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Once in a blue moon, trying to improve an untrusted recipe can produce a dish amazingly better than you ever expected. It happened to me this week.

Barrenechea 2I intended to make a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain. I’ve had some unsatisfactory experiences with this book, but its many photographs are so luscious-looking, I keep returning to it. This time I wanted to try her sopa de pescado, which is pictured – lusciously – on the cover, as well as in a full-page illustration beside the recipe.

The recipe is billed as a fish soup but it’s mostly shellfish. There are clams, shrimp, and mussels in the cover photo. It’s also given as a first course serving six, but I wanted to make it a main course for two. So while reducing the overall quantities, I intended to use more shellfish. But I found other things about the recipe that I didn’t trust, so I angled off my own way. And achieved something truly wonderful.

Here are the shellfish I used:

shellfish

The clams are Manilas, the mussels are small and very neat, the shrimps are just ordinary, and the last item is cooked lobster meat, which I had in the freezer and decided to use in place of the monkfish called for in the recipe. In many recipes, monkfish can be substituted for more costly lobster: since I already had the lobster, why not, I thought, try the substitution the other way?

I steamed open the clams and mussels and set them aside. Next I made the sauce base. This started with sauteeing a sliced leek, chopped onions, and thin batons of carrot in generous olive oil. That was already interesting to me, because I hadn’t known any fish soup that wanted so much vegetable. It looked good already.

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The next direction was to flour monkfish chunks and add them, along with shrimp, to the pan of sauce, and cook for five minutes. I didn’t like that. First, my lobster was already cooked, so it didn’t need sauteeing, and certainly not with flour. Second, my shrimp were “medium,” which means pretty small, and five minutes would have been far too much – especially since they were supposed to stay in the sauce for all the rest of the time and by the end would have been seriously overcooked; as would the lobster. So I put in only the shrimp, cooked them for about a minute on each side until they turned pink, and removed them to a dish.

Then I continued with the sauce, adding shellfish broth (considerably less than called for, since I wanted a stew, not a soup), white wine, saffron (not, as the recipe said, in threads but pulverized, since saffron won’t dissolve properly unless you crush it), a little plain tomato sauce, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

After a few minutes’ simmering, I put the shrimp and lobster chunks into the sauce, let them heat through, and then added the clams and mussels, also to heat through. The recipe would have had me put in only the meat, discarding the shells. I didn’t do that, because it would have spoiled the whole appearance of the dish (as well as some of the fun of eating it) – and, anyway, the book’s photo shows the clams and mussels in their shells.

Here’s my finished dish:

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???????????????????????????????Now, let’s look again at that book photo, which appears to be meant for a single portion. You see how bright red the liquid is? The whole recipe, for six servings, calls for only one-third of a cup of tomato sauce. Ridiculous! I used that amount for only the two of us, which just lightly colored the reduced amount of broth I was working with. Where did all that tomato come from? Where is the recipe’s monkfish? Where are all the rest of the clams and mussels? Didn’t anyone suggest to the food stylist that the photo should bear some resemblance to an actual serving of the dish? Foolish questions, I realize: Food styling is an art that has little to do with cooking.

My own version of the dish wasn’t as elegantly picturesque as the book photo, but it turned out simply fabulous. It took us back to long-ago meals on sunny seaside terraces on the Mediterranean – zuppa di pesce in Italy, bouillabaisse in France, zarzuela in Spain. It had a real southern European flavor, which I’d never before managed to get in any seafood soup or stew I’d made at home. I don’t know what to attribute it to. The ingredients weren’t really any different from others I’ve made, although the leek was a new item for me. Somehow that particular set of ingredients came together in a whole that was much greater than the sum of its parts.

We finished the entire generous-sized dish, along with some plain Bomba rice, and were blissfully happy the whole rest of the evening.

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Take that, food stylists!

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