La Nebbia, the fog, is rolling in now, a sign that cold weather is taking root, intending to stay for the next few months. Its thick, fuzzy clouds blanket the fields and vines. Only mountain tops peek through the nebulous ceiling along with the occasional stand of populars, their leaves twirling to the ground while their branches clack together like chimes in the wind. The turning weather is the perfect weekend excuse to get away from the inevitable, sharing Italian Seafood Stew and pleasurable memories of warmer times.
With more than 7000 km of coastline spanning through 15 Italian regions, enticing options exist within an hour's drive from many cities. Most beachfront hotels are closed now, but ristoranti remain open for local residents, always offering the freshest catch of the day simply prepared. Every chef has his own signature mix of seafood and flavorings for this dish. Some like it hot or garlicky, while others like it tender and sweet. Zuppa is made easily and quickly, with seafood just cooked through, tasting like it was just plucked from the sea. There's nothing more heartwarming than tucking into a bowl of savory zuppa thick as stew, studded with fresh calamari, shrimp, and whatever else is good at the local fish market. This is pure comfort food enjoyed relaxing in front of the fireplace…soon strangers sitting at adjacent tables nod in appreciation then start sharing their tips for more excursions.
Frutti di Mare, or Fruits of the Sea, include all kinds of shellfish, shrimp, langoustines, squid, cuttlefish, and octopus. Pelagic fish, such as bass, mullet, or snapper, can be included in the dish, often in small quantity. Usually mussels provide the base to this stew and are perfect with a mix of fresh seafood. The natural juices from the mussels combine with a light rose or white wine creating the broth. Ripe tomatoes round out the flavor with onion, garlic, and chili peppers. This zuppa is based on a great-tasting formula of 2 pounds (910 g) each of fresh mussels, fresh seafood, and ripe tomatoes. Use it as a springboard creating your own signature dish. Grill bread to add a light smoky taste and serve as an accompaniment.
Italian Seafood Stew is one of the least expensive dishes to make at home with elegant rewards, so invite some friends over for a casual weekend meal sharing good times together.
4 servings. Cooking time is about 25 minutes.
2 pounds (910 g) fresh mussels (40 to 44 medium-size mussels)
1 cup (8 ounces or 235 ml) fruity Italian rose or white wine
2 pounds (910 g) mixed fresh seafood
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small white or yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 whole fresh or dried chili peppers, or ground cayenne red pepper to taste
2 pounds (910 g) ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped (2 1/2 cups or 590 ml volume)
OR 1 28-ounce (794 g) can whole, peeled plum tomatoes, seeded, chopped
Sea salt to taste
8 slices stale white, sourdough, or semolina bread (1/2-inch or 13-mm thick slices)
Garlic cloves, split in half for rubbing onto grilled bread
Fresh basil leaves for garnish
1. Preparing the Mussels: Scrub the mussel shells under cold running water, remove the beards, then drain. (Live mussels close their shells when put under cold running water. Discard any mussels with partially open shells, as they are on their way out or have departed.)
Place the mussels in a large deep pot and pour in enough water to cover the bottom by 1/8-inch (3-mm). Pour in the wine. Cover the pot. On the cooktop over high heat, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or just until the shells open, do not overcook or those plump mussels shrivel. Remove the cover and pot from the cooktop. Discard any unopened mussels. When cool enough to handle, remove the mussels from their shells. Place the mussels in a bowl and cover, discard shells. Strain the mussel broth through a paper coffee filter or paper towel removing any sand, debris, or bits of shell, and reserve it. Rinse the pot to use for cooking the stew.
2. Making the Zuppa: Prepare the other seafood: shell and devein the shrimp or langoustines, clean the squid or cuttlefish and cut into rings, clean the octopus, and cut the fish into thick chunks.
Using the same pot, pour in a few spoons of oil. Over low heat, warm the oil. Saute the onions for a few minutes or until they are barely translucent. Add the garlic and whole chili peppers and cook only until fragrant then add the chopped tomatoes. Over high heat, cook uncovered until the tomatoes soften but do not become a puree, about 7 to 8 minutes. Pour in the reserved mussel broth and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer for a minute, add the squid, cooked mussels, and other seafood and simmer for 2 minutes just to cook through. Remove from the heat, remove the chili peppers, and add salt to taste.
3. Crostini and Plating: During the final minutes of making the zuppa, grill or toast the bread slices, then rub with garlic, and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Place crostini inside wide soup or pasta bowls, ladle in the zuppa, and garnish with fresh basil leaves.