Zuppa de Pesce & Peanut-butter Cupcakes


It’s DH’s birthday today, so dinner had to be a little special.  He requested this fish stew, from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.  It’s a classic in our household too, but made less often now that we have kids.  It’s not only time-consuming to make, but also time-consuming to shop for, because it includes fish heads as one of Marcella’s CRITICAL ingredients.  If you’ve ever read a Marcella Hazan recipe, you already know that they are chock full of instructions like “And in order to make this recipe correctly, you’ll need to have been born a Silician fisherman and wake up at the crack of dawn to harvest your own scallops…” which, depending on the kind of cook you are, is either a deal-breaker or something you roll your eyes at and then go buy whatever scallops happen to be available at Whole Foods.

In most cases, I am the second kind of cook.  I nod appreciatively at what Marcella is trying to accomplish and then I make the closest approximation I can using American supermarket ingredients because I live in New York City and do not own a farm or a private jet.  But before we had kids, we lived in a much trendier neighborhood, and in this neighborhood there was a Really Awesome Fish Place.  And one day, after having made this recipe numerous times with no fish heads at all and thinking it was already pretty great, I thought to myself, Hey, Self, I bet the Awesome Fish Place would save some heads for you if you asked them a day or two in advance.  And they did.  And that week I made the recipe with the heads included and OH MY GOD MARCELLA I AM SO SORRY I EVER DOUBTED YOU.  The flavor was SO MUCH RICHER.  So, in short, fish heads matter, but require extra shopping, and that’s why we don’t have this very often anymore.

(PS, if you live in NYC, do NOT order the “fish heads and bones for stock” package from FreshDirect thinking you will get fish heads just because they’re in the name of the product.  I’ve tried this twice now and each time have received a very disappointing package of fish spines with NO HEADS.  I have written to complain and suggest you do the same.)

(PPS, in spite of my devotion to following Marcella’s orders because she is always right, I’ve still altered the recipe because hers assumes you will be serving 8 people, that you have the kind of money that buys five or six different kinds of shellfish, and also that you have the time to fillet whole fish yourself.  And that you are willing to use “1 cup of Italian plum tomatoes from a can” instead of just dumping the whole damn can in because REALLY, THERE IS ONLY SO FAR ONE CAN BEND.  I’m not giving exact measurements here because the amounts can be adjusted as needed depending on how many people you’re feeding.)

  • 1 med-large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine
  • olive oil
  • 1 can plum tomatoes in juice (not puree)
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • fish heads (SEE ABOVE)
  • fish fillets (I use the “fish cubes” from FreshDirect – mostly salmon and striped bass this time)
  • various shellfish (I used shrimp and mussels)
  • SPECIAL EQUIPMENT – FOOD MILL

Heat the olive oil in a large chef’s pan or dutch oven.  Add the onions and sweat until softened.  Add garlic and parsley, cook very briefly until fragrant (about 30 seconds).  Add wine, cook until reduced by about half.  Add tomatoes, simmer about 25 minutes.

ADD THE FISH HEADS TO THE PAN!  SO EXCITING!  Cover and cook 15 minutes, turning once.  Let cool until you can handle them with your hands, then pull out the big bones and dump the rest in the food mill (fitted with the largest-holed disc).  Puree into the pan – this will look a little gross but will turn out to be the most delicious thing you have ever added to a soup.  Trust me.  Trust Marcella.  (Don’t use a blender or food processor for this step either – the food mill is really the only tool that will both puree and separate out the bones and connective tissue at the same time.  Also you can use it to make fabulous mashed potatoes and roast tomato soup.)

If you are using squid as one of your shellfish, add it next and simmer for 45 minutes to get it past that rubbery stage.  If you are using quicker-cooking shellfish, hooray, you just saved yourself 45 minutes!

Add fish and shellfish and cook until done, about another 10-15 minutes.  You may want to steam open the bivalves in a separate pan in case any are full of sand – not really an issue with mussels which are farmed on ropes, but clams still grow in muddy sand and may be gritty.

Serve in bowls with a warm crusty baguette to soak everything up.  If you are from San Francisco and want to call this cioppino, feel free to serve with sourdough.

For dessert we had Peanut-Butter Chocolate Chip Cupcakes.  The only change I made was to add a little confectioner’s sugar to the frosting since it wasn’t quite the right consistency as just straight ganache.  Then I had extra so I mixed in some peanuts and made little quenelle-shaped truffles to go on top.

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