There are all sorts of tasty treats to be had over the holidays.
For diners, most of the options appear to center on New Year’s Eve dinners. There are early seatings, late seatings, dinners with wine pairings, events with Champagne toasts, lobster dinners, Spanish Tapas dinners — you name it.
Let me explain, starting with the fish and its role in a Christmas Eve fete at Lidia’s.
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The seven fishes relates to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve dinner they’ve been doing at Lidia’s for nearly 17 or 18 years. The event has sold out this year.
I recently sat down with Lidia’s chef de cuisine, Cody Hogan, to talk about the feast.
“The dinner is based on a meal that’s an Italian tradition, a Christmas Eve meal featuring seven different types of seafood,” Hogan said.
Although the tradition is Italian, the name is Italian-American. It got my attention, and when I read the menu, it got my mouth watering.
Starting with calamari, octopus, mussels and baccala before moving into seafood risotto, monkfish and seared tuna, this is a seafood lover’s dream. Yes, seven types of seafood served in three courses.
The dessert course makes the dinner a four-course affair, but they spared diners the seafood for dessert.
“The main challenge is serving a four-course meal on Christmas Eve for a hundred folks after dishing out hundreds of meals every day for the previous six weeks,” Hogan said. “As for the course I’m eager to have people try, it has to be the octopus. We get the best octopus in the world from off the coast of Spain. It’s so tender and flavorful, I think people will be surprised and will love it.”
The octopus will be served in a potato salad (one of my favorite items on Lidia’s entire menu). Personally, I’m looking forward to the seafood risotto, which will be loaded up with Littleneck clams, shrimp and scallops. The spaghetti with lobster fra diavolo can’t be bad either.
I’m definitely down for The Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
From seven fishes, I now turn to seven vermouths. That’s what Affäre restaurant is offering this holiday season.
I readily admit I have an almost nonexistent knowledge of vermouth. I thought cocktails were the only place you found vermouth, mainly in martinis and Manhattans. Since I’m not a cocktail drinker, vermouth never entered into the picture for me. What’s more, I always envisioned vermouth as bitter and one-dimensional.
Consider me corrected and enlightened thanks to a tasting of Affäre’s selection of seven hand-crafted vermouths led by sommelier Mark Baltzell and bar manager Chelsea Almeida.
Affäre features four Italian vermouths, two from Spain, and one from Oregon, which was my favorite of the bunch.
I asked Baltzell and Almeida to give me a stylistic sense of vermouth, which is a fortified wine aromatized with roots and flowers.
“Spanish vermouth has a tendency to be spicier and warmer with more nutmeg and clove flavors and aromas,” Almeida said. “The Italian versions run more to the bitter/medicinal side of flavors and aromas.”
Vermouth is still very much used in the creation of cocktails well beyond martinis and Manhattans. But, I found several that were terrific on their own, either as an aperitif, digestive, or in the case of the Controtto Rosso, an absolutely perfect match with Affäre’s version of a Sacher Torte.
In general, I’d have to say I liked the Italian vermouths more than the Spanish, which, to my palate, were oakier, hotter and more alcoholic. The Contratta Bianco and Rosso from Italy were two of my favorites. The Rosso was herbaceous and spicy while the Bianco was creamier and fruitier with notably less spice.
“I’d pair the Bianco with foie gras,” Baltzell said. “It’s a nice change of pace from the traditional Sauternes.”
While, in general, I enjoyed the more traditional Old World vermouth bottlings, I was blown away by the lone domestic version Affäre is pouring — the Imbue Pedal & Thorn from Oregon.
A delicate vermouth with a tremendously long finish, the Imbue is a drink I could back to time and time again, and will the next time I drop by Affäre.
So, there you have it — seven fishes, seven vermouths and a whole bunch of Christmas taste treats. Merry Christmas everyone.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.