Saturday, May 21, 2016


Happy International Mediterranean Diet Month!  Created in 2009 by Oldways and the Mediterranean Foods Alliance, Med Diet Month celebrates the delicious foods and wide-ranging health benefits associated with the Mediterranean Diet. (Oldways is a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization, with a mission to guide people to good health through heritage.)  

The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating based on the traditional foods of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The “poor” diet of the people of the southern Mediterranean, consisting mainly of fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, healthy grains, fish, olive oil, small amounts of dairy, and red wine, proved to be most likely to lead to lifelong good health. It has been studied and noted by scores of leading scientists as one of the healthiest in the world.

Seafood--one of the ingredients of a healthful Mediterranean diet. In the center are fillets of hake and on the left, the hake's head for the stock pot. Above the hake is a rascasse, also for the stock. Jumbo shrimp are at the top. At the bottom are cigalas, aka sea crayfish, scampi or Dublin Bay prawns. These are so small, I'm putting them in the stock pot. Squid, cut in rings is on the left. Some small clams in the center, mussels on the right. Not visible are fillets of sea bass and slices of monkfish.

I celebrate the Mediterranean diet just about every day! In fact, I’m a gold medalist! (Take the Oldways quiz here and find out “How Mediterranean is your diet?”)

But it wasn’t always so. When I came to live on the shores of the Mediterranean, more than 40 years ago, I was disappointed to learn that you can’t eat olives straight off the tree (they have to be sweetened in brine first). In those days, olive oil was so raunchy I refused to use it. I stuck to butter and margarine for a very long time. I wasn’t crazy about garbanzos and lentils, either. Whole grains were not part of the heritage of this Mediterranean village! I got wheat ground at a local mill, took home the whole wheat flour and made my own bread.

But, from the very first day that I landed on these shores, as I devoured a whole grilled red mullet for lunch, I was a convert to Mediterranean fish and shellfish. Growing up in Midwest America where I rarely ate seafood, there was something deeply lacking in my diet.

Here, with a fishing port only a few miles from where I lived, I could indulge myself with fresh shrimp. I came to love fresh anchovies fried in olive oil and fresh sardines roasted on skewers. I experimented with ugly monkfish, scaly gurnards, awesome swordfish, oily mackerel and squishy squid. (A 1972 Penguin edition of Alan Davidson’s Mediterranean Seafood was my guide.)

Zarzuela--a seafood "operetta," in all its glory.

Serve each person a piece of each fish, a few squid, shrimp, clams and mussels.
 My personal Mediterranean Diet is still slanted towards seafood. To celebrate the month, I’m cooking an old-favorite, zarzuela de pescados y mariscos, a classic Catalan seafood stew. I first ate zarzuela in Tarragona (a Mediterranean port city south of Barcelona) on a road trip along the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and France (where I also tasted my first-ever bouillabaisse in Sêtes).

Besides a variety of seafood, the recipe calls for tomatoes, almonds, hazelnuts and plenty of virgin olive oil, all important items in the healthful Mediterranean diet.

Seafood Operetta
Zarzuela de Pescados y Mariscos

Zarzuela is operetta, a genre of popular musical theater that developed in the 17th century. Why this Catalan seafood stew has the same name is a mystery to me. It’s a lavish but simply staged production if all the ingredients are prepared before starting to cook.

The dish is usually cooked in a shallow earthenware cazuela or a paella pan. A separate skillet is used to sauté all the ingredients first. They are then combined to finish cooking in the cazuela.

Use at least two and as many as four different fish in this recipe. Examples are “meaty” fish such as monkfish, conger or lobster; flaky fish such as bass, grouper, bream or rascasse, and delicate fish such as hake, sole or turbot. (I used monkfish, hake and sea bass.) The servings can be cut into fillets or steaks of about 4 ounces. Ideally, you are going to serve each person one piece of each fish plus shellfish.

You can use fish heads, bones, trimmings and crustacean shells to make fish stock (that recipe follows the recipe for zarzuela) or use store-bought stock. The stock can be prepared a day before cooking the zarzuela.

You’re going to be making a sofrito (fried onion and tomato) and a picada (paste of ground almonds and hazelnuts) to add to the fish. Both of these can be prepared in advance. Clams and mussels can be steamed open in advance as well. Strain their cooking liquid and add it to the fish stock. Discard empty half-shells.

Zarzuela is usually served with strips of bread fried in olive oil as an accompaniment. Some people wish for potatoes or pasta or rice to go with it, but, personally, I like the intensity of the seafood with nothing more than bread. 

Serves 4—or more.

