I doubt there’s a European fishing community that doesn’t have its own version of fishermen’s stew. The Italians call it brodetto, the French bouillabaisse, and the Portuguese refer to it as caldeirada. Even in the this country, San Francisco is well-known for its cioppino — the real “San Fransisco treat,” in my book. Although some of the ingredients may vary by country and region within each country, the dish’s origins are often the same. The village fishermen would gather together at the end of a very long day and into a large pot they would add whatever fish that hadn’t been sold, a few vegetables, some spices, and a little wine. A short while later, with some crusty bread in hand, each would sit back and enjoy a feast among friends, no doubt filling the night air with tales of the ones that got away.
Living in Chicago, we have a wide assortment of seafood available, some of which is fresh while the rest has been flash frozen for shipment here. Although I prefer fresh, I will buy frozen and usually have shrimp and a variety of fish fillets in my freezer. If I see a sale somewhere for fresh mollusks, be they little neck or manila clams, mussels, or cockles, I’ll buy some, along with some scallops, and that night’s dinner will be brodetto. The recipe I’ll follow then is the one that I’m going to share with you now. And just like the stew the old fishermen threw together, the amount and types of seafood in my brodetto may vary but the basics remain the same. Fish, mollusks, and shrimp are added to a simple tomato broth flavored with a few herbs, garlic, and wine. Serve it in a bowl with some crusty bread, like ciabatta, and you’ll have a spectacular dinner, as well as a new-found respect for those fishermen of old.
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Yield: 6 generous servings
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 cup stock (fish, clam, vegetable, or chicken)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 large can (28 oz) whole or large dice tomatoes. (or 8 to 10 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped into large pieces)
- 3 or 4 stems of fresh thyme
- 1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
- 18 little neck or 24 manila clams or cockles
- 1 doz mussels
- 3/4 lb large shrimp
- 1 doz scallops
- 1 – 1 1/2 lbs fish fillets, cut into large, equal sized pieces (cod, haddock, halibut, striped bass, pollock, red snapper, or any combination may be used)
- salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, chopped, for garnish
- extra virgin olive oil, for garnish
- At least an hour before you start cooking, scrub all the mollusks with a brush and soak the clams and cockles in cold water. Change the water at least once in the next hour. If using mussels, before scrubbing, grab hold of the “beard” and pull to remove. Keep cold until ready to cook.
- Once the mollusks have been sufficiently soaked and cleaned, heat olive oil in a large saucepan over med-high heat. Add red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute.
- Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Add garlic and parsley and continue sautéing for another minute or so.
- Add stock and wine, using the liquids to deglaze the pan.
- Add the tomatoes. If using canned whole tomatoes, use your hands to tear the tomatoes before placing the chunks into the pan. This is a stew, not a sauce. Large chunks are preferable.
- Add thyme and Italian seasoning. Season lightly with salt & pepper.
- Bring pot to the boil, reduce heat to med-low, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. If stew becomes too dry, add water or stock.
- Increase heat to med-high, add clams and/or cockles and cover the pan.
- After about 3 minutes, add the mussels and cover.
- About 3 minutes later, place the shrimp atop the mollusks and return the cover to the pan.
- 2 minutes later, add the scallops and cover the pan.
- About a minute later, add the fish to the top of the stew, cover the pan, and cook until all is done, about 3 or 4 minutes.
- Serve immediately in large bowls, garnished with a sprinkling of good quality extra virgin olive oil and freshly chopped basil. Be sure to have plenty of good, crusty bread available.
The recipe I’ve just shared is by no means set in stone. I imagine that the fishermen of long ago weren’t too strict about their ingredients. I think their only concerns were that the seafood was fresh and the wine plentiful. The rest took care of itself. Today, recipes abound and it’s not just the seafood that varies from one recipe to the next. Oftentimes vegetables will be added to the stew, with bell peppers, fennel, and potatoes frequently mentioned. Some cooks will start the recipe by creating and sautéing a soffritto of chopped onion, celery, and carrot. What does all this mean for you? Well, do you have a preference for, say, crab claws? Then add them to the mix. Don’t like mussels? Don’t use them. Want more of a vegetable base for your stew? Then start with a soffritto and add whatever veggies you like. In short, indulge your palate and make the recipe your own.
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