A New Feast of Fishes—With an East End Twist

A new feast of fishes on display at Southold Fish Market • Photo by Yvonne Albinowski

For Tom Junod, a writer who spends the holidays with his family on Shelter Island, the creation of a Christmas Eve Feast of Fishes tradition is an evolving practice that inches closer to perfection every year. 

For years he started the feast with fried smelts, and then local winter delicacies like clams and eels, but didn’t feel compelled to adhere to Italian traditions of branzino and bacalao. “We’d have four or five fishes, and call it a night.” 

Over time, baked clams, fried eel and even the smelts fell off the list, but one dish stuck like tinsel on a Christmas sweater: a Vietnamese-style squid, which Junod describes as squid stir-fried with garlic, black pepper and Vietnamese fish sauce. “It’s not exactly traditional fare, but it beats the smelts, it beats even the baked clams, so Vietnamese Calamari, dotted with cilantro green as holly, has come to mean Christmas on Shelter Island for me.”

Writer Charity Robey prepares her own feast of fishes in her Shelter Island kitchen. • Photo by Lindsay Morris

When Charlie Manwaring used to race around the house with the other kids on Christmas Eve, his grandmother kept the youngsters busy and well-fueled while she prepared a traditional Feast of Fishes. “My babchie fried a plate of eels. That was the snack for all the kids,” he said. Now that he runs Southold Fish Market, he has his choice. Scallops, cod, monkfish, black back flounder and blackfish on Christmas Eve are part of his family tradition as well as a mainstay of his holiday business.  

For the holiday, the market stocks plenty of fresh local squid cleaned and ready to zip into a thick red sauce and served over black squid ink pasta or stuffed and braised in red wine.  He has pounds of bacalao (preserved salted cod) for the hardcore Feast of Fishes traditionalists. But he has seen a shift in the typical menu for the Feast. “Years ago, it was huge,” he said, “Now, the younger generation is not following the older. The younger generation doesn’t want the head of the fish (for making stews and chowders) they want the fillets. They want octopus, which comes from Spain.”

Chef Will Horowitz takes a long view of the Feast of Fishes, especially the question of which fish are served. “Southern Italian families based the feast on Italian ingredients, like branzino. Most of the cod people are from here.  At Anker we did it with all the local stuff; halibut, cod, flounder. And the star of the show is blackfish.”

The East End’s wintry waters are teeming with fish fit for a feast. • Photo by Lindsay Morris

For thirteen years, Noah’s in Greenport has served an innovative, fish-centric menu and owner Noah Schwartz said he’s seen tastes broaden. “People will eat new kinds of fish in a place that is known for creativity and resourcefulness. I’ve seen that change over time.   We have that kind of clientele who are a little adventurous. We’ve become known as a diverse seafood restaurant. Not just bass and flounder.”

Schwartz especially looks forward to the winter blackfish season. Blackfish, also known as tautog, is probably the finest local finfish, one that summer visitors seldom even see. “It’s a relatively mild, flaky white fish but it has a certain fat content that makes it easy to cook without overcooking,” he said. “I don’t put it on the menu but I have it as a special as often as I can.” 

One of Schwartz’s favorite ways to prepare it is blackened. Cooked in a hot, heavy cast iron skillet, he rubs fillets with chili powder, cayenne, paprika, dried onion, garlic and oregano and gives the spice mix a hard sear. “The spices char a little bit. You get an intense flavor that permeates through the fish. I sear it hard on one side and flip it on the other side to finish in the oven. I usually serve it with a squash puree or something slightly sweet.”

The feast is served. • Photo by Lindsay Morris

Chef Jack Clark of Daphne’s in Westhampton is partial to the local sea scallops, which he sculpts into an elegant dish that would stand out at any holiday gathering. For a ‘Friendsgiving’ celebration he conceived a Scallop Crudo with Oze no Yukidoke Rose Sake Vinaigrette, Kaluga Hybrid Caviar, Nori, and Bulls Blood Microgreens.

Last Christmas, Junod finally achieved the goal of seven Christmas Eve fishes: oysters on the half shell, smoked bluefish dip, the afore-mentioned stir-fried squid, scungilli salad with lemon and parsley, shrimp in a Sichuan-flavored hot sauce, scallops with preserved lemon and pepperoncini, and a pork roast rubbed down with anchovy paste. “I got to seven by stealth,” he said. “The answer all along was anchovies, which you can sneak into anything. And you know what? I had good luck.” Junod said that his triumphant seven-fish dinner brought with it a positive life changing revelation which he writes about in a forthcoming book—a Christmas Eve miracle wrought by the power of seafood.