Despite the influence of American fast food that has spread across the globe, Italian cooking remains distinctively national as well as regional. Vistiors to Italy still find that many of the dishes they have tried in one place are quite different in a town just five miles away.
Given this provincialism, I find it particularly striking that the cooking in two Italian regions is markedly influenced by many sources that are not even Italian. These two regions, the Veneto and Sicily, sit at opposite ends of Italy.
Venetian and Sicilian cooking both reflect their regions' associations with various cuisines, including Arab, Turkish, North African, French, Spanish and Asian. Sicilian food reflects the succeeding influx of seven waves of invaders, starting with the Phoenicians, and including the ancient Greeks, Arabs and the French.
In the Veneto, it was the region's adventurous merchants who brought recipes for exotic dishes and the spices home from as far away as Asia (remember Marco Polo), and even introduced polenta, made from corn that originated in the Americas.
In both Venice and Sicily, Christmas Eve is celebrated with fish dishes. The Jews of the Venetian Ghetto developed their own seafood recipes. With the start of Hannukah, this week is the perfect time to make Zuppa di Pesce, a lovely fish soup, almost a stew really, that derives from the Italian Jewish community.
Observant Jews do not eat shellfish, so this recipe features chunks of firm, sweet halibut. Sea bass is also good, or a combination of meaty fish, including red snapper, which is ideal.
You may even find imported branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass flown in from Italy these days, which is also known as spigola, for those who appreciate this succulent aristocrat of the sea.
Venetian Fish Stew
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Makes 4 servings.
- 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
- 2 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 whole garlic cloves, plus 1 clove finely chopped
- 1/2 to 1 tsp. salt
- 1 1/4 lb. halibut steak, halved
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tsp.
- 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 8 large basil leaves, cut in very thin strips for garnish (optional)
- 4 slices toasted rustic bread (optional)
- Place the carrots, celery, onion and whole garlic cloves in a deep saucepan. Add 4 cups cold water and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Add the fish. Simmer gently 12 minutes. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon. Remove the skin and bones from the fish and add to the pot. Set the fish aside.
- Simmer the mixture, which is now a stock, 20 minutes or until reduced to about 3 cups. Strain into a large bowl and set aside. Discard solids. Rinse and dry the pot.
- Heat the oil in the pot over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and ginger and saute gently until garlic colors lightly, 30 seconds. Add the stock, pepper flakes, lemon juice and tomato paste. Return the fish to the pot. Heat until the stock is steaming. Add the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve immediately, garnished with the basil, if using, along with the bread, if desired. (After being refrigerated overnight and reheated, this stew may take on a "fishy" taste.
Nutritional Information Per Serving:
7 g. total fat,
Less than 1 g. saturated fat,
13 g. carbohydrate,
32 g. protein,
2 g. dietary fiber,
415 mg. sodium.
Diabetic Exchanges: 2 Vegetable, 4-1/2 Lean Meat