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Saturday, July 13

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Most folks have a family meal that gets made once a year, around a holiday, or a birthday or some other special occasion. And sometimes these meals are too good to be relegated to only eating once a year. Andrew's mother's family is Italian and the Zarlinga/Minicucci tradition on Christmas Eve involves something they call "fish gravy".

I've written before how many Italians call a sauce a gravy. And calling this dish "fish gravy" makes it sound terribly simple and much more bland than it is. It's an incredibly rich and flavorful dish with a simple, although a time-intensive production.

It's also a dish that is difficult to make in a small batch, so I invited a few friends over for dinner. And it is probably one of the most expensive meals I've ever made because of one ingredient. Lobster. Before you click off to Spam recipes, understand that it cost me $17 for one pound of small lobster tails, $6 for two pounds of mussels, $5 for 14 oz. of calamari rings, $8 for the chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce, $4.00 for two pounds of spaghetti, $.75 for the large yellow onion, less than $.50 for the garlic, and while I gathered the fresh herbs from my garden you could get what you need for this dish for about $5 more. (And I bought all these ingredients at the place some folks refer to as Whole Paycheck.) Bringing the grand total of this dish to $38.25. And considering that this recipe makes enough sauce for eight servings or five people, several small orders of seconds, and a couple of take-home portions that's still just a little less than $5 per serving which is about the same price as buying them all a value meal from McGreasy's. So if this stresses your budget, tell your friends to bring the wine, the bread, the salad, a vegetable side dish and dessert.

Since I don't know where to stop once I get cooking, I told my friends to come empty-handed and I made a fresh green salad with a mustard and balsamic vinagrette, tomato salad without mozzarella, some "yummy spread", and mushrooms and yellow squash sauteed in white wine and thyme. For dessert we had vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of delicious aged balsamic vinegar. So minus the balsamic vinegar and the wine, we still spent less than $60 which means that we spent less than $9 per serving.

And I spent about four hours cooking, which isn't bad considering the number of people I was feeding and it would have been severely cut in half if I'd had another person to help me with the chopping and prepping. And I probably would have spent less time telling my cats how this dinner was going to be way too yummy for them.

The official Zarlinga/Minicucci-family's Holiday Fish Gravy

1 1/2 to 2 pounds of dried salt cod
1 large yellow onion
2 stalks of celery
4-6 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 26 oz. box of Pomi chopped tomatoes
1 26 oz. box of Pomi tomato sauce
3 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil (1 1/2 teaspoons of dried)
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh oregano (1 teaspoon of dried)
1 pound of lobster tails (including the shell)
1 pound (or so) of calamari rings
2 pounds of mussels in the shell

Place the dried salt cod in a tightly sealed container of water for at least 12 hours and no more than 24. Change the water twice while it soaks. Remove any bits of remaining skin and remove any bones that remain. Chop this into two-inch bits and place into a piece of cheesecloth that gets tied up. The cod has a tendency to flake apart while it cooks so by tying it in a bag, you're able to cook it for hours (thereby bringing a wonderful flavor to your sauce) without getting a pile of teeny fish bits.

You're going to want very finely minced onion, celery and garlic. I peeled and cut the ends off of mine and threw chunks of everything into my food processor for a dozen or so pulses until everything was very finely minced. You can do the mincing by hand but you want to make sure to be patient and keep chopping until everything is chopped very small. The only chunks you want in this grazy are from the seafood.

Once everything is chopped, scrape it into a pan that has been heated over a medium flame and has had two tablespoons of olive oil or butter added to it. Cook this mixture for at least five minutes. You want everything to go translucent and be very soft without browning or burning. Add the contents of both boxes of sauce. I add about an ounce of wine or water to the carton and shake it so I get all the flavor out of the cartons that I can.

Now sprinkle the chopped, fresh herbs over the sauce and stir to get everything mixed thoroughly. Reduce the heat on your burner to the very lowest setting. Nestle the bag of cod into the middle of the sauce. The bag of lobster tails I purchased had five lobster tails in it. The shells will add as much flavor to the sauce as the cod will but we don't want the fish to overcook so we'll remove the meat from the shells partway through cooking.

To make this easier you can either cut the tails in half length-wise with your knife or you can use your kitchen shears to cut a slit in the top side of the shells. Nestle the lobster around the outside of the pot. Take another small bit of the cheesecloth and add the calamari rings to it. Tie it up and nestle it into the middle near the cod. You'll want to cover the pot and cook these items for about an hour and a half to two hours. You can stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking and everything remains covered by sauce.

Being careful not to burn yourself, use a pair of tongs to grab the lobster shells and use a fork to pull the meat out of the shell. It should come out very easily. Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and put it into a bowl. Remove the bag of calamari rings from the sauce and place it in the bowl with the lobster. Cover this bowl and put it in the refrigerator. Return the lobster shells to the sauce, return the cover to the pot, and cook the cod for another two hours or so.

Once your guests have arrived, stir the mussels that you've cleaned into the sauce and let this cook on low heat while you and your guests enjoy the salads and the appetizers, or at least 20 minutes. Set a large pot of water on to boil for the spaghetti. While your guests continue to munch on the appetizers and sip wine, return to the kitchen where you'll add the pasta to the boiling water. Remove and discard the lobster shells from the sauce. Put the bag of cod in a bowl on the side. Cut open the bag of calamari rings and dump it into the sauce. Add the lobster back to the sauce as well and stir gently. The mussels should be opened by now.

Once the pasta is cooked to your taste, drain the water and pour the pasta into a large serving bowl. Add a few ladles of sauce to the pasta and toss it. The sauce will keep the noodles from sticking together. Cut open the bag of cod and place the cod pieces on top in the middle of the pot. Now carry the pasta and the sauce to the table where you can serve each guest a heaping bowl full of sauce and pasta and let them add some grated Romano or Parmesan cheese to the top.

The heartiness of this dish makes it great for a cool-weather meal, but the fresh flavors and lightness of the seafood make it just as perfect for a warm-weather meal.

Next week, I'll try to figure out what to do with all those cucumbers that are coming out of people's gardens.

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