Not to overwork the usual tired conceit employed by all imagination-starved editors and writers doomed to fill that day’s quota of prose for an impending edition—I don’t, after all, have any real deadlines but the self-imposed kind—but this particular “assignment” has a particular pertinence. My favorite sort of food, the sort I would want to relinquish last in one of those reflexive, and frankly silly if you ask me, thought experiments when forced to admit it, is seafood. I would eschew all avian and mammalian flesh, but please, give me fish any day.
If ever in the unlikely event I were stranded on a desert island, with nought but a pot and decent four-burner range, not to mention a small vegetable plot to supply the ancillary ingredients, and finally some fortuitously provisioned selected alcoholic decoctions, I could go a long way dining on a dish that has a certain universalized ubiquity. I am not a sufficiently well-versed, never mind properly schooled, culinarian as to know the full extent of the global variants, but I’d daresay that nearly every culture advanced enough to have what can accurately be termed a cuisine in any venue that has an oceanic border could be relied upon, without too much scholarly effort, to reveal at least one signature dish, consisting of a soup or broth festooned chiefly with fish of either or both the finny and shelled species, and variously accompanied by a generous, if not only merely a token, array of vegetal tidbits.
One of my favorite parts of the world is in France, and more specifically the southern bit known univerally as Provence—likely among the top ten destinations for a sojourn of whatever length. Not the least among the reasons for my druthers in those climes is the native cuisine. It’s at the basis for the now famous, though by now more establishmentarian than trendy, Mediterranean diet.
This particular stew, which I have termed a “marmite de la mer” naming it, as are so many dishes that are eponymously designated after the cooking utensil in which they are prepared, like the gratin and the paella. These are among a slew of other favorites of mine, which slot easily into this highly digestible, incredibly healthy regimen named after that sea that constitutes the oceanic basin that sits at the heart of the intercontinental ring of enchanted lands (each with its own distinctive and delicious cuisine) ranging from Morocco, and along the northern coast of Africa, to the bits of Asia that reach eastward with a kind of longing for the sea. How many of us regularly stop to consider that Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey are as steeped in brine as any New England state (but Vermont, the land-locked one; don’t ever accept an offer for a “genuine” seafood stew while basking in the beauty of the Green Mountains)? And then following around the eastern rim of the Mediterranean sea to encompass the glory of possibly innumerable modifications of the humble fisherman’s meal at the heart of this recipe of mine, and so many others—and who, after all, would want to choose a “best,” that other imagination-starved conceit of failing editorial sensibilities. Not from Greece, or Italy, never mind France and Spain, and yes, I’ve skipped a host of countries with their own versions of seafood delights, because technically they are on the Adriatic.
This stew of mine is reminiscent, as it says in the notes that follow this recipe, of Italian, more specifically, Ligurian, and French riviera antecedents, with a touch of San Francisco, by virtue of being cousin to the Genoese and Calabrese, who make a stew that is the likely origin of cioppino (of which this marmite of mine is not an exemplum).
I’ve skimped on the vegetables (though carrots, potatoes, and fennel stalks parboiled to tender, for example, before being added, are easy accouterments), and it’s a fish stock, not a tomato. And I’ve used saffron and pastis in the flavoring to make this solidly and unmistakably Provençal, pointing slightly west, while the rest of the dish points east to the Riviera.
