Seven Fish, and a Cheese Log

We spent part of our holiday this year in Southwest Florida before heading north to enjoy the snow in Buffalo. While in Florida, we made a new (to us) dish called Cioppino for Christmas Eve. Cioppino is a soup/stew that features seven different kinds of seafood. It originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco in the late 1800s, who were apparently inspired by an older tradition from their homeland. That’s a whole lot of tradition behind what might be a new tradition for us.

The story behind Cioppino is that unlucky Bay Area fishermen would walk around the docks and collect fish from the more successful boats, and then would add tomatoes and white wine to a large pot and make a stew from their random catch. They would expect to return the favor when they had better luck. Sharing a bit of one’s catch sounds like a “holiday season thing to do” no matter the time of year—and shouldn’t every season be the season of giving, anyway?

It was easy for us to get into a seafood theme in Florida, since you are never more than 60 miles from a beach anywhere in the state. A beach theme also seemed to go with the mellower pace of things here–although the calypso vibe isn’t as obvious when you see two people at the local mall fighting over the last cheese log. There are, I suppose, practical limits to the season of giving.

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My brother-in-law in mid-carve on a past holiday

My brother-in-law, who is a history professor, shared with us that the original Cioppino took some inspiration from an Italian dish called the Feast of the Seven Fishes that is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. In Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is called La Vigilia, or “The Vigil.” My brother in law is a fountain of Italian history; he really should do that for a living.

Our favorite seafood place in Southwest Florida is Skip One in Fort Myers, a locally owned market on Highway 41 that features fresh caught everything. Skip One is primarily a shrimping outfit, but they trade part of their shrimp catch with other types of boats to bring in a full bounty—sort of the commercial fishing version of Cioppino (ok, so that analogy is a bit of a stretch).

For our dish, we used a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, and for our seafood we chose grouper, snapper, sea bass, clams, shrimp, mussels, and scallops. In addition to the seven types of seafood, Giada’s recipe includes white wine, diced tomatoes, garlic, shallots, onions, and fennel. We added the seafood to the broth just ten minutes before serving in order to avoid over-cooking it.

We’re told that Italian restaurants in San Francisco serve a lot of variations of this dish, and some even provide a bib to their patrons (if you’ve seen me eat, that’s another hint for why we chose Cioppino). In the tradition of the city, we served our Cioppino with a beautiful loaf of San Francisco-style Sourdough bread.

All in all, Cioppino was a fun new recipe, pretty easy to prepare, and delicious. Tradition or not, it’s one thing we did this year that is worth repeating next year (but we’ll order our cheese log ahead of time).

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Fancy Beef Sandwiches

A few years back, I wrote about the amazing food scene in Buffalo, New York, a scene that is partly the result of the melting pot of immigrants from back in the day (and by “melting pot,” I don’t mean the forgettable fondue chain, where $100 buys you an appetizer and the need for a cholesterol check). Many of Buffalo’s best-known dishes are ethnic creations like kielbasa and pierogi, dishes which are now competing for attention with more recent additions like Buffalo wings and sponge candy.

I’d of course heard of Buffalo wings long before I met Souzz, but marrying into a Buffalo family means you get to learn about a lot of other new treats. One example is the signature sandwich of Western New York, a beef on weck. The beef on weck is a Buffalo classic: a coarse-salted roll with caraway, thin-sliced roast beef, fresh horseradish, and au jus.

“It’s just a fancy beef sandwich,” I once blurted out from under my newly purchased Buffalo Bills hoodie. Endearing yourself to your in-laws is difficult stuff, I soon learned, and no food in Buffalo is “just” anything. Dinner choices often have storied histories and serve to unite generations–regardless of whom your daughter might have just married.

Weck is short for kimmelweck, a style of roll that you don’t see unless you are in Buffalo–or are in a restaurant with chefs that wish they were. The sandwich’s origin is hotly debated (well, maybe not hotly debated, but people do occasionally talk about it). Some say the kimmelweck was adapted from a roll that was served at funerals in Germany, and others say that an enterprising bartender decided to salt rolls to get people to drink more (Seriously? Has lack of consumption ever really been a problem in Buffalo?).

Regardless of how and where the sandwich originated, it is a Western New York staple. And the locals agree that the classic area restaurant for beef on weck is Schwabls, in West Seneca. Schwabls is on a non-descript corner that isn’t really on the way to anywhere, and yet it has been serving Western New Yorkers in one form or another since 1837. Its small dining room is perpetually filled with hungry locals that come to enjoy a sandwich or some other German-style dish.

I felt very authentic walking into Schwabls over the holiday wearing my still-new-looking Bills hoodie. As usual, the place was packed, with a lot of folks enjoying beef on weck as well as their signature holiday drink, the Tom and Jerry (similar to egg nog, maybe like drinking a sugar cookie).

Our server asked us just exactly how we wanted our roast beef, and she meant every word. Beef on weck at Schwabls is hand-cut, in order to avoid cooking the roast beef more with the heat of a spinning blade. The care that Schwabls takes in preparing each and every sandwich is in itself worth the visit. Oh, and Tom and Jerry were nice to see, too.

It seems that every time I visit Buffalo, I learn a little more about the food scene, and maybe a little more about other things, too.  My meal was great, my brother-in-law shared a lot of history, and there was some good local color, too. I may have some more work to do to blend in up here, but at least I didn’t order a “fancy beef sandwich.”