A potful of Mediterranean flavors

I think that a stew is more interesting than a steak, whether it’s a beefsteak, a cauliflower steak or a fish steak. In terms of flavor complexity and satisfaction delivered to the diner, a stew always wins, at least for me. The steak is one-dimensional; the stew transcends the sum of its parts.

Take this Italianate fish stew. It is not terribly complex, but simmering a sea bass in a savory broth seasoned with garlic, onion, olive oil, tomato and saffron gives it a lot of pizazz for minimal effort. Cooks around the Mediterranean know this. A simple stew of this sort is standard fare from Barcelona to Bandol, from Marseille to Messina.

It’s actually rather easy to put together. Rinse a dozen large clams (or a couple of pounds of mussels). Chop some firm white-fleshed fish fillets, season them with salt, pepper and herbs, and let them marinate while you make the base for the stew.

Soften an onion in olive oil and add garlic, tomato and saffron. Add a pinch of hot pepper, some crushed fennel seed and a splash of white wine. Finish making the broth with fish or chicken stock, though water is just fine as long as the broth is well seasoned. Now the hard part is done. (And it wasn’t too hard, was it?) You can make this base several hours before the meal, or even the day before.

From this point, dinner is a mere 30 minutes away. Pop the stew into a hot oven. When the clams have opened and the fish is easy to flake, it is ready.

Of course, you could cook the stew on the stovetop, but cooking it in the oven gives it heat from every direction, not just from the bottom of the pot. In my experience, this helps to keep the fish moist. Though it does simmer in the oven, it doesn’t get that “boiled fish” texture, and the broth gains in flavor, too.

You’ll want to serve this fish stew with garlic toast. Just toast thick slices of good hearth-baked bread till golden and rub the surface vigorously on one side with a garlic clove. Now dip it into that glorious broth. You can’t do that with steak.

And to drink ...

An assertive Bandol rosé or a gutsy white would go well with this Italian fish stew. Many Italian whites won’t have enough body for the stew, so I’d resist the reflex urge to pair regionally. But French whites would work well, especially good vermentinus from Corsica, and Chablis and aligotés from Burgundy. You may also want to consider a red wine. English wine and food writer Fiona Beckett has argued that the slight bitterness of saffron goes well with reds from southern France as long as they aren’t overpoweringly fruity. Options may include Faugères from the Languedoc, or a decent Côtes du Rhône. You may also try a red from Corsica. Personally, I’d stick with Bandol rosés, which don’t require summer temperatures to be delicious.



Italian-Style Fish Stew

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Time: 1 hour


2 pounds white-fleshed fish fillets, such as hake, snapper or sea bass, skin removed

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons chopped thyme or marjoram

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 small lemon, thinly sliced

2 cups diced white onion

4 minced garlic cloves, plus 1 whole garlic clove for rubbing bread

1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seed

1 bay leaf

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups diced tomatoes, fresh or canned

3 cups fish stock, light chicken broth or water

12 large clams

4 thick slices country bread

1/4 cup chopped parsley


1. Marinate the fish: Cut fish into 2-inch chunks and place in a medium bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add half the chopped thyme, 1 tablespoon olive oil and the lemon slices. Toss to coat and set aside for 30 minutes (or refrigerate for up to 8 hours).

2. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a wide heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook until softened, stirring, 5 or 6 minutes.

3. Add minced garlic, saffron, red pepper flakes, fennel seed, bay leaf and tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more. Add wine, tomatoes and stock or water and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust; the broth should be well seasoned. (This seasoned base may be prepared up to 1 day in advance, if desired.)

4. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange fish, clams and lemon slices in the bottom of a 9-by-12-inch baking dish or a wide earthenware casserole of similar size. Ladle the broth over everything, cover and bake for 20 minutes, or until clams have opened and fish flakes easily.

5. Toast the bread and rub each slice with garlic. Sprinkle parsley over the soup. Serve in low soup bowls, giving each guest some fish, clams, broth and garlic toast.

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