- 1 cup carrots : chopped
- 1 cup fennel : trimmed and decored, chopped : trim the stalks, and core the bulb
- 1 cup yellow onion : chopped
- 3 cloves garlic : skinned and chopped
- 1 quart fish fumet (fish stock) : made from fish frames and heads, available from fish mongers, usually frozen
- 1 quart filtered water
- 1 bouquet seafood bouquet garni : rough chopped fresh parsley, tarragon, dill, and a large bay leaf, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied
- sea salt : to taste
- fresh ground black pepper : to taste
- 1 tbsp Tomato Paste : use the double-concentrated sort, usually available in tubes
- 1 pinch saffron threads : this could be anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon depending on how loose
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp pastis : 2+1 tablespoons for different stages of the broth preparation; use any national brand, e.g., Pernod or Ricard
- 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, halibut : see fish note
- 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, black cod : see fish note
- 1/2 lb white fleshed fresh non-oily ocean fish, swordfish : see fish note
- 1/2 lb fresh or previously frozen wild-caught shrimp, shell on : see fish note
- 1/2 lb fresh or previously frozen, squid : with tentacles if available
- 3 each plum tomatoes : very ripe, cored and roughly chopped : optionally skinned and seeded
- 3 cloves garlic : roughly chopped
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 1/2-1 tbsp harissa seasoning : dry, ground spices
- 1/2-1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 yolk large egg : separated, do this ahead of time and set aside in a glass or cup
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil : use a finer grade, as this will be ingested in its natural state as part of the sauce on the toasts
- 1 loaf fresh baked baguette
As there are no carbohydrates added to the stew (which is a hint to give you some ideas about adding your favorite, say a pasta like orzo, or a grain, like barley or farro... but these are discussed under options and supplements) I like serving it with a borrowing from one of my favorite soups in the world. Soupe de poissons is a meal in itself (and requires about as much preparation) served in a bowl, and with some ritualistic accompaniments. For this more delicate stew, I suggest serving only the toasts made from fresh baguette, smeared with a generous helping of the rouille.
The preparation is simple and should be done just prior to cooking the stew itself in earnest, between the prep work on the vegetables and beginning to make the mirepoix. Cut off the pointed or rounded end of the baguette (the shape will vary depending on the baker) and then cut at least two slices of about ¾" each for each diner. Cut these on an extreme bias (let's say about 30-40°) to maximize the surface area, creating long ovals.
The most efficient way to toast these baguette slices is probably in a toaster-oven set to toast both sides at once to the lightest shade of brown. Once all the toasts are done, set them aside in the bowl or on the plate on which you serve them at table beside the stew.
Also see the suggestions for further research for a brief discussion about serving bread and toast with some of the variants of this dish, as they are prepared and served in Italy and in San Francisco.
Begin with the mirepoix. This is prepared in the same marmite (covered casserole that can be used on the stovetop; one tradition is that it is made of enameled cast iron, which is what I use) in which you will prepare first the broth, and then the finished dish. Not being a fan of additional cleanup, and because the pans I use are quite handsome as well as functional, this can also serve as the serving dish on the table.
One thing the experienced cook will notice about this mirepoix is that the mix of aromatics has been altered from the classic combination of onions, celery, carrots, and the proportions have been made equal, instead of 2:1:1 of onions to the other two vegetables. I've also added garlic. I've substituted (I prefer to think of it as elevated) fennel as the preferred member of the Apiacaea family (related to the carrot), and more deserving of the designation of aromatic, and most of all being a paradigm of the Mediterranean palette of vegetables, especially well utilized in the cuisine of Italy, just next door to the côte d'azur of France. The characteristic anise top notes of fennel are complemented and enhanced in this recipe with the addition of a shot or two of pastis, the French national drink, and the favorite aperitif in Nice and neighboring Provence.
Start the marmite on medium heat, and add two tablespoons of EVOO. Heat gently until the oil starts to shimmer, and add the onions, fennel, and carrots in any order. Salt and pepper the vegetables and stir occasionally for about a minute. Add the chopped garlic, and stir further.
Stir occasionally, and adjust the heat, usually downward, so the vegetables are cooking slowly, but not coloring in any way. When they begin to soften, lower the heat to low, and cover the marmite.
Check the Marmite occasionally, and stir the mirepoix. The mixture should soften slowly, but progressively. Keep it covered while it cooks, in between checking and stirring. When bits of carrot have softened noticeably under pressure from your stirring utensil, raise the heat under the marmite slightly to low-medium. Add the tablespoon of tomato paste and stir thoroughly. Cook an additional minute or two to blend and begin to cook the tomato paste.
Raise the heat to medium high, and after a half-minute or so, add the two tablespoons of pastis, and stir to mix and loosen any bits of fond that may have formed on the bottom of the marmite. Cook for a minute and no more than two, to burn off the alcohol. Add the 1/4 cup of chicken stock, and again, stir to mix and loosen the fond, and keep mixing until the liquid has evaporated so the mixture is thickened, but is not sticking to the pan.
