City Kitchen: A hearty fish and shellfish stew, with a bit of tomato, potatoes, saffron and garlic, is good for a chilly winter evening. Recipes: Fishmonger's Stew and Garlic-Saffron Sauce
NEW YORK — A jolly fishmonger is an inspiration. Alex Villani, well known to Greenmarket shoppers in Manhattan and Brooklyn, is just that: smiling, laughing, joking and incredibly hard-working.
“It’s hard work, but it’s fun,” he said.
Rising well before dawn to make the long drive from Mattituck on eastern Long Island, his truck loaded with fresh-caught fish and shellfish, he and his wife, Stephanie, set up their Blue Moon Fish stand at several markets each week. Their customers are loyal, and everything usually sells out early.
Villani mostly fishes solo in his small boat. Most of his days are spent in watery solitude, far from the bustling city, so perhaps this accounts for his sunny disposition on land. But one suspects he is just a happy man regardless.
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Sales are brisk and the line moves quickly.
“Got any herring?” asked an older gent who wanted to pickle some to satisfy a memory from childhood. “Alex, you get my email about the oysters for my party?”
The requests kept coming. A pound of bay scallops. Pound and a half of scrod. Three swordfish steaks.
The blackboard announces what is for sale today: skate, flounder, hake, blackfish (tautog), cod, clams, mussels, squid, sea bass, striped bass, monkfish, razor clams, swordfish. You can buy whole fish or fillets, and fish heads are free for the asking. There is also a variety of cured and smoked fish products and sometimes smoked eel.
For nearly 25 years the Villanis have maintained a tradition of braving the elements and staying open until Christmas Eve, before taking a well-deserved hiatus during the coldest months of the year. That way their customers can be assured of the opportunity to make a seven-fish Italian feast, should they be so inclined. Or, like Villani, they can just relax with a pile of raw oysters.
“But don’t dawdle, I’m closing at 11:30, maybe noon,” he said.
Looking over the spanking-fresh assortment, I want to buy everything. Finally I choose a few ingredients for a hearty fish and shellfish stew, good for a chilly winter evening. It will veer Mediterranean, with a base of leeks and onions, a bit of tomato, potatoes, saffron and garlic.
It is a pleasure to buy fish right from the source, from a smiling fisherman, no less. And buying from a small-boat operation means getting sustainably caught fish, as well as supporting a local economy. Which is also something to smile about.
Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 dozen medium-small clams, like littlenecks
1 pound mussels
3/4 pound monkfish or other firm-fleshed white fish, in 1-inch cubes
3/4 pound scrod, flounder, or other soft-fleshed white fish, in 1-inch cubes
3/4 pound squid, in 1/2-inch rings, plus tentacles
1/2 pound bay scallops, optional
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups medium-diced onions
3 cups medium-diced leeks, rinsed of grit
1/2 cup diced canned tomato
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or a few thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
Pinch of saffron, about 1/8 teaspoon
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
Pinch red pepper flakes
6 cups fish stock, chicken broth, or water
1 pound Yellow Finn or russet potatoes, peeled, in 1/2-inch slices
Garlic-saffron sauce, see recipe
1. Soak the clams in cold water to remove grit and sand, then drain. Rinse and de-beard the mussels. Put the monkfish, scrod, squid and bay scallops (if using) in separate small bowls. Season the fish lightly with salt and pepper.
2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and leeks and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato, thyme, bay leaf, saffron, garlic, paprika and red pepper flakes. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes.
3. Turn the heat to high, add the fish stock, chicken broth or water, and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and adjust to taste. Add the potatoes and reduce the heat so they simmer gently until firm-tender, about 10 minutes. (The stew may be prepared to this point up to 2 hours ahead.)
4. To finish the stew, return the heat to a brisk simmer. Add the clams and cook till they open, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mussels, monkfish and scrod and simmer until the mussels open, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the squid and scallops, if using, and cook 1 minute more. Turn off the heat, stir in the garlic-saffron sauce.
Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 1/3 cup
1 cup crustless day-old French bread, in 1/2-inch cubes
2 or 3 garlic cloves
Pinch of saffron, about 1/8 teaspoon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Soak the bread in cold water for 1 minute and squeeze dry. Mash garlic and salt into a paste. Put it in a mortar with the bread and pound together with the saffron, or mix it all in a blender.
2. Gradually whisk in the olive oil to make a thick sauce. Add the lemon juice, parsley and salt. Keep the sauce at room temperature.