Only a certain biblical figure, I’m told, could feed fish to the masses for less.
One of the best kept secrets in my kitchen for years, has been an old (1988) out-of-print cookbook penned by late actor/comedian Dom DeLouise in collaboration with his mother, titled Eat This…It’ll Make You Feel Better. And tucked away on page 188 is the most versatile, nourishing and tasty fish stew recipe you may likely ever experience.
Pass me that cookbook on the shelf over there so I can make dinner, said no immigrant mother EVER. And I should know, as I have one. Like the author, growing up I never once saw my mother reference a sheet of paper in her kitchen, unless it was a supermarket circular announcing a sale on cuts of meat.
Similarly, if you’ve ever gazed out across your mother’s overflowing dining room table and realized that you’d have to cross at least one ocean and trek several hundred miles inland to find an authentically replicated spread…then you’ll have a unique appreciation for what this cookbook represents. The good news is everyone wins here, no matter what your background. Luckily for us Dom finally found the time to shadow his mother in the kitchen and document everything (with a good dose of humor and storytelling), approximating measurements from what he observed. Today, you can only buy used copies of the cookbook online through eBay or Amazon’s third party sellers, but it’s well worth the trouble.
This gem of a recipe, plainly titled Mamma’s Italian Fish Stew, is but one reason why. It reads with a stark simplicity not often found in today’s glossy, Top Chef-era cookbooks. And there’s nothing here to send you scurrying on a treasure hunt all over town in search of unusual ingredients.
Recently, it was a handy potluck dish at a Labor Day weekend party thrown by my eldest daughter and her best friend since first grade, for all their friends and family. I made a special kosher-friendly version for the event and – as always – guests raved and pressed me for the recipe. To which I breathed a sigh of relief, since that was the first time I’d attempted it minus the shrimp, scallops and clam juice. To my surprise, it was equally stellar, and no one even missed the shellfish, for which I was able to easily substitute white fish and fish stock.
I don’t care who you’re cooking for – gluten-free, Paleo, low-carb, dieter…this soup can feed them all, and heartily so. Serving vegans? Simply use vegetable stock or water instead of fish stock or clam juice (or an additional cup of white wine – how can THAT not end well?), and substitute canned cannellini beans and cooked tube pasta (elbow, penne or rotini) for the fish. True, it’s no longer fish stew, but who cares? As long as it tastes good, you’ll get no complaints. At worst, your guests will wind up with both a cocktail AND hearty minestrone-like soup, in one delectable bowl!
No matter what you do, you simply can’t go wrong here. The recipe is foolproof. (Once I had to improvise with canned diced tomatoes in place of the fresh tomato I thought I had at home, but which someone had eaten before I returned from the store. Another time I forgot to add in pepper at the end. In both cases, the end result still rocked.)
Actually, I take that back. I can think of one way you could potentially screw it up, and that’s by using an inferior brand of canned crushed tomatoes. While you can take your chances on a cheap, generic brand to save a few bucks, I wouldn’t risk it. Since the crushed tomatoes are the cornerstone here and set the tone for the entire dish, I recommend you go with a good-quality, preferably organic, brand. Personally, I have never used anything except Muir Glen Organics Fire Roasted crushed tomatoes (which I routinely get at rock-bottom prices by using dollar-off coupons, case discounts, or buying in bulk when they go on sale for half price.) I’m sure there are plenty of other decent brands out there for less, so shop around your local markets and warehouse clubs to compare.
Aside from that, the trick to doubling this recipe to feed 12 and still hold your costs to around $35, will be your ability to buy bulk seafood at the most competitive pricing available. For example, I’ve found that Wegmans offers great-tasting frozen Tilapia in 2lb bags for $9.99 each, beating out even Costco. Your local Asian markets may offer similar or even better value on fresh or frozen seafood. And if you live near the sea and/or someone you love is a fisherman, you’ve struck gold and can probably make this meal for pennies per serving.
Hint: you can slash your vegetable prep time in half by using a Vegetable Dicer and Chopper.
Note that the recipe I’ve posted strays from the original, as I’ve made many adjustments and substitutions through the years to reflect my personal tastes and budget. For instance, I don’t like calamari (squid), so I skip it. I prefer and only stock sweet white wines like Riesling and Moscato in my fridge, so I use those instead of the dry white wine called for in the cookbook. Three cloves of garlic sounded a little stingy for my tastes, so in my version I always up it to five or six cloves. One year I decided that yellow and orange bell peppers “looked prettier” in the stew than boring green ones, so I switched. I also discovered that Tilapia works better (not to mention is often cheaper and easier to get) than the cod fillet or red snapper called for. Only fresh-caught rockfish would be better, but who has time for all that skinning and deboning? In fact, when funds are tight, I skip the more expensive shrimp and scallops in favor of Tilapia for all two (6 people) or four (12 people) pounds worth of seafood called for. I routinely leave out the “6 well scrubbed clams” because, frankly, I am a lazy cook and that doesn’t sound like a process I want to be bothered with. (And the canned variety made me feel as if I were chewing on scraps of tire, so that attempted shortcut was a fail.) Finally, since fresh herbs are so inexpensive at Asian markets, I use those instead of dried.
You get the idea. There are a variety of ways to make this recipe uniquely yours, and I think Mamma Vincenza would approve. Experiment, and enjoy!
This delicious recipe was adapted from the late Dom DeLuise's 1988 cookbook titled Eat This...It'll Make You Feel Better. While it's now out-of-print, if you look hard enough online (Amazon & eBay) you may be able to pick up a used copy at a reasonable cost. It's worth it!
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3-6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 large tomato, diced
- 1 green pepper, chopped
- 1 red pepper, chopped
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 cup sweet white wine (Riesling or Moscato)
- 2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen Organics, Fire Roasted)
- 1 8-oz bottle of clam juice (or fish/seafood stock)
- 2 pounds fresh or thawed Tilapia, or other firm white fish fillets, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces (or a 2-lb combination of fish, shelled and deveined shrimp, and scallops)
- black pepper (to taste; pinch or two)
- 1 Tbsp fresh oregano, chopped or minced (or 1/2 teaspoon dried herb)
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, stems removed (or 1/2 teaspoon dried herb)
- In a large pot, heat the oil.
- Add the garlic, onion, tomato, peppers, and celery, and saute lightly.
- Add the white wine, crushed tomatoes, clam juice (or fish/seafood stock), and bring to a boil.
- Lower heat to simmer, add Tilapia (or other white fish) and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Season with pepper, oregano and thyme. At this point, if using, add the shrimp and scallops, and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Serve in large bowls.
To accomodate home cooks and average-sized families, I presented this base recipe which serves 6. To serve 12 (at an approx. cost of $35 USD total), simply double. Also, if you are on a sodium-restricted diet, consider substituting no-salt canned (crushed) tomatoes and homemade fish stock instead of clam juice, where you can control the amount of salt - if any - used. Finally, I recommend using a food processor for the onions and celery, as it will cut your prep time significantly.