Add the two pints of fish stock, followed by the two pints of water, and mix thoroughly. Adjust the heat slightly and watch carefully until the liquid just starts to simmer, and lower the heat. Drop the bouquet garni in the heated liquid, and submerge with the stirring utensil until thoroughly soaked and the bouquet floats beneath the surface.
Cover, and watch carefully to make sure the broth doesn't boil. Stir occasionally. While the broth is simmering and extracting optimal flavor from the mirepoix and bouquet garni, place a large pinch (holding the spice gently between the fingers) of saffron threads in the bowl of a mortar. Crush the threads gently into a coarse powder with the pestle, and set this aside.
After at least 10 minutes, and preferably for no more than 20 minutes, remove the pan from the heat. With a fine sieve placed over a large clean glass or stainless steel bowl, strain the broth into the bowl. Scrape the pan well so all contents are in the sieve. With a large silicone rubber spatula, gently press the mirepoix (having removed and discarded the drenched bouquet garni) to extract more liquid. Be careful not to press the cooked vegetable dregs through the sieve. You want to extract as much liquid as possible, but no solids. Discard the vegetables. Pour the strained broth back into the marmite, and replace on the burner.
Reheat the broth gently. With a large cooking spoon or a small ladle, spoon a small amount of broth into the bowl of the mortar with the crushed saffron and swirl gently so the saffron powder is suspended in the liquid. Pour this mixture carefully back into the marmite of broth as it warms up. Repeat this last step, and you may also use a small silicone rubber spatula to ensure you have scraped all fo the saffron residue into the broth. The mortar and pestle may be set aside to be cleaned for making the rouille while the broth reheats.
When the broth reaches a simmer, add the remaining tablespoon of pastis and another ounce of rosé or white wine. Simmer for three or four minutes to boil off the alcohol. Reduce the heat under the marmite to a very low simmer and cover.
While the broth is simmering one last time, just prior to adding the fish and tomatoes, as described in the next section, prepare the rouille. There is a fresh uncooked egg yolk in this emulsion, and it should not stand for too long before being served. If you prefer preparing the rouille ahead of time, be sure immediately to refrigerate it in the bowl in which you will serve it, covered.
In a clean dry mortar add the chopped garlic cloves and sprinkle with a pinch or two of sea salt. Crush into a smooth paste with the pestle. Add the yolk you set aside, and mix the paste and yolk together with the pestle until they form a uniform emulsion. Add the EVOO about a ½ teaspoonful at a time and mix thoroughly between dollops. As you mix the mixture should thicken more and more into a smooth unctuous sauce that approaches mayonnaise in consistency. Pause and add the harissa and paprika and mix thoroughly and uniformly into the sauce. It should take on a ruddy hue. Depending on the brand and mix of harissa spices, there may be darker individual specks; this is normal. Rouille is the French for "rust" and the hearty sauce is called this for the color. Keep adding oil in small dollops until it reaches a spreadable consistency, short of stiffness.
Scoop the finished sauce into a small serving bowl, scraping up the mortar with a silicone spatula. Set aside the rouille, to be served alongside the stew for diners to spread on individual slices of toast.
Take the cover off the simmering broth, if you have not already done so, and turn up the heat slightly to bring it to a more vigorous simmer. Adding the fish, which is done more or less in very short order, will lower the overall temperature significantly and it will take a few minutes once again to reach the simmer.
First, before the fish, add the chopped tomato, stir, and then allow the broth to return to the simmer.
Add the shrimp to the broth before the other fish. Then add the finny fish chunks in small lots (rather than trying to add all the fish at once). The squid bodies are added last.
Watch the stew from this point fairly carefully. It will taste best if served when the fish are just done. Aside from not allowing the fish to cook in broth that is simmering too vigorously (it should absolutely not be allowed to boil), the other caution is not to allow the fish to cook for too long a period, even if the temperature is kept low. Cooked too long and the fish will at once fall apart, and the shrimp and squid, as well as certain species of fish, will toughen.
