Bouillabaisse or Zuppa di Pesce?

At every opportunity I like to remind my three followers that a huge chunk of French cuisine traces its origin to itinerant European chefs of ages past,  all of whom hailed from Italy.  In the case of the famous French “Bouillabaisse” fish stew however the story is slightly different.

Bouillabaisse is a dish of the Mediterranean Sea to be sure.  The interesting fact is that the regions where this concoction is most frequently presented, namely the coastal south of France, were actually once part and parcel of Northern Italy,  or that portion of it ruled by the House of Savoy from Piedmont.  This was at a time when cooking started to rise up above a primitive daily chore to the beginnings of an art form.

The town of Nice was actually known as Nizza, and Monte Carlo remains a place that never lost its Italian moniker.

So far so good,  but the scholars seem to agree that the original “bouillabaisse” comes  from Marseilles in France and from there back to a colony of ancient Greeks who founded the city.  The fishermen among them would sell the days’ best catch to the markets ashore and use the less desirable specimens for their own dinner.  Boiling trash fish in sea water and adding a variety of spices and flavors resulted in a prototype of our subject dish. Yum.

But wait! Ancient Roman literature speaks of certain mythological figures, Venus and Vulcan, who entertained themselves at dinner with what can only be called a prototype of the prototype.  A broth consisting of boiled mixed fish and flavors galore.

Consequently assigning the origin of richly flavored fish stews to the shared gastronomic inventiveness of the Greeks and Romans should withstand scrutiny even from the most chauvinistic French chefs. To be technically precise one should always consider bouillabaisse as “zuppa di pesce,”  in Italian, or its equivalent in the Greek language, even if you happen to be French.

This is not to say that Bouillabaisse and Zuppa di Pesce are identical dishes where only the name has changed to protect the innocent.  However it is true that both share several common ingredients not the least of which are the varieties of seafood contained in them.  That is because the fish don’t know whether they’re swimming in Italian or French territorial waters.

Giving in to my constant bad habit of researching the most irrelevant of details I consulted what I think are reliable French and Italian web sites to try to identify the distinctiveness of each country’s recipes.  As a result I have endeavored to set out a sort of all inclusive recipe naming ingredients found often in the French versions as well as those found more prevalently in the Italian.

In so doing I don’t mean to ignore the equally famous Spanish “Zarzuela de Pescado” however the only difference between Spain and Italy in this corner of the food world is the inclusion in the spanish version of the “picada” garnish.  Picada is a ground up mixture of nuts, parsley, bread crumbs and garlic and must never be confused with the Italian veal “piccata.”  There will be a quiz on this.

Skipping the details the main difference between the Italian and French  versions is the absence of saffron in the Italian and the absence of wine in the French.  Also the species of fish caught in local waters differ to some extent but I maintain the differences in species chosen will not affect the end result in the slightest.  (I can visualize French chefs wringing their hands at that remark and throwing darts at my picture).

This photo shows a variation served by the Executive Chef of  “Le Bistro”  a specialty French-style restaurant located on board the mega-cruise ship Norwegian Breakaway.  I found that version to be slightly understated rather than richly flavored,  but at the same time a most elegant and delectable representation of the classic (to the extent I qualify as a judge!)  Note the roasted fennel bulb among all the other goodies.

So getting around to the recipe:

Bouillabaisse, i.e. Zuppa di Pesce

For 4-5 persons


To recreate a French original use 1/2 pound or slightly less of each of the fresh fish listed below. To recreate the typical Italian Zuppa di Pesce simply proceed to the nearest Safeway and pick up whatever you think looks good at the fish counter.  Shrimp, clams, calamari and mussels are also welcome substitutes for,  or additons to the finned species.

