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A common trait of all Mediterranean culinary traditions is the dish cooked in a covered earthware (terracotta) recipient, either of fish or meat. Fish based stews change name from country to country: Cacciucco in Tuscany, Brodetto on the Adriatic, Zarzuela in Spain, Bouillabaisse in France and Cioppino in California. These dishes are all similar enough however to suppose that they all originated from one fish stew recipe that existed centuries ago and is now present from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
Cacciucco to the Livornese
Cacciucco is one of the numerous regional varieties of fish stew. There are, of course, an infinite number of varieties, probably one for every Livornese homemaker.
Cacciucco is a spicy and flavorful fish stew. Although it is a fish-based dish, it requires an accompanying wine that can... stand up to it. Try to match it with a good Beaujolais Village Nouveu (when in season).
Fish stew serves 6-8
About 5 pounds of assorted well cleaned seafood for the fish stew (the composition of cacciucco depends upon what is available at the fish market, your vendor may be able to help with the selection; ex. rock fish, sole, mullet, monk fish, dogfish, goby, baby squid, baby octopus, cuttlefish, mussels, scampi, shrimp etc.)
6 ripe tomatoes (skinned, de-seeded and minced)
2 or 3 large cloves of garlic
Ginger (optional), same amount as garlic
1 cup red wine
Salt and pepper
In a pan large enough to hold all of the fish, lightly fry the garlic (crushed), the minced parsley and the ginger (roughly minced) in abundant oil. When the garlic has browned sufficiently, slow down the fry-up with the red wine, allow it to heat up a bit and add the tomatoes.
After a few minutes, add the baby squid, octopus and the cuttlefish (assuming you have them of course). Add salt to taste then cover the pan and let it cook for 30 minutes. If the sauce should dry out, add water. At this point gradually add the rest of the fish, first the rock fish, then after a few minutes the other fish and the chunks so that everything cooks evenly. In the meantime you will have opened the mussels in a separate pan, add their water to the cacciucco when it is done cooking.
Furnish each plate a pair lightly toasted slices of bread and, if one likes, lightly rubbed with half a clove of garlic. Serve the fish onto the bread slices with attention to distributing it fairly amongst the guests. Make sure to add the sauce to each plate as well and garnish it with the mussels. Serve hot, accompanied with extra toast.
The quantity of ginger used can vary with one's taste; the garlic, instead, is an obligatory and essential component of the cacciucco.
Cacciucco Viareggio Style
The name "cacciucco" is derived from the Turkish word "kaciuck" which means minute and was used in reference to a fish stew in which the ingredients were cut into small pieces. When one refers to cacciucco, not only is it understood as referring to a fish stew, but to the specific variant from Livorno. This is because cacciucco was created in the ports of Livorno in the 16th century, as a stew cooked by fishermen at sea using the less valued species of fish, those for which there was no market at the time.
What are we doing then, in Viareggio? This city of carnivals and seaside tourism has its own small port and, albeit incomparable to that of Livorno, a long history of fishing and cacciucco fish stew. The cacciucco made in this city comes from the original Livornian fish stew recipe, brought over two centuries ago by migrating Marchigian and Sicilian fishermen.
The Viareggian government, while recognizing cacciucco's Livornian origins, has begun a request for official recognition of the Viareggian cacciucco by the Tuscan region.
It is not only a Viareggian recipe, but a provocatory one as well, taking as its mottoes "Long live "poor" fish and "no to frying". This is to make the point, to both professional cooks and hobbyists, that knowledge and techniques are constantly evolving and that it is possible to create savory dishes without resorting to unhealthy methods that aren't even true to the primary flavors of the ingredients. Viareggian methods can be used to substitute for frying's ability to extract taste, and can do so in such a manner as not to assault the flavors of the ingredients but to work with them.
As for the fish, it is considered "poor" not because it lacks intrinsic value but because of the low price it garners at the market due to weak demand. It costs a fisherman just as much to catch a sea-robin as it does to catch a red snapper. Cacciucco does not employ only "poor"fish however, for it is by nature a varied dish whose makeup depends upon the availability of fish at the market. Welcome are the mullet, the rockfish, the dogfish, the shrimp while strictly prohibited are the higher-priced fish such as the red snapper, the seabass, the scampi, the lobster which are considered contrary to the dish and would be squandered money.
Cacciucco is a formative plate, because it must be eaten slowly and so favors conviviality at the table. No frying, no salt, which hardens the fibers. A simple dish really, in which the principal ingredients are the fish themselves. Only after about 40 minutes does one add tomato concentrate, garlic, olive oil, salt and hot pepper.
So then, how is it different from the Livornian cacciucco? The main difference is that it uses different types of fish. The Viareggian variant sand fish, while the Livornian uses rock fish. The cooking time is also shorter for sand fish and they are immersed in the broth when the dish is almost ready. Another simple difference is that besides abolishing frying, the Viareggian variant employs a shorter list of ingredients; fish, salt, oil, garlic, tomato concentrate and hot pepper.
The second phase is as follows; add the olive oil, salt and the rest, then cook for a little while more until the octopus and squid are tender. Then add the remaining fish which cooks quickly, in about 5 minutes or so, and serve immediately. The cacciucco should be served on a bed of toasted bread rubbed (if one wishes) with garlic and placed at the center of the table to signify its traditional importance.
Without hurry, from the ample main dish, the guests can be served with the possibility of choosing from the various types of fish and accompanying it with a good red wine.
Ingredients for 4:
1 lb. octopus
1 lb. cuttlefish
½ a pound shrimp
2 small mullets
2 small mackerel Rockfish
4 spoons of extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
3 spoons of tomato paste
Bread sliced and toasted
Salt and red pepper
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