For most Italians, the sea is never very far away. Though a relatively small country, Italy has 5000 miles of coastline—so it’s easy to understand why fish and “frutti di mare” (literally “the fruits of the sea”) have always had a special importance in Italian daily life and in regional culinary traditions. The love Italians have for fish begins early in life.
Some of the most succulent seafood dishes in the world can be found in Italy. Popular varieties of fish include tuna, anchovies, sardines, swordfish, cod, salmon, shrimp, crab, squid, clams and mussels. Such fish and shellfish are traditionally added to stews, pasta dishes and risotto. Cioppino was developed in San Francisco by Italian-American fishermen, who prepared what they had while on their fishing boats, so they must have used local fish and seasoning. Zuppa di Pesce or Brodetto are the Italian names for fish stews/soups from various Italian regions.
The interesting history behind Italian fish stews stretches back at least five hundred years, as it is believed that fish stew was first made in Livorno around the year 1500. As with many other Italian traditional recipes, there are various legends surrounding its creation, but two of these stories stand out from the rest.
The first legend tells of a fisherman from Livorno who lost his life at sea in a shipwreck. His children were so hungry with no one to provide for them after his death that they turned to all their neighbours for food. Everyone gave them different types of fish, with which their mother made a huge soup, adding tomatoes, garlic, oil and slices of bread – thus creating the first cacciucco (fish stew). The second is that a lighthouse keeper created the stew. The Florentine Republic had prohibited the use of olive oil which he always used to fry his fish and, so rather than having his favorite “fritto”, he made a fish soup instead. The most realistic explanation is that after having sold what they fished, fishermen’s families had to cook with whatever had remained unsold, thus starting the tradition of mixing all kinds of fish together. The traditional recipe calls for thirteen different kinds of fish as ingredients, but nowadays, most people use between six and eight varieties.
Entertaining at Home
I have always enjoyed entertaining and inviting friends and family over for a dinner party or informal pizza get-togethers. I learned quickly that it is a good idea to plan menu items that allow for advanced preparation, so that I could spend time with my guests instead of cooking in the kitchen. The menu below is an example of how most of the preparation for the menu items can be done ahead of time. The appetizer can be breaded ahead of time and placed in the baking dishes until close to serving time. Just before your guests arrive, you can drizzle the vegetables with oil and bake. Actually, this appetizer tastes good at room temperature. The lemon dip can be prepared well in advance. I like to offer an appetizer like this one because it allows guests to eat and talk for a while before the main course. The cook can do the same because the second course preparations were done ahead.
Much of the second course will have been completed by the time you are ready to serve. The garlic paste can be prepared ahead of time and smeared on the bread just before you put it in the oven. You can put the garlic bread in the oven (the oven will be hot and is the same temperature you used for the vegetables) while you cook the fish in the broth and dress the salad. Serve the stew in a soup terrine, if you have one. Just before placing the dishes on the table, I like to move the parfaits from the freezer to the refrigerator. Put the topping and chocolate on when you are ready to serve them. You will have enjoyed this dinner as much as your guests.
Dinner Party Menu For Four
- Oven Fried “Fritto Misto”
- Italian Fisherman’s Stew
- Ok For You Garlic Bread
- Salad of Baby Lettuces with Italian Dressing
- Almond Mocha Parfait
Oven Fried “Fritto Misto”
A favorite in Italy, fritto misto (mixed fry) is an assortment of bite-size pieces of vegetables or other foods that are dipped in batter, deep-fried and served as an appetizer. My version keeps it healthy by using the “oven fry” method.
2 cups vegetables (your pick)
- cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets
- green beans, halved
- fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- zucchini, cut into ¼ “ slices
- frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted
- asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into thirds
- 3 eggs, beaten or 3/4 cup egg substitute
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil
- Lemon Mayonnaise Sauce, recipe below
Cut vegetables, rinse them off and drain on paper towels.
Spray 2 large 13×9 inch glass baking dishes with olive oil cooking spray
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Place the eggs in a shallow dish.
In a deep wide bowl place the flour mixed with the cheese and spices.
Dip each piece of vegetable first into the egg, and then into the flour mixture, making sure they are coated evenly on all sides.
Put the vegetables in the prepared baking dishes and drizzle the tops lightly with olive oil.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until browned, turning them over with a fork halfway through the cooking time. Serve with the lemon mayonnaise sauce.
Lemon Mayonnaise Sauce
- 1 cup low-fat olive oil mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from about ½ lemon)
Whisk together and chill in a serving bowl. Garnish top with chopped parsley.
Italian Fisherman’s Stew
Halibut is a favorite fish in this dish, but you can use cod, snapper or grouper. You can substitute a cooked lobster or 1 cup of cooked crab meat or squid for any of the fish in the recipe.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 celery rib, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 (28-32 ounce) container Italian chopped tomatoes
- 1 finely grated rind and juice of orange
- 1 tablespoon sugar or honey
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cups dry red wine
- 2 cups bottled clam broth
- 4 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup chopped roasted red peppers
- 1 pounds firm white fish fillets, cut into 2” inch pieces
- 1 dozen clams or mussels
- 1 pound sea scallops, cut into halves
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- Chopped parsley
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high. Add onion, carrot, celery and garlic. Sauté 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, orange rind and juice, sugar, chile flakes, wine, clam broth, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Uncover and simmer over medium heat until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes.
The broth can be prepared several hours ahead. Cover and let sit on the stove until close to dinner time. You can also prepare the broth a day ahead . Cool and refrigerate. Bring the broth to a boil when you are ready to complete the dish and then add the fish as indicated in the recipe.
Add roasted red peppers and stir in the fish, scallops and shrimp and simmer for about 5 minutes. Next add clams, pushing them down into the soup a little. Cover the pot and simmer for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the clams are steamed open and cooked through.
Discard any clams that do not open. Remove from heat and stir in chopped basil.
Pasta bowls work well for serving this dish; garnish with a little chopped parsley. It’s best to have a side plate for each diner to hold empty shells.
Ok For You Garlic Bread
- 8 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 Italian bread baguette, cut in half lengthwise
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Place garlic in a small saucepan with enough cold water to cover and bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook 3 minutes and drain.
Mash the cooked garlic, oil and salt in a small bowl with the back of a spoon until a smooth paste forms. Spread the mixture over the cut surfaces of the bread.
Place the bread on a baking sheet and bake until the bread begins to brown around the edges, 4 to 6 minutes. Slice and serve.
Salad of baby lettuces and sliced black olives with Italian dressing
Almond Mocha Parfait
- 3 cups low-fat vanilla ice cream or frozen low-fat yogurt, softened
- 2 teaspoons instant espresso granules
- 8 teaspoons Amaretto
- 1/2 cup chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (8 cookies)
- 4 tablespoons reduced-calorie frozen whipped topping
- Grated chocolate
Combine ice cream and espresso granules; stir well.
Spoon 1/4 cup ice cream mixture into each of 4 (8-ounce) parfait glasses or pretty stemware.
Top mixture with 1 teaspoon amaretto and 1 tablespoon cookie crumbs.
Repeat layers, ending with ice cream mixture; freeze 1 hour.
Top each parfait with 1 tablespoon whipped topping and grated chocolate.
Serve immediately. Serves 4.
- Daring to Try Something New! (plotmamas.wordpress.com)
- My big sister Dina’s a much better cook than me – here’s her amazing fish stew recipe (mirror.co.uk)