The French list of fishes:

  • monkfish  (lotte in French)
  • scorpion fish (rascasse)
  • conger eel (conger – you can include this species if you want but not me)
  • john dory (St. Pierre)
  • poisonous  smelts  (the spines of this French fish called “vives” are in fact poisonous)
  • sea robin (grondin rouge  -a  true trash fish if there ever was one)
  • prawns or large shrimp (langoustines)

5 ripe tomatoes peeled seeded and finely diced (or 4 cups of your best home-made marinara sauce)
2 medium onions (one diced the other quartered)
1 leek (white part only) thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 fennel bulb split into 2 quarters
1 head garlic peeled and roughly chopped
1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
3 cups or so fish stock or water (I use vegetable bouillon in the absence of a home-made fish stock)

1 teaspoon saffron threads (omit the saffron for the Italian version, thus saving a ton of money on ingredients)
1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. Kosher salt
Ground black pepper to taste
1 tbsp. orange zest (omit this for the Italian version but maybe substitute lemon zest??)
1/2 bottle good Italian white wine (for the Italian version, thus rendering a dish far more memorable than the French)


1. Dice the seafood into 1 inch chunks and set aside in the refrigerator.

2. Start with a mirepoix:  Heat the olive oil in a saute’ pan.  Add the diced onion,  the onion quarters, garlic,  fennel and leek and heat over medium for 8 minutes or so until well softened but not browned. Add the white wine (for the Italian version), bay leaf,  salt, pepper, parsley, lemon or orange zest and thyme and allow to reduce slightly, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a stock pot.

3. Add the tomatoes (or marinara sauce), saffron (for the French version) and water (or fish stock if you have any, or vegetable bouillon).

4. Once the mixture starts simmering add the seafood.  Do not boil!  Remove any scum that may appear and continue simmering until all seafood is opaque.  Some French and Italian recipes call for removing the solids and straining the broth but I don’t think it necessary.  That should do it.

Don’t forget if you’re using shellfish the items need to be cooked separately or at least in timed sequence.  Clams first, then mussels, shrimp and calamari in that order. Many recipes out there call for everything to be dumped into the broth at once.  Do that and be sorry.

Fish Stock:  As you may have guessed the above is the short cut method.  The traditional recipes call for creating your own fish stock before doing anything else,  simmering for an hour or more the bones and remnants of fileted fish in 3 or 4 quarts of water,  adding onion wedges,  celery leaves,  peppercorns,  a few coriander seeds, fennel bulb, thyme, parsley and assorted other flavorings (e.g. tarragon). I recently used a rockfish carcass with pretty good results.  The way around this tedious step is to use a commercial fish bouillon if you can find it (some markets do carry it in the cube or envelope form)  instead of plain water or vegetable bouillon.

Also,  the French like to include a “rouille” that you drop on top of the serving along with garlic croutons.  The rouille consists of a puree of garlic, roast red pepper, salt and olive oil, and sometimes egg yolk, to form a mayonnaise of sorts.  Go ahead and try that if you have time to kill before the guests arrive,  which you probably don’t.  I wager the Italians would consider a rouille superfluous and highly damaging to the natural seafood flavors in the dish.  Croutons are almost mandatory in France,  and “crostini” are common in Italy, but try serving the dish over linguine instead which is my preference.

Annoying Post Script (for the francophiles):  Check out this link for a discussion of Italian influence on French cuisine appearing some time ago in that impeccable and infallible source of knowledge – the New York Times.


The Veal Jumps

Probably the prize for the most unlikely title for a popular main dish should be awarded to the Romans.  Some decades ago they concocted a veal cutlet creation using prosciutto ham and a leaf or two of sage as flavor accents.  They gave it the most confounding label that would have the diner believe that the serving does not need a knife and fork because it simply “jumps in your mouth.”  Saltimbocca alla Romana – the word “saltimbocca” being a fusion of the phrase “saltare in bocca.”

Hundreds of Italian cookbooks include this rather simple but tasty dish and uncharacteristically there is not much variation.  The the only thing worth noting is that while all recipes call for pounding out thin slices of veal,  only one cautions the unwary home chef about the biggest pitfall that will lead to a tough and chewy end result.  That is failure to pound the meat so thin that it almost falls apart.  The one exception I found is on my “go-to” Italian website Giallo Zafferano, wherein the video chef instructs the audience to pound the slices “as thinly as possible.” Good advice!

