Now and then, I come upon a recipe in our La Tavola Italiana that I haven’t made since we were preparing the book for publication, 25 years ago. It’s always a pleasure when it turns out to be every bit as good as we described it. The dish I’ll tell you about today is one of those.
We wanted something Mediterranean-feeling for dinner; seafoody, brothy, and Italian: a zuppa di pesce, in fact. LTI has two recipes for that time-honored dish: one from Sicily – the familiar style that’s made with a strongly tomato-flavored broth – and one from Liguria, in the north, with no tomato at all.
We’d raved about the Ligurian one in the recipe’s headnote, and I wondered, reading back over it, if it could really be that good. Happily, even with all the intervening years of good eating in Italy that I’ve experienced since then, it is. Maybe even better than I knew at the time: a truly lovely dish.
The seafood ingredients for the stew are fairly simple: some boneless fish filets or steaks, a handful of mussels, and a few squid.
I chose the fish for this day’s dinner by what looked freshest in my market. The whole fish above is a branzino – a European sea bass. I had the fishmonger filet it but took home the carcass too. The big filet is flounder.
I started by making the stock, using the chopped-up branzino carcass, celery, onion, carrot, and a pint of mixed seafood broth from my freezer (saved from previous fish cookings). I steamed open the mussels and added their cooking liquid to the broth. My trusty knife man then cut the filet into biggish pieces and the squid into rings; chopped a heart of Romaine lettuce, some leek, and a big anchovy filet.
I briefly sauteed the squid in olive oil; stirred in the leek, lettuce, a piece of bay leaf, and some thyme; and cooked all that gently for 20 minutes. Turned up the heat, added white wine, and stirred to evaporate it. It looked appetizing already.
The pieces of fish and the chopped anchovy went in next. A brief sauté, and I added the stock, stirred to deglaze the pan, and simmered the fish 10 minutes. The mussels went in for another 2 minutes. The final touch was a lacing of garlic-perfumed olive oil.
Then it was just to put some slices of toasted country bread in the bottom of two bowls and pour in the stew.
It was indeed wonderful. It had something quintessentially seaside-of-Italy about it: a subtly blended, hard-to-describe flavor – one I almost never find in the fish stews I’ve had in this country. The flounder, unfortunately, hadn’t been the best choice. Though pleasant, it was too lean and didn’t provide enough of a contrast with the branzino. Something gelatinous, like monkfish or scallops, would have been more interesting.
Still, the dish was lush and rich, and just the smell of it did the Proustian trick of taking us back in memory to sun-washed terraces overlooking a quay full of fisherman’s skiffs and beyond them the blue Mediterranean. Hard to fault a recipe like that, especially in the middle of a bitter-cold New York winter. Another bowl of escapism, please!