As I stroll through the market, I’m instinctively drawn to the fishmonger, pulled in by the salty, rich, musky aromas from the bounty of oceanic treasures displayed on crystal prisms of ice beneath shimmering beveled glass.
The precious jewels twinkle in their own impish ways, and practically come alive as they try to catch my attention.
The branzino fish with cocked head stares at me with googly-eyes then flashes a coy wink; the octopus graciously stretches out a curled tentacle to shake my hand; the clams chit chat away with gritty jaws in constant motion, while the lobster tries to throw me a playful one-two punch with a banded claw.
My well-trained pescavorean tastebuds are co-coordinating with my creative foodie brain to concoct some divine seafood dishes.
Soups are hearty, soothing and satisfying, especially this time of year, and the bouillabaisse instantly pops in my head. This French classic was created by culinary serendipity by some fishermen of Marseille, France concocting a stew with bony rockfish scraps that they were unable to sell to markets or eateries.
It has evolved into a traditional Provençal mélange of seafood, such as monkfish, turbot, European hake, mussels, crab, octopus and lobster, and the authentic version includes the scorpion fish, indigenous to the southern French region.
These oceanic treats (which usually have their shells intact) are simmered with leeks, onions, potatoes, fennel, orange zest, a sprinkling of herbs de Provence and saffron, creating a divine aromatic broth. Julia Child recommended serving the broth and fish separately with a side of grilled bread slathered with a savory rouille (an olive oil-based mayonnaise seasoned with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper).
Cioppino, a more robust version of bouillabaisse, has Northern Cal origins as Italian immigrants living in the San Francisco Bay Area are credited with creating this rich, tomato-based seafood stew with a splash of red wine, chopped garlic and fresh basil or Italian parsley (recipe at right).
Traditional cioppino has a motherlode of firm fish and crustaceans (usually still wearing their armor) with regional variations. West Coast cioppino is full of seasonal delights from Dungeness crab, spiny lobster and spot prawns to California halibut, and Chinook salmon, while East Coast seafood offerings include Maine lobster, blue mussels, cod and haddock.
Luscious lobster, the gold standard of seafood, makes a smooth-as-silk bisque that translates from the French bis cuites, meaning “twice-cooked.” The lobster shells are first simmered in a soup pot with fish stock or water, shallots, celery, garlic, fresh tarragon, along with cognac and white wine. The broth is then strained through a colander and simmered again with the addition of heavy cream and chopped lobster meat for a fragrant and sublime special occasion soup.
And finally, there’s a tale of two chowders, (pronounced “chowdah” by folks along the northeastern coastal states) focused on an amusing — and delicious rivalry between Manhattanites and New Englanders for almost two centuries, more intense than the one between Columbia University and Harvard or the Rangers and Bruins.
Whether the Manhattan clam chowder, a sophisticated and elegant broth enlivened with Marsala wine, smoky pancetta and zesty tomatoes can hold a candle to the iconic New England version — a hearty, rich and rustic blend of littleneck clams, salt pork, heavy cream and cubed potatoes — is a matter of personal preference and regional pride. That pride reached a bizarre peak in 1939 when a state representative from Maine proposed a bill in the legislature making it illegal to add tomatoes to the coveted New England chowder.
Recipe: Cioppino A-Go-Go for Four
• Ingredients: 1/2 pound wild-caught salmon fillet (or sustainably farm-raised), cut in 1-inch cubes; 1/2 pound firm white fish (halibut, tilapia, cod, your choice); 1/2 pound wild-caught, jumbo shrimp, tail intact; 1/2 pound diver scallops or lobster tail, cut in chunks; 1 26-ounce jar or can strained tomatoes; 1 cup fish stock or vegetable broth; 1/3 cup red wine; 1 red pepper, coarsely chopped; 4 garlic cloves, minced; 2 celery stalks, diced; 1 fennel bulb, coarsely chopped (optional); 3 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika; 1 handful fresh chopped Italian parsley; salt, black pepper and cayenne to taste.
• Method: In a large stockpot, heat oil on medium and sauté peppers, garlic, celery, and fennel until tender. Add fish, and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add remaining ingredients (except crustaceans). Simmer for about 20 minutes, then add shrimp, scallop and lobster. Cook until shrimp and lobster turn pink and scallops are cooked but still tender. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with grilled garlic toast spears.