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Casting a Wide Net

Four Easy Fish Stews From Around The World

By Ed Bruske
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 13, 2004; Page F01

French cookbook author Madeleine Kamman couldn't understand why the bouillabaisse she made in the United States didn't taste like the classic French fish stew. She blamed herself. Then she taught a class in Aix-en-Provence, using fish from the Mediterranean. The dish suddenly bloomed with flavor, forcing her to advise American readers hungry for the authentic fish stew to make something else. "There exists no recipe written which, executed with the fish available in this country, will taste quite like the true Marseilles concoction, or I would refer you to its text immediately," she wrote in "The New Making of a Cook" (Morrow, 1997).

There are plenty of other reasons not to make bouillabaisse. For many of us, it seems, the dish that made Marseilles famous becomes such a production and source of angst you want to turn off the stove and open a can of tuna. Some cooks don't want to go through all the steps involved: first cooking the fish, then passing the broth through a food mill, then straining it, then serving the broth and fish in separate crockery as two different courses. Or it's the thought of collecting enough fish heads and bones to make a stock for the bouillabaisse.

(Renee Comet - For The Washington Post)

The Right Fins for the Job

When recipes call for non-oily or oily fish, what do they mean?

NON-OILY FISH usually have light flesh, and their bones are considered by many cooks to be better for making fish stock than oily fish. Non-oily fish contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., less than half a gram in a three-ounce portion, cooked without added fat), beneficial in fighting against cardiovascular and other diseases. Kinds include black bass, cod, Dover sole, flounder, grouper, haddock, halibut, Lemon sole, monkfish, pollock, red snapper, sea bass, skate, tilapia, tuna (canned in water). turbot and whiting.

OILY FISH have darker flesh and contain greater amounts (i.e., generally 1 to 1.8 grams per three-ounce portion) of omega-3 fatty acids than non-oily fish. Kinds include eel, mackerel, orange roughy, salmon, sardines, trout and tuna (fresh).

Instead, there are plenty of other stews that do a fine job of turning fish into a meal with half the fuss. For the seafood challenged -- those who quake at the very idea of cooking fish -- these less heralded preparations are a blessing. There are no fancy gadgets, no strainers, poachers or food mills to mess with. No, these are simple, one-pot affairs cooked mostly on the stovetop in fairly quick order, then ladled into a bowl in a cloud of tantalizing aromas, perhaps over a thick slice of crusty bread.

"Stew" is a bit of a misnomer. These are not like meat stews that simmer for hours and hours to tenderize tough cuts. Fish are delicate creatures: they want to be cooked only to the point of doneness. The word "stew" merely differentiates this food from soups that contain much more liquid than solids, meaning that a fish stew should be thick with fish, surrounded by a bit of flavorful broth.

You will find these kinds of stews wherever saltwater laps against a shoreline. The fish involved is usually of the firm, white, non-oily variety (see box, above); whatever looks best that day. There is a base of aromatic vegetables, typically onions, and perhaps something more assertive, such as green bell pepper, and very likely garlic. Potatoes often play a supporting role. Precious saffron frequently stars.

But look for the imprint of the country of origin. For instance, you might find a tomato sauce in a fish stew from Italy. The Portuguese love their cilantro and paprika. In Morocco, swordfish is first marinated in an exotic blend of spices, then topped with preserved lemon. The Brazilians prize moqueca, a luxuriously tropical dish made with coconut milk and palm oil.

The fish and vegetables contribute their own delicious broth, sometimes with the aid of a little wine. You may be tempted to dress up your stew with additional shellfish: mussels, clams, whole shrimp -- they make a dramatic presentation, and their briny juices add flavor. Just be careful you don't overdo it.

That's the beauty of stews: There are no hard and fast rules. It's a little of this, a little of that, and pretty soon you have dinner.

While it might seem more authentic to use big pieces of fish on the bone, current sensibilities lean more toward tender fillet. Be sure to inspect your fillets carefully with your fingers, and remove any pin bones you find.

Ligurian Fish Stew


6 servings

In the region of Italy around Genoa, ciuppin (chuh-PEEN) refers to any fish soup or stew. In the classic version of ciuppin -- not to be confused with the famous San Francisco dish, cioppino (chuh-PEE-noh) -- fish parts are cooked until the meat falls from the bone. The meat and cooking liquid is then passed through a food mill to create a flavorful broth for larger pieces of fish fillet and squid.

If you find grinding fish parts a bit scary, this rendition, adapted from Mario Batali's "Simple Italian Food" (Clarkson Potter, 1998), is for you. The broth is composed of a tomato sauce and white wine. The precise fish types may vary according to market availability; just look for those that are fresh, firm and not oily.

1 round loaf country-style bread

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into about 1/4-inch dice

1 stalk celery, cut into about 1/4-inch dice

1 carrot, peeled and cut into about 1/4-inch dice

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade (recipe follows)

8 ounces grouper fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces snapper fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces halibut fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces cod fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound mussels, in their shells, rinsed

8 ounces squid, cleaned and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds (including tentacles)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

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