Veal pounded that thinly will cook in just over a minute on each side.  There is not enough time to brown the meat to give it a more pleasing appearance.  Thus some recipes call for dredging the scalloppine in flour and using high heat in the pan.  But given that one side is covered with a slice of prosciutto the unappealing white color is not visible.

Nonetheless for the perfectionists I would try using the flour on the bottom side along with browned butter in the pan. I haven’t seen any recipes calling for browned butter but why not?  The combination might give a better look as well as flavor to the final dish.

Dissecting this topic even further, the part I struggle with is pinning the sage and prosciutto slice to the veal.  I’ve never encountered a toothpick in the dish at the Roman restaurants I visited.  However Italian website videos consistently would have you serve the dish with toothpick and all.  Not terribly appealing.

My version below claims success just by placing sage leaf and prosciutto firmly on the slice, cooking on the bare side for 1 minute or so at high heat and then flipping everything over carefully with a spatula as if it were a grilled cheese sandwich, cooking for another minute.  Look ma no toothpick!

Also,  the Italian recipes seem to want you to pin the sage,  prosciutto and veal slice together with the sage leaf resting exposed on top of the slice.  This does not work well.

Instead place the sage leaf on the veal slice and then put the prosciutto on top.  Thus the sage is less likely to escape and wander around the dish as you devour the veal.  Thanks to Mario Batali for recommending this very procedure in his recipe.  However Mario also calls for the toothpick drill.  Boo!

So for the nitpickers like me who want to execute a respectable “saltimbocca” without toothpicks follow these steps:

Saltimbocca alla Romana

for 4 persons

  • 4 slices veal scallopine (5 ounces or so in weight each)  pounded to about 1/8″ thickness.  (Do not trust your butcher to do this since he or she is probably not from Rome and will certainly get it wrong).
  • 4 slices prosciutto ham
  • fresh sage leaves
  • flour for dusting
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 cup medium dry white wine
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • lemon slice for garnish (optional)

Melt butter in a large saucepan on medium high heat.  OK to brown the butter slightly if you choose.   Meanwhile sprinkle slices on both sides with salt and pepper.  Then dust one side of each veal slice with flour.   On the other side place one or two fresh sage leaves and then cover with a prosciutto slice, trimming as necessary to avoid spilling over the edges of the meat. 

Cook the veal slices 1 to 1 1/2 minutes per side taking care to flip without losing the prosciutto and the sage leaves.   Holding the assemblage together with a finger tip while sliding the spatula underneath might help.  Practice makes perfect.

Remove veal from the pan  and deglaze pan with white wine.  Pour the wine sauce over the veal and serve with lemon garnish.  No toothpicks or utensils necessary.



Risotto alla Milanese

For the longest time I have had the habit of eating rice only with chopsticks.  Has to do with the proximity of a great Chinese eatery near our former residence in Rockville MD named “Far East”.  Without the chopsticks one can explain my reluctance to consume any of the outstanding rice dishes that form part of the Italian and Spanish traditions rather than Japanese or Chinese.

The best example is the world-famous Risotto alla Milanese,  a dish I have enjoyed only on rare occasions.  However one must be aware that even with a set of chopsticks at hand the loose consistency of the authentic risotto renders them useless.  So I have bypassed this delicacy more times than not.  Pretty weird no?

Now however basking in retirement I have time to go back and revisit past eating habits and customs. Upon running across a risotto recipe on an Italian website recently I grabbed the opportunity to make up for lost enjoyments.  This particular recipe for classic Risotto alla Milanese is straight from the source and brings back memories of one of the few times I ate the dish in Milan’s restaurants, most notably the highly popular Ristorante Solferino.

First though a word (or two) about the rice.  It has to be the high starch short grain variety, unlike the long grain Chinese,  Japanese and American examples.  Arborio and Carniroli are two versions found in Italy and in U.S. specialty shops.  Spain has a short grain variety as well for use in the classic Paella.

Uncle Ben’s does not qualify.

