A Fishy Feast

Alex and Raife are friends from college who came to stay with me last week. On the phone, the day before they came, Alex said, “Adam, my sister Lizzie wants to know if she gives you $10, will you cook us dinner?”

“No $10 necessary,” I said. “I was going to cook for you anyway!”

Here’s Alex, Raife, Lizzie and Diana gathered around the table consuming the meal I made the night they arrived:

It took me a long time to come up with what I’d cook and, unfortunately, I’m not sure it was a smashing success. The theme of the night was: fish stew.

I’d never made a fish stew. Alex eats fish and chicken but no pork or meat and so my options were limited. For a long time I’ve wanted to make a fish soup kind of dish. Not a bouillabaisse, necessarily; just something with lots of fish–shrimp, mussels, etc. I opened my River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers and there it was: the simplest fish soup recipe I’ve ever seen. Too simple, actually. But you’ll see in a moment.

The Italian name for the dish is Zuppa di pesce. You heat olive oil and add onion, garlic, oregano and chile. Then you add 3 pounds of peeled plum tomatoes (that took some work) and cook until the tomatoes begin to break up. You add 1 cup white wine and bring to a boil:


To this you add potato. Lots of potatoes: 12 medium Yukon Gold potatoes cut into 2-inch pieces. I am mad about this part of the recipe because the potatoes sucked up most of the delicious broth and most people didn’t love the potatoes. They were cut too big. And when you eat fish stew you want more fish than potato.

So let’s talk about the fish. People, I spent so much money on this fish. Oh my God. Fish is expensive. I spent $20 on 1.5 lbs of large shrimp; I spent $22 on red snapper filets. I also bought mussels, but they weren’t expensive. You add the red snapper first (you’re actually supposed to add lobster first, but that would be going overboard) and then the mussels and prawns. It all cooks for about 10 minutes and then you serve it.

Here’s what it looks like in the bowl:


It’s not a great picture and it wasn’t a great fish stew. I mean the components were fine–the shrimp, the mussels–and the little broth there was for everyone was full of flavor. But something got lost in translation and next time I make a fish soup or stew I’ll use a more meticulous cookbook. This often happens with the River Cafe cookbooks: they’re so casual about everything that you never know how something is going to turn out. I normally appreciate this casualness—as Mario Batali says about Italian food, shopping is half the battle. If you have good ingredients, it’s not hard to put them together the Italian way. I think Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers share that philosophy but sometimes, when you cook for a party, you want more pizzazz. And less potatoes. So this recipe gets a C in my book.

Then there was this cheese bread from Mario’s newest book, Molto Italiano:


He describes this bread, in the recipe, as something like foccaccia but it came out tasting more like matzoh. Here’s where the recipe goes wrong: it tells you to add 4 cups of flour to water, yeast, salt and sugar. Watching his show as much as I do, I know he says it’s better to have a too wet dough than a too dry dough because you can make a wet dough dryer but not the opposite. Well once I added the four cups of flour here the dough was impossibly dry. Kneading it was a nightmare and it never took on that elasticity and glossy sheen you want from a good bread dough. So I think his cookbook should be revised to say: add flour a bit at a time until dough just comes together.

Of course my guests liked it well enough. It was covered with cheese (parmesan AND pecorino), rosemary and scallions. I just wish it was more doughy, like foccaccia should be.

“Boy, Adam,” you must be thinking, “you’re a total failure. Did anything go right?”


There was this fennel salad with blood orange and shaved pecorino, also from Mario’s book:


I’ve made this once before (it’s also supposed to have pomegranate seeds, but I couldn’t find a pomegranate) and everyone liked it. I was nervous, actually, because as I was chopping the fennel I asked Alex and Raife and Lizzie if they liked fennel and they said they didn’t know and then I gave them each a taste and they all scrunched up their faces and said, “It tastes like licorice.” But they quickly got over their disgust when presented with this salad: everyone cleaned their plate.

And for dessert I cooked this hazelnut cake from Patricia Wells’s Trattoria:


As you can see, this was really popular. (Sorry for the Windex in the background: this wasn’t one of those molecular gastronomy dishes where you spray each slice with Windex before you eat it.) The cake was gone by the next day so I had to make cupcakes. I’m glad the meal ended on a happy note.

In conclusion, it’s often unwise to test new dishes for fresh guests but it often makes for a memorable evening. Now I’ll always associate fish stew and Windex with Alex, Raife and Lizzie. And I hope they do the same for me.

26 thoughts on “A Fishy Feast”

  1. If you’re into fennel in salads (I am — I love the minty-anise crisp crunch it adds), you might want to look into getting yourself a Japanese Mandoline slicer (http://www.amazon.com/Japanese-Mandoline-Slicer-Ivory-Green/dp/B0006MM4NS on Amazon).

    It makes quick work of cutting paper thin slices of fennel for salads. I also use mine quite a bit for slicing root veggies thin to roast for a salad or oven chips. The Japanese version is lighter and less cumbersome than the traditional French one, and much easier to clean.

  2. If you want to make a great fish stew I strongly suggest Jane Benet’s cioppino in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, page 263. The sunny yellow book I mean would probably be considered Volume One, as there is at least one more since then. The book is great, I cannot recommend it highly enough. (Flo Braker’s creme brulee never fails!) If you’d just like to try the recipe, email me and I’ll email it back to you.

    Oh, one small note, when this book talks about using crab, it means Dungeness crab. However, I’m sure other crab could be substituted with satisfactory results.

