasoning. Pour the broth over the mussels. Enjoy!
Matt Kerley, The University Club
Smoked trout mousse
Growing up, my family always celebrated Christmas eve with a large supper mostly consisting of boiled shrimp, several spreadable cheeses, and seafood dips. We always had a smoked trout or salmon mousse that my father would make. Despite his best efforts, I feel as though the below recipe is tuned in and is worth serving to your best friends and family.
- ½ pound of smoked trout (skin removed)
- ½ cup of crème fraiche
- 1 tablespoon of fine cut parsley
- 1 tablespoon of fine cut tarragon
- 1 tablespoon of fine cut chive
- 1 large shallot, small diced
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 lemon zested
- fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Pull apart trout and place in a food processor. Pulse lightly, until trout is becoming pasty. Add in crème fraiche, shallot, salt and lemon zest. Puree until ingredients become slightly stiff. Fold in cut herbs, fresh cracked black pepper, and salt. The mousse is best served cold with toasted crackers, or a dense multigrain bread.
Dan Jacobs, Wolf Peach
Beet-cured sturgeon with pickled chili vinaigrette, lotus root chips, cilantro
"I paired this with Lagunitas IPA. It really just made sense. I've always wanted to beet cure something and this was my opportunity," says Jacobs.
For the sturgeon
- 1-1.2-kilo side of salmon, scaled and filleted, with skin on
- 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 4 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons vodka
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 300 grams raw beetroot, peeled and grate
- 1 bunch of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Place the sturgeon fillet on a board, skin-side up. Roughly grind 1 tablespoon each of the coriander and fennel seeds with all the peppercorns in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar; you want the spices to have some texture. Combine with the salt, sugar, vodka, lemon zest and beetroot, and then add the cilantro. Spread the mixture over the salmon and press down. Wrap the clingfilm around and over the top of the fillet. Place another baking tray on top and weigh it down with weights, jars or tins. Leave in the fridge for 48 hours.
Unwrap the fish and scrape off the marinade with your fingers. Rinse the fish under cold running water to get rid of the salt and grains, and then pat it dry with kitchen paper. Slice paper thin.
- 4 tablespoons minced pickled bird’s beak chilies sliced thin (you can find these at an Asian grocery)
- 1 shallot minced
- ½ clove garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 lime juiced
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup canola oil
Mix all ingredients together.
Lotus Root Chips
- 1 lotus root
Slice lotus root thin and run under cold water for 20-30 minutes to remove starch. Fry in peanut oil 300 degrees until brown and crispy. Salt immediately.
To plate: Slice the sturgeon thin and lay 3-4 slices on plate per person. Spoon a generous tablespoon of the vinaigrette on top of the fish. Garnish with a couple lotus root chips and cilantro leaves.
Zach Espinosa, Harbor House
"I chose this dish because of its versatility," says Espinosa. "I think it highlights the best notes of oysters. The salty brine and bacon combine with the richness of butter and their own creaminess. The bread holds it all together so the flavors can meld. I challenge anyone who doesn’t like oysters to turn their nose at this dish.
- 12 cups baguette cut into ½-inch cubes
- 40 medium oysters shucked
- 6 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch strips
- 3 ounces unsalted butter
- 1 cup oyster liquor
- 3 cups shallot, sliced thin
- 2½ cups celery, sliced thin
- 1 cup chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon Tabasco
- 1/3 cup sweet Marsala
- 1/3 cup chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon celery salt
- Salt and pepper to taste
Place cubed bread and dry out in a 200-degree oven, about 10 minutes. Bread should be dry, but still white. Set aside and let cool.
In a sauté pan cook bacon to render fat. Add butter and melt. Add shallots and celery and cook until soft. Add Marsala and reduce by half. Add chicken stock, oyster liquor, Tabasco, thyme, parsley, nutmeg and celery salt. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes or until thick and paste-like. Transfer to a large bowl and add oysters and dried bread. Mix until evenly incorporated and let stand for 10 minutes.
Grease two 2½ hotel pans and divide stuffing evenly between the two pans. Bake at 400 degrees until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Justin Carlisle, Ardent
Chili Dungeness crab (adapted from fatty crab)
- 2 tablespoons Sriracha
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 8 ounce minced shallot
- 1 ounce minced garlic
- 2 ounce charred scallion
- 1 tablespoons ground fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 2 steamed, cleaned and separated Dungeness crab
- 12 cilantro leaves
- 12 lemon balm leaves
- 12 Thai basil leaves
- 12 mint leaves
- 1 loaf of Wonder Bread
In a large bowl whisk sriracha, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, ketchup and sesame oil. Place shallots, ginger, garlic, charred scallion, salt in food processor. Pulse until mixture becomes a paste.
In a large sauce pan on medium heat sweat the shallot mixture until translucent then add the chili mixture and simmer until it thickens. 30 minutes or so. Place in a container and reserve.
In a large wok or sauté pan on high heat. when the wok or pan begins to smoke place the crabs in first and let start to caramelize then add chili mixture and toss crabs until coated with chili mixture.
Place crabs in bowl and garnish with herb leaves and serve with a side of Wonder Bread.