Once the stew has once again achieved the simmer, you can let the fish cook for another three or four minutes. Then remove the pot from the stove and place, covered, on the dining table on a trivet or hot pad. Have a small ladle ready to serve the guests in turn from the bowl.
Fish Notes – Fish Fumet / Stock
As far as the high value protein portion of this dish is concerned, your best friend will be either the local fish monger, or the regular counter folks at a larger urban supermarket fish department. Most local sellers will prepare things like fish stock in their own kitchens and pack it and freeze it for sale in standard units, usually pints. You should expect to spend about $7 a pint for this ambrosia.
I used to make my own fumet, when fish mongers and larger fish markets and supermarket fish departments still butchered their own whole fish and could offer trimmings, mainly the heads, tails and whole fish frames to the first person to ask, or for some very nominal amount. But those days are gone, and the only way to get these invaluable fixings is buy several whole fish from these sources, and ask them to pack the trimmings—all the trimmings—separately. It's only fair, as you're paying for them by weight anyway. Making fish fumet is a wholly separate subject, and likely the topic of at least another stand-alone blog essay.
In the meantime, find a retailer that sells fish stock, and stock up. Most likely it's already frozen, and if you love seafood, it isn't a bad idea to keep two or three units in your freezer, ready for defrosting.
In a pinch, there are packaged fish stocks and broths available from a few different brands. The one that I've used with some reliability is Kitchen Basics brand "Seafood Cooking Stock," and it will do in a pinch, especially in this recipe, which calls for diluting the stock at the intermediary cooking stage. The problem with all commercial preparations, pre-packaged for retail shelves, is they are laden with far too much salt, so the sodium level is too high (Kitchen Basics is not too bad, in that 1 cup has 600 mg of sodium, which is about 1/3 the absolutely sane maximum any adult can afford to eat daily. Choices dwindle rapidly however, when you consider that most other fish stock commercial products appear on the shelves as bouillon cubes, and the less said, the better.
In another pinch you can engineer a pretty good substitute playing with bottled (not canned) clam juice, which is what the vernacular styles as the liquid produced by steaming whole clams (and other bivalves) and capturing the brine and steaming liquid. Unfortunately, the steaming liquid is highly salted fresh water, and you're stuck with how to reduce the sodium, without so diluting the flavor that it adds nothing.
The best alternative to retrieving fish trimmings, heads and frames is to save all the shells you remove from your steamed shrimp and lobster dinners, and packing these in freezer bags, freezing them, and breaking out the lot and making a stock from scratch—the flavor is different, but it is genuine and it is seafood. But, as I indicated, this is the subject for a whole dedicated piece on preparing your own fish/shellfish stock.
Find some fish stock at the fish monger's and then proceed with the recipe.
The recipe here specifies the fish I used the last time I made it. I don't mean to suggest you go hunting up these particular species of fish. At least one of them, if not all of them, is seasonal and hard to come by.
The chief recommendation I make is that you use mainly non-oily fish. If you use three (or more) varieties, it's possible one of them can be, for example, tuna or salmon. The problem with the non-white, ocean fish that tend to have a higher fat content is that they are very distinctively (and more importantly) strongly flavored. They are certrainly hardy enough, that is, firm-fleshed, not to fall apart even with the minimal cooking time the recipe calls for.
I recommend, if you can find them, fresh (or, at worst, previously frozen) wild-caught ocean species of fish. There are not, as yet, a large number of essentially ocean-based species, but there are some, that are being farmed. Issues of genetic modification aside, I find the fish that are now being exploited for their qualities that make them more easily suitable for farming – species like tilapia – is that they are too bland (and I do make a distinction between delicate and bland) and many of them too chewy, both of these being qualities making them suitable for cuisines that call for fish in highly spiced native dishes, or for battering and deep-fat frying, techniques that call for fish that will withstand the stresses of these kinds of methods of preparation.
Unfortunately, the best fish for this stew are also the most expensive species, being in increasingly short supply, and also harder to fish in open water. Game fish, like halibut and swordfish are always a good choice. But there are other sports fishing targets that are excellent eating and will work nicely, being firm-fleshed. A fish like striped bass is a perfect example.