  3. Sounds like you didnt par boil the potatos. By partially cooking them before adding to the soup they wouldnt soak up the liquid. If you want to add more flavor to the potatos cook them in chicken broth instead of water (before adding).

  4. I was going to suggest cioppino as well. I’m sure recipe Calichef suggests is as good as any. No potatoes to soak up the broth and weigh you down. You use sourdough bread for that. :)

    For my next cioppino, I’ll probably use Pomi tomatoes (in the box), just because, yes, peeling and chopping that many tomatoes is a metric ****load of work.

  5. It’s always charming when friends imagine that dinner parties must have been SO economical to prepare…hey, you are cooking at home, it must have been cheap!

    On another note: Canned plum tomatoes are your friend, especially for a soup or stew!

    PS: I think the whole meal looks yummy. I really want to try that cake.

  6. Sorry things didn’t go so well.  Your description of the fish stew leaves me wondering what region of Italy this recipe came from.  My family is southern Italian and I’ve had Zuppa Di Pesce tons of times, though NEVER with potatoes.  Next time, leave them out, serve the zuppa over linguine and get (or make) some nice crusty bread to suck up all that delicious broth!

    P.S. I will give you my first born in exchange for that hazelnut cake recipe.  It sounds amazing!

  7. Don’t you have any Asian groceries in your neighborhood? I routinely get my fish and shelfish for half (or less) what I would pay at a regular store. …’course I have to deal with butchers who can’t speak English…

  8. Ah, the price of the “amateur” mantle! Hang in there, AG — your exploits (I thought that sounded more madcap and fun than “failures”) are what drives all of us to greater culinary heights! Eventually. :)

    On the potatoes, I think that MUST be a misprint. I bet it should be *2* Yukon Golds, not 12. 12 is for vichysoisse.

    Dude, if you complain, maybe you’ll get comped at the River Cafe — more scandals ahead! :P

  9. I agree with the poster above about Asian markets. Whenever I make anything with shrimp, I can’t usually find head-on shrimp in the local supermarket. But Asian markets always have shrimps in their shells and with their heads for pretty cheap. It’s always good to save shrimp shells and heads for shrimp stock.

  10. I once saw a fish chowder on some Tyler Florence show a while back…the idea is that you cook the creamy soup base first then gently lay down the cod pieces into the hot soup and cook only 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, then close the lid for 15 minutes, and the result is super tender, flakey, moist fish in a lovely rich chowder.

    Now I will have to look it up because I’ve talked myself into a frenzy! BTW, the cake looks fantastic.

  11. I think it’s wonderful you went to all that care for your friends:)

    I love Matio Batali..I met him very briefly for a few minutes last October while in NY w/ my daughters.He was courteous..funny and charming.My one regret is not having had dinner at Babbo:(

    I made your mushroom soup from a past post..My first visit here was then..maybe 2 weeks ago..I think the recipe is from 2005!We loved it! I had received a new Staub pot for a birthday and I wanted to try it out.Thank you.

    I have kept coming back to see what you are up to..

    Congratulations on a wonderful site.

  12. Oh man, I sometimes forget how spoiled I am about seafood prices. Generally if I shop around I can get large shrimp for about $6 a pound.

    But on the other hand I have a hard time finding some of the “exotic” stuff you can get.

  13. This time of year I never would’ve used fresh tomatoes, good canned tomatoes are much tastier, and less of a pain to work with :-)

    The potatoes seemed strange in there. I am pretty sure Bourdain has a Soupe de Poisson in Les Halles Cookbook, and I remember being pretty damn good. And to cut costs, I would’ve bought my red snaper whole and used the bones in this one of afterwards to make fumet. And in retrospect, the lobster probably would have helped a lot in the flavour department, especially the shell. Perhaps you could’ve cut on the amount of shrimps and bought a small lobster just for flavour injection.

    Can’t win them all I guess.

  14. I have had my own travails finding a good fish stew. Don’t bother with Nigel Slater’s loosy-goosy recipe in Real Food—it required so many adjustments to make it palatable that it’s really not worth the effort with expensive fish.

    I agree with Sarah’s assessment that you can’t go wrong with the Barefoot Contessa’s fish stew. To start, you make an incredibly flavorful fish stock using the shrimp shells. The soup recipe is written using shrimp and mussels, as well as bass and halibut—firm white fish that are made divine when cooked in tomatoes, fish stock, and 2 cups of white wine. Not to mention the potatoes and fennel and saffron and garlic toasts that make this a memorable meal for guests.

    If I may quote Ina: “How bad can that be?”

  15. Calichef mentioned that cioppino can just as easily be made with other than Dungeness crab. I am from San Francisco, and the essence of cioppino is Dungeness crab….in the shell is the classic way to serve it, along with huge napkins and nutcrackers/nut picks to crack the shell and get out all the succulent meat.

    I made a fish stew a few years ago from an Italian Jewish recipe-called for 4 pounds of tomatoes, and lots of fish (but no shellfish). It is served over sourdough toast rubbed with garlic.

  16. I love it that you had such a crazy reaction to the price of the fish you put into this stew as I nearly collapsed on Fairway’s floor when I made a seafood stew for the first time. I went with Ina Garten’s version and let me tell you, it was AWESOME. I had 3 friends over and they all demanded seconds. Her recipe calls for less potatoes, lots of fennel, saffron and it’s finished off with 3 tablespoons of Pernot and orange zest. I made a huge pot and ate seafood stew for days… it only got better.

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