Valencia may have 320 days of sunshine a year, but sometimes it has to rain. We’ve had a spell of dreary weather with cold temperatures and rainy days that has us craving comfort food. We searched for a dish loaded with seafood that would also be hearty enough to warm our bones. We found Zarzuela de Mariscos.
This traditional Catalan fish stew is similar to a French bouillabaisse but uses ground almonds to add body and depth to the broth, a common way to thicken soups in Spanish and North African cooking. The use of almonds as a thickener makes this dish special, transforming it from just an interesting seafood stew to a hearty, cold weather meal. The rich, complex flavors created are hard to describe, but trust me, they are amazing.
Zarzuela is actually a form of musical theatre that originated in Spain in the 1600’s. The more delicious, edible version called Zarzuela de Mariscos is thought to have first appeared in the late 1800’s in Barcelona. It is popular along the coast of Spain and a perfect way to use the abundant seafood available year round.
This recipe is extremely versatile. You can use whatever seafood you like. When choosing your fish, a firm white fish that can be cut into large chunks and hold its shape, like cod, works best. As for the shellfish, we prefer to use whatever is fresh at the time. Notice that I have not listed amounts for the shellfish, because it really depends on how many different types and size of seafood you are adding. For example, our shrimp were grande (very large) so we only needed three per person. The clams were beberechos, tiny little guys also known as cockles. We added lots of them.
For the most flavorful stew, it is best to use a seafood stock. You can find lots of recipes out there for seafood stock. Our version is quick and simple. In Spain, shrimp are usually sold with the heads on, supplying us with a easy source of shrimp heads and shells to cook down into a stock. If you can’t find shrimp with the heads on (it can be difficult in the United States) alternatives include making a stock from fish heads, fish bones, or just shrimp shells. You could also substitute either chicken or vegetable stock and add clam juice to enhance the flavor. Whatever you use, keep the stock warming over low heat on a separate burner until ready to use.
To begin, pull your seafood from the refrigerator, clean the shellfish and cut the fish into chunks. Allow everything to warm a bit on the counter while you put the Zarzuela together so that it is not refrigerator-cold when it hits the pot of stew.
Sprinkle the saffron threads into a glass of white wine to draw out the flavor. This infusion will be used later to deglaze the pan.
To make the almond powder, place almonds into the bowl of a food processor and blend until finely ground. Be careful not to over-process or the oil may separate from the nuts and make the mixture oily.
Everything can be cooked in the same large stock pot or Dutch oven. Start by frying chopped ham with the olive oil in the pot to extract the fat, then remove and set aside. You’ll add it back at the end. We used a thick cut of cured ham to add lots of flavor.
Add chopped onions to the oil and sweat for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Next, add garlic, herbs and spices and sauté for another minute.
Deglaze the pan with the saffron-infused white wine. Stir in coarsely chopped canned tomatoes and tomato paste.
Add the seafood stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and then add some salt to taste. We like to add salt in layers, a little at a time throughout the process. Stir in the ground almonds and simmer for 5 minutes more.
Add the ham back to the pot and then add the seafood in the order of required cooking time. The shrimp and fish need a few extra minutes, so they go in first. Simmer for a few minutes until shrimp are almost done.
Stir in the zest of one lemon – it should be well incorporated into the stew, but we still want the citrus flavor to be fresh.
Add the mussels and clams, taking the size and cooking time into consideration. Cover the pot and simmer for just a few minutes, removing from the heat as soon as the shells begin to open, or when the bivalves reach the desired degree of doneness.
Ladle into bowls, grab a hunk of thick crusty bread, and serve immediately.
Yum…hearty and flavorful. Great for a cold winter day.
Don’t forget the wine! Since this is a Spanish dish, we pair it with Spanish wine. And we’re in Spain, so… Zarzuela de Mariscos can be paired with white or red wine. For whites, we recommend either Albarino or Godella, which are rich enough to hang with this dish and have nice acidity to balance it out. For reds, try a Garnacha or a well aged Rioja – nothing too heavy or too young.
Zarzuela de Mariscos
Shrimp (3 – 6 per person, depending on size)
1 lb. Cod (or other firm white fish) cut into 2-inch chunks
4 cups of seafood stock (see recipe below)
1/2 cup blanched almonds, slivers or slices
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 large sprig fresh rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
5 sprigs fresh thyme
Saffron, just a pinch
Cayenne pepper, just a pinch
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup canned tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of cured ham, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
zest of 1 lemon
- Add the pinch of saffron threads to the white wine (at room temperature) and set aside.
- Place the almonds in a food processor and blend into a fine grainy texture.
- In a large dutch oven or stock pot with olive oil, fry the ham over medium heat until it releases its fat. Remove ham from the pot and set aside.
- Add onions to the oil and sweat for 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, rosemary, thyme, smoked paprika, and cayenne.
- Add the saffron-infused wine and stir to deglaze the pan.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and then stir in the tomato paste.
- Pour in the stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add salt to taste.
- Stir in ground almonds and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add the ham back to the pot.
- Add shrimp and fish and continue to simmer until shrimp are almost done (3-5 minutes).
- Gently stir in lemon zest.
- Add mussels, simmer for a minute, then add clams. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Serve when mussels and clams open. (We like our bivalves to be just slightly cooked so they are plump and juicy. If you prefer yours more well-done, keep the stew simmering until they reach the desired degree of doneness.)
Shrimp heads and shells from 12 shrimp (or more, depending on size)
1 yellow or white onion, roughly chopped
6 stalks of celery
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon of whole black peppercorns
1/4 cup of olive oil
a few pinches of salt (to taste)
4 cups of water
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan or stock pot over medium heat. Add the shrimp heads and shells and saute until the shells begin to brown, about 8-10 minutes.
- Add 4 cups of water and the remaining ingredients to the pot. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes.
- Let stock cool and then strain through a sieve or colander into a new container to remove all solids.