Certain species, not only dwindling in supply while remaining highly popular, because of their mild flavor and their high adaptability to several methods of cooking – I'm thinking particularly of cod and haddock - are not wholly suitable, at least for esthetic reasons. They cook quickly and then, in a word, disintegrate. One feature of this stew is that the fish bits are cut bite-size and remain whole in the stew, providing a sophisticated quality of toothsomeness to the dish.
Some of the native variants of this stew, the dishes on which, in part, this recipe is based (at least in spirit) like the Ligurian ciuppin traditionally were made from the spiny species of fish that abound in the Mediterranean, and which are less popular because of the innate difficulty of getting at the flesh of the fish. In a manner similar to the Provençal soupe de poissons or, as I've seen it called, soupe de pêcheurs, a lot of otherwise less marketable fish, either for their size or their physiognomy (they are bony and/or spiny), the fish are cooked to tenderness along with the vegetables used to flavor the stew or soup and then the whole mess is forced through a food mill and the bones and spines and other inedibles are discarded. For this more robust kind of dish, less desirable species, usually also cheaper (though in France, the species used for soupe de poissons have also become immoderately costly) and with a coarser texture when the flesh is whole.
Options & Supplements
I made mention of adding some of your favorite pasta or a grain to this stew. It's certainly permissible, and entirely a matter of personal taste.
I do tend to give myself more work than many other people in similar circumstances feel is absolutely necessary. So, with that proviso, I would recommend cooking the pasta (maybe spaghetti, or linguine – probably the thinner types – broken into bits about ½ or ¾ of an inch long), separately, draining and rinsing the pasta (presumably al dente) and then adding it to the finished stew with a stir, just before serving.
I certainly do recommend cooking any grains, and by grains I mean the whole grain varieties that are more and more available these days, like farro or barley or wheatberries ahead of time. I would cook them to chewy doneness, rather than very soft, as this helps retain a nutty flavor and is a nice counterpoint to the more yielding flesh of the fish.
Cooking the grains ahead of time is a logistical necessity, as they generally take longer to cook to a finished state (and even the type that has been "pearlized," that is, parboiled to diminish the cooking time) that make the time to add the grains to the broth particularly tricky given the workflow of the rest of this recipe. Cooking the pasta ahead of time, for me, is an esthetic decision, as the cooking pasta, no matter what, will release starch into the liquid in which it is cooking. This will make the broth cloudy and will change the consistency of it.
Finally, be advised that as there is saffron in this broth, which gives a wonderful distinct flavor note to the broth and renders the fish in this recipe a wonderful golden hue, any starchy additions, like paste or grains, will also be highly colored by the spice. Not a bad thing, but some people might consider this not a good thing, necessarily.
some references for further research:
Certainly all of the countries that have a coast on or near the Mediterranean offer many variants of their own versions of seafood stew. These suggestions for further reading online are just a start.
About ciuppin the Ligurian fish soup, which sort of combines features of the soupe de poissons discussed in the recipe and the San Francisco seafood stew, invented at the start of the 20th century, with its name derived from the humbler native dish and called cioppino: https://berthamag.us/ciuppin
And while you’re at it, you should check out cioppino, just mentioned, as it’s a cousin to this recipe that I’ve concocted. One major difference is that cioppino is a tomato-based broth (and there’s a nod to this origin in my recipe), whereas this marmite is, obviously, fish based, hence lighter and more delicate. Cioppino also traditionally has a far greater number of shellfish, especially bivalves. These can of course be added optionally, as additions, to the marmite recipe. See here: https://berthamag.us/2gf0pxI
For even deeper research into the whole subject of stews, soups, and other large pot melange main dishes made from seafood, you should check out cacciucco, from Tuscany, which is related to ciuppin (above), combining its milled component to create a thicker base for whole chunks of fish and other ingredients: https://berthamag.us/2gf0pxI
The Italian versions of these seafood stews are served over bread or toast, which is placed in the bowl first, and the soup added. Cioppino, the San Francisco adoption of these dishes, is served with the bread alongside. There is, I understand, a Calabrese version, served over toast which is garnished with fresh garlic (in France, garlic cloves are served with the toasts, and the diner is expected to rub the clove on the sharp edge of the crust to their liking).