Jarvis Williams, Carnevor
"The idea came from when I worked at Ristorante Bartolotta years ago," recalls Williams. "Juan (Urbieta) ran this as a special one day and I remember the flavors playing so well together, without being too strong on a particular seafood. It's always been one of my favorites because of the simplicity of products that make such complimenting flavors. Seasonal scallops, domestic shrimp, good broth, etc. Can't go wrong with that."
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1/4 ounce chopped oregano
- 2 ounces calamari rings
- 4 pieces shrimp, deveined, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 garlic clove, sliced thinly
- 2 ounces bay scallops
- 1 ounce pickled sweet peppers, de seeded and sliced thin
- 7 ounces Arborio rice (par-cooked, per instructions on box)
- 1 ounce arugula
Have vegetable broth simmering in separate sauce pan, keeping nearby to ladle into risotto. In a separate sauce pan, add the pre-cooked risotto, sliced garlic and three ounces vegetable broth. Bring Arborio rice to a simmer and continue to stir with wooden spoon to avoid sticking to the bottom and sides of the pan. Once the Arborio rice is 2/3 absorbed of the vegetable broth, continue adding vegetable broth to the rice until it’s al dente (firm to the tooth). During the final minutes of cooking, add shrimp and scallops and cook until shrimp turns firm, approximately 1-2 minutes. Once shrimp is firm and pink in color add calamari, chopped oregano and pickled sweet peppers. Finish with extra virgin olive oil, arugula and salt to taste.
Justin Johnson, Harvest Market (Watertown)
Steamed little neck clams and mussels with roasted fennel, yellow coconut curry broth
"I first started playing with this dish when we began conceptualizing our program at Harvest," says Johnson. "A local reporter came out to do a story and I was preparing this. She assumed I was just playing around with mussels and clams for my own amusement saying, 'You don't actually serve this dish in the hospital, do you?' to which I responded, 'Not now. But we will.' That was a year and a half ago. And now, this dish is on our inpatient menu and gets ordered often."
Mussels and Clams
- 2 pounds live little neck clams (scrubbed of sand and grit)
- 2 pounds live mussels (de-bearded; pulling the tuft of hair – or "beard" – sticking out of the straight side of the mussel shell)
Yellow Coconut Curry Broth
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ¼ red onion (small diced)
- 2 yellow heirloom tomatoes (small diced)
- 2 purple pinot noir peppers (small diced) (can substitute red or yellow bell pepper)
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 cups pure coconut water
- 2 tablespoons sweet yellow curry powder
Heat butter in a large flat sauce pot. Once melted, add onions, peppers, tomatoes and capers. Saute until translucent. Add clams and mussels and saute. They will begin to open slightly. Add fish sauce, followed by seafood stock and coconut water. Then sprinkle in curry powder. Cover and simmer for about 3 minutes until clam and mussel shells completely open.
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 fennel bulb (sliced into ⅛-inch slices)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss fennel in oil and salt. Spread evenly on a cookie sheet. Place in the oven for 11 to 12 minutes or until the fennel is lightly browned and begins to curl at the ends and slightly crisp up. Remove and set aside.
- 3 sprigs of mint (rough chopped)
To plate: Sprinkle with mint and serve in a large bowl or crock.
And a bonus eighth fish...
Justin Aprahamian, Sanford
Grilled Rushing Waters trout with Armenian green bean and tomato stew
"This is inspired by a traditional Armenian stew type dish of green beans and tomatoes," says Aprahamian. "I love the combination with the grilled trout. The Rushing Waters trout is a great product and trout is by no means far-fetched for Armenian cooking so it works on a few levels. This isn't necessarily a 'traditional' holiday dish, but I find a great sense of comfort and joy in it
- 3 whole Rushing Waters Trout, scaled, filet, and pin bones removed
- 12-ounce onion diced small
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to grill trout
- ½ teaspoon ground fennel
- 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
- ¾ cup white wine
- 1 pound tomatoes diced medium (or a 28-ounce can of good quality tomatoes, drained and diced)
- About 12 ounces green beans blanched until just tender. Shock in ice water and cut on a bias into half-inch pieces.
Sweat onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent and tender, but not caramelized – approximately 3-5 minutes. Add garlic, fennel and tarragon and cook until fragrant – about two minutes more. Add white wine and reduce by about 2/3. Add tomato and bring up gently. Cook 3-5 minutes to incorporate and season with salt and pepper to taste. If making ahead, chill and keep separate from green beans.
To serve, gently warm tomato mixture and add green beans and a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and warm through. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
While the green beans are warming, Cook the trout on a very hot chargrill. We like to cook the trout most of the way on the skin side to crisp it up and just finish it on the meat side. Season the trout to taste with salt and ground black pepper. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the skin of the trout, this will add some flavor and help prevent the skin from sticking to the grill. Grill about two minutes on the skin side – a little more or less depending on the heat of the grill – and turn fish over. The meat side will cook very quickly, less than a minute.
Remove from grill and serve over green bean and tomato stew. Very good accompaniments for this would be some roasted fingerling potatoes and a fresh sorrel salad.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.