Idea Lab

As part of a “Seven Fishes” traditional dinner

My Italian mother and grandmother always made a Christmas Eve dinner of “seven fishes,” though it was a challenge to put together seven fish dishes for a big crowd, especially one made up of plenty of fussy children! They long ago decided that appetizers and side dishes could count, along with minor ingredients like a little anchovy paste in the pasta sauce; each of the multiple fish ingredients in a dish like seafood salad counted to bring up the ‘body count.’ Today when I cook the holiday dinner I have learned not to be so dogmatic, and in fact we have plenty of non-fish dishes on the table. But to me it’s still not Christmas even with some taste of fish. A personal favorite when dining out is often crab cakes, but I could never pull them off at home – I tried using bread crumbs, saltine crackers, Ritz; browning them in the oven or frying them; you name it, I was never happy with the result. So I resorted to the two cardinal rules of good home cooking – quality raw materials, and simplicity of preparation. I start with top quality, very fresh crabmeat; pairing it with fresh chives and homemade mayonnaise exalts the essence of the shellfish. Simple oven baked polenta proved the perfect nest and flavor foil, gently complimenting the crab without overwhelming it. Best of all, these can be prepared well ahead of time.

  • 9 0z fresh crab meat, the best available
  • 1/3 cup fresh chives. finely chopped
  • 1 Tb fresh lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup slow cooking polenta
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • About 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tsp salt or more to taste
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

To make the mayonnaise: Combine egg yolk, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and 1/2 tsp of salt in a medium size bowl. Using an electric whisk or hand held mixer, blend until bright yellow and thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Using a 1/4 teaspoon measure and whisking constantly, add 1/4 cup oil to the yolk mixture, a few drops at a time, about 4 minutes. Gradually add the remaining 1/2 cup oil in a very slow thin stream, whisking constantly, until mayonnaise is thick, about 4 minutes more. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it down on the surface, and chill. This can be made at least two days in advance. Any leftovers will last another 2 weeks if kept in a tight jar.

To make the polenta nests: Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 3-quart non-stick ovenproof skillet with olive oil. Pour in the corn meal, 3 cups of water, ½ tsp salt and 1 Tb of olive oil, stirring to blend. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes; stir the polenta, adjust seasoning and bake for another ten minutes until it is no longer watery and reaches a texture similar to mashed potatoes. Remove from the oven, spread out on a wooden board or silicone mat to about 1/2 inch thick and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes. Turn on the broiler in the oven to preheat. Using a cookie cutter or an inverted glass, cut the polenta into small rounds about 2 inches in diameter. Scrape out a little hollow in each round, being careful not to pierce it through. Give the rounds a brush of oil, and sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt. Run them under a broiler for a few minutes to crisp them.

To assemble: Mix crabmeat with 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, or more to taste, the chopped chives, and the lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the crab mixture into each polenta nest. Garnish with more chopped chives, and a dusting of smoked paprika. Serve immediately.