Iridescent fish stare up, their eyes dead as dead, saying, “Pick me! Pick me!” Like a puppy panting at the pet store, no sentient being wants to let their life be for naught, even if they are dead to this world.
Minestra di pesce. Fish soup. That’s what I needed. My stomach had gone on strike. If I had called the doctor here in Italy, he would’ve told me, “mangiare in bianco.” Eat white foods. For ten days. I can be a doctor to myself, I thought, and at least cut out the cappuccino and the vino and surely that will help.
But my temperament is not to fast, or to cleanse in the traditional sense of the word. My tendency is not to renounce food, but to eat with a vengeance, anxious to fix a stomach that feels broken. I cook something elaborate and detailed as if my life depended on it, even as I’m bending over in pain.
Feeding oneself well is an important thing. We all think cooking is about feeding others, which it is. There is great joy in nourishing our families and friends, in gathering everyone around the table. But most people don’t think to cook for themselves. “Cooking for one is tough,” I hear my friends say. Well…who else is going to do it? You can’t have someone do your yoga practice for you, or learn to speak a foreign language for you. Who else can feed you specifically what you need other than yourself? I am not talking about emotional eating, or eating out. In America, we’re happy to let someone else do the cooking and we pay for it. Nothing is wrong with that, other than you might not get exactly what you need. Or you get tired of ordering the same thing. Or they might overcook or over or under salt your dish.
Simple cooking is easy. If you are conscious about what you do or don’t put in your body, and you believe in eating local and organic and what’s good for the planet, then cook. Food is the least expensive, most pleasurable, best medicine.
Here is my recipe for Minestra di Pesce, not to be confused with Zuppa di Pesce. The zuppa to me is richer, with lots of tomato, quite spicy, and the addition of frutti di mare. My minestra is simple and clean.
Go to your fish market and try to find the freshest, small fish. Today I found one smallish, pinkish fish, close to a snapper but not. With a strange Italian name that I did not recognize, it was rosy and feminine, lost amongst the branzini and other grey varieties. I asked the fishmonger to filet the fish and give me the bones and the head.
I also left the market with a basket full of lovely vegetables, including a new green called buon enrico, with delicate spinach-like leaves. Something close to amaranth, I believe. It looks like mehenza, a medicinal plant they use in Morocco blended with orange juice for fevers. This would be a perfect accoutrement for my soup. As I rode off on my bicycle, I wondered if I might perhaps leave the odor of fish as I flashed by, but there was none; a sign of a very fresh fish. Up the 4 flights of stairs I went with my bootie, huffing and puffing and dreaming of the good broth to come.
I put the water on to boil and dropped the bones and head, still connected, cartoon-like into the water. I added a cherry tomato, and leek leaves, cut to fit the pot. I lowered the flame and let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. I strained the broth and set it aside.
There are certain combinations of foods that love each other. Fish and fennel, fish and potato, fish and leeks. Thank goodness they all love each other, which makes for a very good soup.
Trim the leeks and cut them down the middle lengthwise to clean them well.
Pull off the outer layer of fennel if it looks woody.
Slice the leeks and fennel on the diagonal and toss them into a medium sized soup pot drizzled with a bit of olive oil. Saute’ lightly.
Add a pinch of good salt and a small dried red pepper.
Add half of the fish broth, and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Slice one medium potato in half lengthwise, then half again and slice thinly across. Leave the skins on. Add to the pot.
Add more broth to the desired level of soup. Simmer another 10 minutes.
The broth is hot, so it takes no time to integrate. Adding the broth a bit at the time, builds flavor slowly.
Slice the fish filets into 6-8 pieces. Add the fish and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Clean and separate the ‘buon enrico’ (or spinach or baby kale or parsley), add to the pot for another few minutes.
Check for salt. It should have a well-balanced, clean flavor, with a delicate taste of anise and onion and the salty sea.
Garnish with dried fennel flowers.
Enjoy this soup. It will nourish you. It might even cure what ails you.
Don’t eat it too close to the roses and the lilacs on your table unless you are good at playing the piano. There are too many delicate things going on. But do enjoy a nice pink rosé if you are well enough. It will love the slightly picante pink fish soup.