Second a word (or two) about saffron,  an essential ingredient whether for risotto or Spanish paella.  Saffron is probably the most expensive flavoring in the world outside of,  maybe, beluga caviar.  A generous pinch alone is probably going to set you back 5 or 10 dollars.  This explains why Risotto alla Milanese is never featured on Melissa D’Arabian’s TV show for the budget-minded, “Ten Dollar Dinners.”

Lastly a word about the cooking time.  Risotto of any description takes a good 45 minutes or so at the stove gradually adding broth to the simmering rice and stirring until done.  And,  without fail,  once you think it’s done it really isn’t.  There’s nothing worse that “al dente” rice regardless of its variety so have an assistant close at hand to do a taste test for you before taking it off the stove.  Do not trust your own judgment!

With or without chopsticks classic Risotto alla Milanese goes something like this:

Risotto alla Milanese

For 4 persons as a first course, 6 as an appetizer

  • 12 oz. Arborio or other short-grain rice
  • 1/4 cup or so olive oil or butter or both
  • 6-7 cups hot chicken broth
  • 1 cup or more white wine
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion finely diced
  • 1 pinch saffron (two if you feel you can splurge)
  • 1 cup grated imported Parmesan cheese (the Archbishop of  Milan says substituting anything else is grounds for excommunication)
  • salt & pepper to taste

The easy part comes first.  In a large (13 in.) saute’ pan saute’ the onion in olive oil or butter or both on medium heat until softened thoroughly.  Add the rice and stir constantly until it has fully absorbed the fat.  This takes a while.  Then raise the heat slightly and add the wine.  Stir until the wine is almost gone.  Then begin adding the chicken broth one ladle at a time stirring regularly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding more.

Continue adding broth until you think the rice is almost done (it isn’t).  At this point drop the pinch of saffron in a small bowl and stir in a cup of the hot broth.  Stir the saffron around until the broth become yellow in color.  Now at this point some chefs strain out the saffron threads before tossing the flavored broth into the risotto. I leave them in.  After more stirring the rice should take on a distinctive pale yellow color.

The final step is to add the grated Parmesan, salt and pepper,  and the dish is complete,  maybe.  If the rice is still “al dente” simply add more broth or water and continue the process.  Sooner or later the rice has no choice but to become cooked and ready for consumption.  Your assistant will let you know.

Risotto alla MilaneseIn Milan the right consistency is a loose almost soupy end result,  what the Milanese call all’ onda or like an ocean wave.  In that case the dish has to be eaten with a spoon.  If you let it sit for a while, as I did in this example,  it will thicken and I discovered that in that case it can be eaten with – yay! – chopsticks!




Biscotti for Apicius

One day I set out to research the origins of today’s Western cuisine, expecting a long drawn out ordeal.  But no, after 5 or 10 minutes on line I learned that the inspiration for much of what we eat these days in the U.S. is attributed however remotely to a noble party-loving gentleman who lived in ancient Rome.  Apicius by name.  He had a nick name – “Peachy.”

Apicius is associated with what is considered the authoritative cookbook of its time – appropriately titled “Apicius”, a copy of which I have managed to acquire via from that portion of the Roman Archives not destroyed by the fire that Nero started.

The fact is, though, Signor Apicius had not the slightest connection with the ponderous volume bearing his name.  It was apparently named posthumously in his honor by subsequent unknown Roman authors who had recollections of his love of food and drink (mostly drink I bet).  They simply copied down the recipes for his favorite goodies and gave him all due credit hoping that name recognition would boost sales.

So among other things this explains how one of the most prestigious cooking schools in Italy, affiliated with the University of Florence,  is named “Apicius School of Culinary Arts”.  I had the pleasure of attending an extended course of study at this institution recently.  But to no one’s surprise not a single dish we prepared had the slightest connection to any items on Apicius’  fave list.

Chef SilviaInstead the school focused for days on end on the cuisine of Tuscany with occasional detours to the other regions of Italy.  Of the approximately 45 dishes we created under the superb direction of Chef Silvia (pictured left)  one stuck with me as I traveled back from Florence to the real world here in Bishopville,  Maryland.  The recipe I wanted to perfect once back at home is none other than Biscotti!

