Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Kakavia is the fish stew of Greece. The word kakavia refers to a three-legged cooking pot that was traditionally used to cook soup and stews. It is said to be an ancient Greek fish soup, mentioned by Aristophanes, that traveled to Massalia, the Greek colony which became Marseilles from the Aegean in about 600 B.C. Some writers claim, in fact, that boullabaisse is derived from kakavia and have three things in common, that both are named for the pot they are cooked in, kakavia for the Greek and bouillet for the French, that both are made from a variety of fish and, third, that both remain the expression of simple fishing villages, not the big city. I believe all three of these reasons are nonsense. First, bouillabaisse is not named after a pot called bouillet, second, all fish stews are made from a variety of fish and that is not the sine qua non of fish stews, and third, bouillabaisse is identified with Marseilles, a big city for centuries, and not small fishing villages. Finally, kakavia bears no resemble to bouillabaisse in taste. All that said, kakavia is a terrific fish stew that stands on its own and doesn’t need the support of comparison with bouillabaisse. This recipe is based on my memory of a number of fish stews I’ve had around the Aegean, on the islands of Mykonos, Ios, and Rhodes, as well as in Athens and Monemvasia in the Peloponnesus. In restaurants one often finds the chef using lobster in this soup-stew, but I feel that it is not necessary. As far as the fish go, there are two ways to approach this. First, you could use whole small fish as suggested in the ingredient list. This would be more authentic and more flavorful, but given Americans’ inability to properly eat fish on the bone you may want to consider the alternative of using fillets or steaks, also suggested below. If you use sardines you’ll want six which will weigh about 3/4 pound in all.
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 1:15 hours
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 small bulb fennel, sliced
Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 pounds mixed whole fish and steaks (choose 3 of the following: whole sardines, whole porgy, whole butterfish, whole redfish, whole sculpin, whole red snapper and/or cod, halibut, hake, sea bass steaks), cleaned, gutted, and scaled with heal and tail left on or 2 pounds fish fillets and steaks (choose 3 of the following: red snapper, halibut, cod, bass, hake, haddock)
2 pounds fresh shrimp with their heads left on or 1 pound defrosted headless large shrimp, shelled
1 pound mussels, washed and debearded
10 slices (10 ounces) Italian bread, toasted
1. In a stewpot or stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring so the garlic doesn’t burn, the onions and garlic until soft, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the fennel, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, wine, and water and bring to a boil. Salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes. Strain the broth through a sieve or food mill and return to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Add the fish and mussels to the boiling broth and add water only to cover if there isn’t enough broth. Reduce the heat to low and simmer 7 minutes. Add the shrimp and continue to simmer until the shrimp are orange-red and the mussels have opened, 7 to 10 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve with a toasted slice of bread in a bowl.