'Tis the season for lights, for music, for bells ringing merrily.
And 'tis the season for shellfish, too.
"These are probably the two biggest weeks of the year" for seafood, says Tim Ennis, co-owner with Robert Luff of Montondo's Seafood Inc. in Lockport.
"Christmas is the big week for shrimp and oysters, and the following week, it's shrimp and lobster," he says.
Bob Jaus of the Hayes Fish Company in Snyder and Clarence says he sells more seafood and shellfish during the holiday season than he does during Lent.
"We sell a lot of the high-end stuff -- lobster, lobster tail, shrimp and King Crab," he says.
While both Hayes and Montondo's have a retail business, much of their sales are to restaurants. During the holidays, shellfish is the star at restaurants as well as in the home -- especially when it comes to shrimp. And shrimp seems to be the most popular of all.
"A shrimp cocktail sets the tone," says chef Mark Hutchinson of Hutch's Restaurant.
For home use, most people buy their shrimp peeled, deveined and cooked. All shrimp comes in frozen. The deluxe shrimp, so called "white shrimp," comes in raw from the Gulf of Mexico. Dealers are boiling it up daily or even hourly at this time of year.
As Rosalie Morreale of La Marina on Hertel Avenue points out -- when served at home, guests really glom onto it. "The more you put out, the more people will eat," she declares. (Sort of a corollary of "If you build it, they will come.")
Next, there's lobster -- especially in restaurants. "Think New Year's Eve; think lobster," as Hutchinson says.
Paul Jenkins of Tempo has a theory: There are two categories of lobster lovers and never the twain shall meet, he says.
There are those who go for the so-called spiny lobster tail, clawless and originating, preferably, from the cold water of southern Australia and New Zealand. They usually come in frozen. If you cook them at home, Ennis of Montondo's suggests that you defrost them and, dot them with a little butter, then bake them in a 375-degree oven until the flesh turns opaque. (As with all shellfish, be careful not to overcook.)
Jenkins' other lobster category focuses on the clawed Maine or Nova Scotia lobster. These can be purchased live or cooked.
Shellfish is important. But two other types of seafood are also popular during the holidays. Herring and caviar.
If you eat herring at the stroke of midnight on New Year's, the superstition goes, you'll be lucky all year.
Most people buy herring in jars already mixed with cream or wine sauce, but Montondo's, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, still sells "milkers herring." If you are what Ennis calls "an old-time person," you know what that means. These are fillets that come in salt brine -- they have to be soaked before preparation.
The company also sells "blind robins" -- little smoked herrings, about four inches long, headless and tailless, to be eaten whole.
At the opposite side of the price scale is caviar. It is largely unavailable -- sorry luxury lovers -- because of recent overfishing bans on sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Seas.
There are alternatives. Janet Ostrow of Premier Gourmet suggests farmed caviar from California. There's also hackleback (river sturgeon) and paddlefish from North America, which run about $53 for 2 ounces.
Ostrow also suggests seasoned roes like jarred Citron whitefish roe, made with citrus juice, Absolut Citron vodka and salt, and smoked Golden Whitefish roe, which run about $15 per ounce. Or Keta salmon roe -- sushi lovers know that last one.
Ostrow describes it as "the big red eggs that pop in your mouth."
If you do serve luxury seafood at home, the word to remember is "simple." When you start with a premium product you don't have to pile on ingredients.
Here are three recipes, perfect for entertaining. Serve them with Champagne, of course, or white wine or a fresh glass of cranberry juice.
And by the way -- Happy New Year.
>Mark Bittman's Shrimp Cocktail
1 pound large shrimp, cooked and chilled
1/2 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon chili powder
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Several drops hot sauce
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon minced onion
Mix all ingredients but shrimp and iceberg. Chill the sauce. Serve cooked shrimp on the lettuce with the sauce on the side. Makes 4 servings.
And, speaking of retro, here's a shrimp recipe, that was a big deal in in the '60s. It's a good candidate for resuscitation right now.
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup dry sherry
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds shelled and deveined raw shrimp OR
2 packages (12-ounce) frozen, shelled and deveined raw shrimp
Mix ginger and sugar. Slowly whisk in soy sauce, sherry and oil; stir in garlic.
Add shrimp, turning to coat everything with the marinade. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for at least one hour.
Heat a large skillet over moderately high heat. Add shrimp and marinade and stir fry just until shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.
Serve hot, topped with a little of the marinade. Makes 8 servings.
1 jar (12-ounce) creamed herring
1 jar (12-ounce) sliced pickled beets with onions
1 large apple
Capers to taste
Cut the herring into small pieces. Place in bowl along with the cream and the onions.
Drain beets and cut into bite-size pieces and add to the herring. Peel and dice the apple and add to the herring and beets. Mix until everything is a rosy color. Add about 1/4 -cup of the reserved beet juice and the onions. Add the capers. Blend gently. Makes 4 servings.