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.