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A Fish Stew from Italy, 1891

Recipe 455.  Cacciucco I

Or Fish Stew

For 700 grams of fish, finely chop an onion and sauté it with oil, parsley, and two whole cloves of garlic.  The moment the onion starts to brown, add 300 grams of chopped fresh tomatoes or tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper.  When the tomatoes are cooked, pour in one finger of strong vinegar or two fingers of weak vinegar, diluted in large glass of water.  Let boil a few more minutes, then discard the garlic and strain the rest of the ingredients, pressing hard against the mesh.  Put the strained sauce back on the fire along with wherever fish you may have on hand, including sole, red mullet, gunard, dogfish, gudgeon, mantis shrimp, and other types of fish in season, leaving the small fish whole and cutting the big ones into large pieces.  Taste for seasoning but in any case it is not a bad idea to add a little olive oil, since the amount of soffritto was quite small.  When the fish is cooked the cacciucco is usually brought to the table on two separate platters:  on one you place the fish strained from the broth and on the other you arrange enough finger-thick slices of bread to soak soup all the broth. The bread slices should be warmed over the fire but not toasted.

--Pellegrino Artusi, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, 1891


Don’t think you need much interpretation here, do you?  Basically, this is a delicious zuppa di pesce that begins with a sofritto (onion, parsley, and garlic sautéed in oil), plus tomatoes, plus vinegary water.  And then you add your fish.

It comes from the era when people didn’t like to have large chunks of garlic and vegetables in their sauce. Hence you’re asked to strain this sauce. 

But times have changed--and home cooks no longer strain their sauces through mesh too often—at least not here in New Jersey, where we tend to be in a quite a rush and cut our vegetables rather large.  So you feel free to skip this straining step if you wish. 

Begin, of course, with a fish that’s impeccably fresh.  Of course, there are many potential variations—you can use squid and shell fish in combination and add them in succession according to size—the smallest and quickest cooking, last.  I like to use a cup of very dry white wine instead of the vinegar water.  And you could add capers or herbs you might like.  In winter I used canned tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, cut in half.  I suggest you do as I do and use a sautee pan.  After I add the fish, I spoon some of the tomatoes on top and cover with a tight fitting lid, then cook a few minutes on low heat. 

This cacciucco comes to you from a star in the Italian culinary canon, Pellegrino Artusi It was published in 1891—a mere 30 years after the unification of Italy—and it was intended to be the tome of Italy’s culinary unification.  Between two covers, Artusi gathers 800 recipes from all over the peninsula.  No easy task.  Anyone who’s done a little culinary research on Italy knows how common it is to find a word for a dish that means one thing in a particular region, and something else in another. But why don’t I let Artusi speak to you directly on this matter: 

“Cacciucco!  Let me say just make a little comment about this word, which is understood perhaps only in Tuscany and on the shores of the Mediterranean, since the shores of the Adriatic it is called “brodetto.” In Florence, “brodetto” means a soup with bread and broth, bound with beaten eggs and lemon juice.  In Italy, the confusion between these and other names from province to province is such that it is almost a second Tower of Babel.

After the unification of Ialy, it seemed logical to me that we should think about unifying the spoken language, and yet few can be bothered with such an undertaking and many are outright hostile to it, perhaps because of false pride and the ingrained habit that Italians have of speaking their own regional dialect.

To return to cacciucco, let me say that naturally enough this is a dish prepared in seaside towns more than anywhere else, because it is a there that you can find fresh fish of the kind needed to make it.  Any fishmonger can tell you the varieties of fish that are best suited to a good cacciucco.  Good as it may be, however, it is still quite a heavy dish, so one needs to be careful not to gorge oneself on it.”

In fact, this dish is far more complicated, than he lets on and turns up all over Italy and the Mediterranean in endless variation with endless dialect names.

But Science in the Kitchen is a “modern” cookbook.  And by modern, I mean, many things.  First of all, it seeks to codify and standardized.  It was written not for the cooks of noblemen, but for the home cook who wanted to learn.  Second of all, we see a fair amount of exact measurements and precise directions—and the idea of rationality—which modern people love. 

Finally, this really seems like a modern cookbook to because it’s full of personality and sometimes Artusi feels like a performance artist doing a shtick on stage.  He gives amusing jabs to the French and English.  He attacks the stupidity of the publishing industry (as authors are known to do), and he offers bizarre observations: for example, he’s got a sauce for you that’s “like a woman whose face isn’t so pretty on first glance but gets better with time.” Or, say, a strudel that may “look like a giant leach—but don’t worry:  it tastes good anyway.”

With such personality, no wonder Science in the Kitchen quickly became a bestseller.  Artusi would have taken to blogging like white on rice.  His book, by the way, came at around the same time the Fannie Farmer published her scientific cookbooks in America.  Needless to say, I’d take Artusi any day.

All Italian Americans (and others interested in Italian cooking) should get themselves a copy of Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, which is beautifully translated by Murtha Baca and Stephen Sartarelli.  Click here.

Want to see the original Italian?  Of course you do:

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beautiful site laura.
thank you so much for putting these recipes along with wonderful art work. thanks to nancy for her work too.

    – tijen (April 11 2008 at 4:16)

WOW! This is awesome- so excited for you Nancy-thanks for sharing this with me! I look so forward to reading these outstanding recipes paired with the gorgous art!! Good luck to you and Laura! xo Betsy

    – betsy (April 13 2008 at 10:18)

this is a beautiful website.  It has inspired me.  Plus, it’s made me very very hungry

    – David Henry Sterry (April 14 2008 at 6:35)

Nan and Laura…
this is fantastic! Congrats and can’t wait for more…
Love you Nan,

    –  (April 15 2008 at 9:05)

not forgotten, belately remembered, thanks. it could easily have been “lost” forever on my desk. Thanks for the new post, congrats on book, and family is always worth it. Sue

    – sue young (April 24 2008 at 3:54)

I am at the library, crying because I just read the fish stew recipe and I haven’t heard the term “one finger” since my Nonnabella died 17 yrs ago.  Thank you for a very authentic recipe and I thoroughly enjoyed both of your books, Laura and I hope to be at a meeting in NJ when I go east this summer to visit family.  Thank you for your hard work and the paintings are fab!

    –  (April 25 2008 at 3:51)

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