I settled on to the biscotti recipe for a number of reasons among which (1) I don’t have baking skills and need more experience,  (2) biscotti are hard to screw up,  (3) they last for months on end in a big glass jar and (4) they can be thrown in with any breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner menu you can imagine.  I mean you can serve them at Hawaiian luaus even.  They’re also great for teething babies!

biscotti di pratoSo herewith the Apicius School’s recipe for Tuscan biscotti,  better known in the region as Biscotti di Prato,  referring to the town where they were first prepared.  Apicius himself never tasted them but no doubt he would approve.


Biscotti di Prato

Serves 12

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup almonds (preferably salted or lightly salted)
  • 3 eggs + one egg yolk
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  In a large bowl combine flour, sugar,  almonds,  baking powder,  vanilla,  salt, eggs and yolk.  Unfortunately bare hands are the only effective tools for this step.  Set mixed dough on a floured pastry board and separate into two baguette-shaped loaves.  Transfer to cookie sheet lined with oven paper.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven.  When cooled cut loaves diagonally into 3/4 inch slices.  Return to the oven and bake again until lightly browned all over, turning over as necessary to achieve even color.

Save one slice for Apicius should he unexpectedly show up at your door.  He’ll be wearing his favorite toga.



Chef’s Shrimp “Caprese”

Shrimp "Caprese"Posting this particular recipe not only highlights one of the tastiest entrees ever to emerge strictly by accident from my kitchen,  but also provides pretext for calling attention to one of the most widely-spoken mispronunciations in all recorded history.

As soon as this post spreads world-wide people will no longer mispronounce the name of one of Italy’s most charming, romantic and utterly beautiful getaways within its territory.  Italians call it the “Isola di Capri” and the accent for both words is on the first syllable.  The Island of Capri.   It is not “caPREE.”

All right so much for the obnoxious language lesson.

It so happens that many dishes are named after the famous island situated a few miles out into the Bay of Naples and hence sport the adjective “caprese” in the name.  “Insalata Caprese” is a probably one of the more well-known examples.  Somehow anything concocted with fresh tomato and basil among other ingredients has earned the right to be designated a “caprese.”  Historically no one really knows how this came about.

In any case I have adopted the “caprese” modifier for this particular shrimp dish,  which includes the obligatory fresh tomato and basil.

But, to be perfectly honest the inspiration came from a close and dear friend from the Maryland Eastern Shore who one night executed,  dare I say,  the “original” Shrimp Caprese,  not exactly the same as the one below but close.

In any case,  as a tribute to the Island of Capri try this:

Chef’s Shrimp “Caprese”

 For 4 persons:

  • 1/2 cup finely diced celery
  • 2 tbsp. chopped scallion
  • 1 small onion finely diced
  • 2 medium garlic cloves minced
  • 1/2 cup diced fresh ripe tomato
  • Olive oil as needed
  • White wine for deglazing (approx. 1 cup)
  • 1 cup very thinly sliced or finely chopped small red and yellow peppers pre-softened in a saute pan
  • 1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
  • 1/2 cup or so chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 lb. large (21-25 per pound) uncooked shrimp shells removed
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Have oven ready at 350 degrees.

Gratuitous advice: One, this dish cooks up best when made in a large cast iron skillet.  Two, the most annoying task is peeling fresh shrimp,  but substituting pre-cooked supermarket shrimp simply does not work!

Saute the celery, onion,  scallion and garlic in olive oil until well softened.  In a separate pan heat the thinly sliced peppers in olive oil until softened. When all is ready merge the peppers with the other ingredients and heat under medium heat and then add the white wine.  Heat until all the alcohol is evaporated. Sprinkle a teaspoon of Old Bay.  Add the fresh tomatoes, basil and chicken broth and toss. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Finally add the peeled shrimp, toss well, and bake everything in the oven for 25 minutes or until the shrimp has turned pink.

Optional: to expand the calorie count serve over linguine.  That’s what I do.