Zuppa di Pesce is the ultimate expression of the bounty of the sea, said to have been invented by fishermen who in the days before refrigeration, needed a convenient way to prepare all the unsold bits and pieces of their daily catch. So why not throw them all together in a pot to simmer with some aromatics and water or, if you could afford, white wine? When the tomato became a central part of Italian cooking, especially in the south, many local variations of fish soup turned various shades of red. Of course, being a a country where the sea is rarely too far away, the products of the sea play a major role in its cuisine, so it's not surprising that zuppa di pesce, or fish soup, shares its origin with other regional Italian variations of seafood stews including Cacciucco from Tuscany, Brodetto di Pesce from Abruzzo, and other similar dishes found in coastal regions throughout the Mediterranean, from Portugal to Greece including the hearty Catalan Suquet de Peix, Bouillabaisse from Provence and San Francisco's Cioppino, born of Italian immigrant fisherman, many from Liguria, who settled in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the late 1800s.
My Zuppa di Pesce is a "fishy" hybrid but starts with a spicy broth of fennel, leeks, spices, wine and tomatoes before layering in the clams, mussels, cod, squid, and shrimp. The seafood is quickly poached until just cooked then big bowls are served with plenty of garlic rubbed grilled baguette to sop up the broth. The key to this stew is to use “the day’s catch” so you make this your own using an assortment of your favorite types of seafood: I used plump Salt Spring Island Mussels, Savoury Clams and Ling Cod from BC, fresh Digby scallops and lobster claws from Nova Scotia, and jumbo shrimp and squid from Florida.
Zuppa di Pesce
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 leeks, washed and finely sliced
1/2 small fennel bulb, finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices reserved
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup red wine
1/4 cup Pernod
1 8 oz bottle clam juice
1/2 lb firm flesh fish such as halibut, ling cod or salmon, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 lb mussels, scrubbed and bearded
1/2 lb manila clams, scrubbed
1/2 lb scallops
1 lb large large shrimp, peeled and deveined — but save the shells
1 lb cleaned squid, cut into 1/2' rings, tentacles halved
1 French baguette
1 cup olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the shrimp shells and tails until lightly browned and fragrant, about 7-8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fried shells and heads and discard.
Heat some oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, leeks, fennel, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Season with salt and pepper, then cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and fennel are soft, about 12 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes with their juice, tomato paste, wine, clam juice, Pernod and 1 cup of water. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often, until the flavours meld, about 15 minutes. Stir in fish, mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. Finally add the squid, cover, and cook until the mussels and clams open and the seafood is cooked through, about 5 minutes, discarding any mussels that don't open.
Meanwhile, cut the baguette into diagonal slices about 3/8-inch thick and place on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven at 475°F until just golden, about 5-8 minutes — watch carefully to make sure they don't get too brown. Remove the toasted bread from the oven, and using the fresh cloves of raw garlic, rub one side of each of the toasts. Next brush with a little olive oil and serve with the Zuppa di Pesce — delizioso!