Shellfish Stew, Italian-Style


Photo by Maria Robledo

On the Tuscan island of Elba, I learned a profound fish-cooking lesson from Luciano Casini, chef of the infamous Il Chiasso restaurant, and the island's most renowned cook. He used the essential combination of garlic, olive oil, and white wine to cook all manner of fish and shellfish. When cooked in this base, seafood releases briny juices into the garlicky wine to create a rich, brothy sauce that can be endlessly varied.

Luciano explained that this approach is the heart of the island's cucina povera, the cooking of local people of modest means who have devised cheap, delicious ways to transform the abundance of seafood into stews, soups, and pasta dishes. It was designed to be quick, he explained, because dishes were originally cooked over a wood fire, often right on the fishing boats, without elaborate ingredients or even fish broth.

The key to this ultra-quick approach is an abundance of olive oil; it gives the wine body and richness, while mellowing the acidity.

This shellfish stew, made with clams and mussels, is a quintessential example of my Elba lesson, a model you can use for many kinds of seafood. I make it often for weeknight meals or for impromptu dinners with just one or two guests.

The basic approach is simple: sliced garlic is cooked in olive oil until soft, then white wine is added and reduced by half. Fish or shellfish is cooked directly in this winey base, which is both fortified and mellowed by their juices. Many kinds of seafood work well: clams, mussels, cockles, cleaned squid (cut into 1/4-inch rings), crabmeat, or fish filets and steaks.

The key to this ultra-quick approach is an abundance of olive oil; it gives the wine body and richness, while mellowing the acidity. Without the oil, you have to work much harder to achieve that effect, and add fish broth, clam juice, or cream--ingredients I don't always have on hand. I find that adding a bit of olive oil or butter just before serving further enriches the broth and brightens the flavor. Substitute a splash of heavy cream or crème fraïche for the enrichment, for a more refined effect.

Traditionally, a scrap of slightly stale or roasted rustic bread was placed in the bottom of the bowl to absorb the briny sauce and provide a satisfying and sustaining element. Other simple plays on this idea include crushed new potatoes, braised fennel, or leeks. (For a classic linguine with clam sauce, make the recipe with cockles or Manila or little neck clams and toss with cooked linguine).

Recipe: Shellfish Stew

You can use this recipe as a basic model in which to plug fish filets or steaks, squid or shrimp. Reduce the heat to a simmer before adding.

4 main course servings, 8 first course servings

• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
    • 4 to 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
    • A large pinch hot red pepper flakes or half of a finely sliced Serrano chile
    • 1 cup dry white wine
    • 3 1/2 pounds scrubbed shellfish such as mussels, Manila clams or cockles
    • 1/4 to 1/2 cup to chopped fresh herbs such as Italian parsley or basil
    • 6 large slices crusty peasant bread, toasted (optional)

In a large heavy saucepan, over moderately-low heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the oil; add the garlic and pepper flakes and sauté stirring frequently until soft and just beginning to turn golden, 3 to 4 minutes; do not allow to brown.

Add the wine, increase the heat to high, and boil until reduced by half, 6 to 7 minutes.

Add the shellfish, cover, and cook, shaking the pan frequently to rearrange, until all the shells have opened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Toss in the herbs and the remaining tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil (or butter, if you prefer). If desired, place a slice of toasted bread in each of four shallow soup bowls. Spoon shellfish and sauce on top of the bread. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil if desired.

Note: Garlic cloves often have a green sprout in the center that can give it a bitter flavor to the dish. Before slicing, halve the clove lengthwise and remove the sprout with the tip of a paring knife.