Pieces of fish, ready to cook.
4 (4-ounce) servings each of  2 or 3 different fish
Flour for dredging fish
Extra virgin olive oil (about ½ cup)
½ pound cleaned squid, cut in rings
8 jumbo shrimp
8 mussels, cleaned and steamed open
½ pound small clams, scrubbed and steamed open  
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup grated tomato pulp (2 large tomatoes)
¼ cup brandy, rum or aguardiente (anisette)
1 bay leaf 
Pinch of crushed saffron
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 ½ cups fish stock (recipe below)
¼ cup picada (recipe follows)
Chopped parsley to serve
Triangles of fried bread to serve

Shake off excess flour in a sieve.

Salt the pieces of fish and allow them to stand 30 minutes. (Do not salt fish that has been frozen.) Working with one type of fish at a time, dredge the pieces in flour, patting off excess.

Heat enough oil in a skillet to cover the surface. Fry each of the floured pieces of fish, starting with skin-side up, until lightly golden (about 1 ½ minutes per side). They do not need to cook through. Remove them as they are browned and place in a large (12-inch) cazuela or paella pan.  Add additional oil to the skillet as needed.

Place all the seafood in the cazuela in more or less a single layer.

Flour the pieces of squid and fry them until golden. Place them around the pieces of fish in the cazuela. Sauté the shrimp without flouring them and place in the cazuela. Place the mussels and clams around the fish.

Grate tomatoes to make pulp.
Wipe out the skillet and add 2 tablespoons more oil. Sauté the chopped onion, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato pulp and fry, stirring frequently, until it is thick and jam-like and slightly caramelized. Add the brandy and cook until the alcohol is cooked off. Add the bay leaf, saffron, crushed red pepper and fish stock. Cook 5 minutes. Stir in the picada. Taste for salt (if stock was well-salted, you may not need any additional salt).

Pour the sofrito-picada over the fish and shellfish in the cazuela. Either cook over a medium flame, shaking the cazuela to prevent fish from sticking on the bottom, or place in a preheated 375ºF oven until sauce is bubbling and fish is completely heated (about 20 minutes).

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with triangles of bread that have been fried crisp in olive oil.

Almond-Hazelnut Sauce

Picada is a flavoring paste that is stirred into soups, stews, rice dishes during cooking. This makes more sauce than you need for the zarzuela. Refrigerate what’s left and try it dolloped over plain grilled fish or chicken as a serving sauce.

Ingredients for picada--olive oil essential!
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 slice bread, crusts removed
 2 cloves garlic
¼ cup skinned and toasted almonds
¼ cup toasted and skinned hazelnuts
¼ cup chopped parsley
½ cup water or fish stock

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet and fry the slice of bread until browned on both sides. Remove.

Place the bread, garlic, almonds, hazelnuts and parsley in a blender or mini-processor and process with 2 tablespoons oil until it makes a smooth paste. Dilute the paste with water or stock. Add a pinch of salt. 

Fish Stock
Caldo de Pescado

This version of fish stock starts out with a sofrito of fried vegetables and tomato. You need about 2 cups of the stock for the zarzuela. Freeze the remaining for use in fish soups.

This "cute" little fish is a rascasse, a Mediterranean fish essential for bouillabaisse. I'm putting this one in the stock pot along with the hake head and small crustraceans.

Makes 10 cups.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 pounds small fish, fish bones and trimmings, crustacean shells, small crabs, etc
½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon salt
1 slice lemon
Sprig of thyme
Parsley stems
12 cups water

Heat the oil in a large soup pot and sauté the onion, carrot and garlic until onions begin to brown, 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue frying until tomatoes begin to caramelize. Add any crustaceans and sauté.

Put in the remaining fish, bones, trimmings.Add the wine, salt, lemon, thyme, parsley and water. Bring to a boil, skim away froth. Partially cover and cook 40 minutes. Let set 10 minutes.

Carefully strain the broth, first through a colander, then through a fine sieve. Discard the solids. Refrigerate the stock, covered, until ready to use.

Fry triangles of (whole grain) bread in olive oil to accompany this fish stew. Make lots--it's delicious.
Mediterranean flavors--a seafood stew from Catalonia.


  1. YUMMY!!! Can't wait to get to Spain for some fresh seafood. It doesn't exist here in New Mexico. It is either previously frozen or farm raised-YUK! Patty

  2. Zarzuela is a delicious Spanish dish, nice recipe! Spanish Products love it!

  3. I am so jealous because people in Spain have so easy access to tasty, fresh and healthy food.... ehhh Mediterranean diet my favourite one.

    1. MediterraneanDiet: Best thing about the Mediterranean way of eating is that it's available to anybody, anywhere!