Corona Cookbook: Cataplana

Festival of Fish

By: - Dec 25, 2020

Festival of Fish for Christmas Eve.

My favorite restaurant in the world is Azorean in Gloucester.

They have specials on week nights and on Monday’s it’s cataplana!

There are several to choose from and that’s always a difficult decision.

It is so named for the copper vessel with a lid in which it is cooked and served.

At the table you use a spoon to plate in increments. The lid keeps it hot.

In Portugal it is whatever the fishermen bring home from catch of the day.

The port of Gloucester ain’t what it used to be when its schooners harvested the Grand Banks.

The docks and processing plants have been bought up by developers. But an abundance of fresh seafood is readily available.

For Sicilian families like mine Christmas Eve is a festival of fishes.

In particular, eel is essential.

That just isn’t possible in the landlocked Berkshires.

My sister Pip recalls that it was catching an eel, when fishing off the rocks with Dad, what flipped her into becoming a lifelong  Buddhist vegetarian.

She was intrigued, fascinated and repelled, at how the critter fought so hard for its life.

It’s an amazing species. In the NY Times this week columnist David Brooks quoted an essay about them. “First, eels are amazing. In “On the Many Mysteries of the European Eel,” on Lit Hub, Patrik Svensson breaks down eel life. The European eel can morph four times over the course of its life, changing color and shape. It crosses the Atlantic twice. It can live for 50 or even 80 years.”

Growing up in Hamburg, Astrid recalled that carp was traditional for Christmas. “My grandmother, mother, and I enjoyed the fish. But my brothers didn’t and insisted on wieners instead.”

She enjoyed eel, particularly smoked.

Now and then, she and her mom shopped at the fish markets on the docks. She recalled purchasing a live eel. The fishmonger conked it on the head and put it in their sack which Europeans use when marketing.

On the way home by tram, however, the eel recovered from that blow and squimmered and writhed. In the kitchen her mother cut off its head and that was that. “It tastes like chicken breast” Astrid recalled.

Dad made it now and then for Christmas Eve when he shopped in the Italian markets of the North End.

Our Italian friend, Liz, recalls her aunt skinning eel, cutting it into chunks, dredged in flour and gently pan fried in olive oil. From Maine, our pal Sydney writes that all our American eel gets sold in Japan for megabucks.

Astrid was particularly fond of the eel sushi back when artists gathered each week at Joy’s for Chinese food at Meng's. For most Americans eel is too much like snake which also tastes like chicken.

If exotic things taste like chicken, the drift is, why not cook chicken and pretend its Florida python. When was the last time you had a gator burger?

For our feast of the fishes, last night Christmas Eve, I made my first ever attempt at cataplana. The plan was to cook it in a wok with a lid to keep it hot.

We ate at the kitchen counter because it was somewhat messy and Astrid has set a beautiful table for Christmas dinner. It will be roast duck with her traditional red cabbage and side dishes to be determined later.

The possible ingredients for cataplana are endless entailing seafood, chicken and linguica.

At Stop & Shop we settled for what was available.

Two lobster tails, frozen.
One pound medium-size, cooked shrimp. Tails removed.
One pound little neck clams. (Mussels were not available.)
A half bottle of white wine.
A generous amount of minced ginger and garlic.
A nice pinch of saffron.
Several tablespoons of crushed tomato.
Cooked rice.

Prep time, minimal
Cooking time, pretty darn quick.

  1. With olive oil, threw in garlic and ginger. After a couple of minutes added the wine, tomato and saffron. Brought that to a boil.
  2. The lobster tails were thawed but raw and needed more time to cook. Now and then I checked to see when they turned red.
  3. Put in the little necks which took a few minutes to open.
  4. Shrimp, precooked, was added for the last three minutes. All told cooking time was about fifteen minutes. But I’m not sure as I eyeballed it.

In deep bowls we put a bed of fresh rich. The ingredients were spooned over this with lots of juice. The result might be described as a wet paella.

For a first attempt we did just fine. But I will work on improvements.

The lobster tails were ridiculously expensive (four ounces and $13 each). For a special occasion it was a good try. Next time, I will go for chicken lobsters and use the cracked claws and tails with the bodies saved for stock.

We used to love Casa Portugal in Inman Square, Cambridge. Their best, most expensive version included half a split lobster.

The little necks were nice but mussels would have been better and more abundant.

Putting the shrimp in last was a great decision and perhaps the best part of the meal as they well absorbed all the flavors.

The home run for this meal was the sauce. It had all that flavor including garlic and my idea of ginger. The latter is not traditional but sure was good. The saffron blended well with the sauce and the amount of tomato was perfect and well balanced.

Most home cooks avoid saffron as it is so expensive.

We get an ounce of Spanish saffron which comes in a colorful tin box. It’s pricey but mostly for paella, an essential ingredient, it lasts two to three years. You only need a pinch and we use it often to make saffron rice for stir fry.

Having experimented we will want to try this again soon and develop it as a dinner party option. My paella is the go to option. For my birthday in October, for the varied needs of our guests, I made it with shrimp adding sausage on the side. There is never much left over.

A weeknight. or more affordable version of cataplana, might entail sausage, shrimp and mussels. Or some thick meaty fish like cod loin and haddock. If available try squid or octopus. Now and then lobsters are on sale so go for it then.

Yeah, I know, we live in the Berkshires and are far, far away from the ocean. There is only so far you can go between Big Y and Stop & Shop. Lord knows we try.

When we finally get our shots it will be back to Azorean for a splurge of real, authentic, to die for, cataplana.