People always ask cooks, what’s your favorite pasta dish, or dessert, or main course, or, even more broadly, what’s your favorite dish of any kind. It seems they can’t help themselves. Journalists do it too (not that they’re not people, but you know what I mean—you’d think they’d be sharper). I’m astonished that this goes on. The question is unanswerable. Cooks cook because they love food. Any cook who gives an answer to the question is lying. But, strangely, when someone asks me what’s the best dish if they want to lose weight, I have an answer. Fish soup, I always say. I can’t help myself. I believe it’s true, because fish soup, any great fish soup, is healthy and delicious, and you can’t sustain weight loss if your food isn’t delicious. I remember having this exact conversation with Nigella Lawson’s sister, when she was living in New York. She told me that the then publicly unknown Nigella wanted to lose weight. Could I suggest a good dish for her to eat? Yes, fish soup would be the thing, I said. I wonder if the advice ever reached her.
My mother often made zuppa di pesce for Christmas Eve, full of shellfish and calamari and sometimes lobster. I loved it so much I’d dream about it before and after Christmas. Now I make simpler versions for midweek meals, maybe just with mussels, adding chickpeas or cannellini beans. I’ve never met a fish soup I didn’t like, as long as it was made with really fresh seafood.
Here’s another one. We’ve all been given the go-ahead to add a little saturated fat into our diets, which is great news, since a little goes a long way in creating deliciousness. This soup contains mussels and calamari, tomatoes, a bit of butter, and a final dollop of crème fraîche. It’s amazing how that lump of crème immediately pulls the taste in a new direction. Before the addition, it’s a good Southern Italian soup; after, well, I’m not sure what it is, but it’s rich and possibly a touch French.
Again, in keeping with my new slant, very low carbs here. Forget about the bread but make sure you have a good green salad waiting. I add it to the soup bowl when I’ve finished eating the soup, so the greens pick up whatever tomato wine broth is left. That’s a good way to get your mind off bread. I swear it works.
Zuppa di Pesce with Crème Fraîche, Leeks, and Thyme
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 leeks, chopped, the white part only
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
8 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A small glass of dry vermouth
1 cup light chicken broth
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 pound mussels, well washed
1 pound of small to medium-size calamari, cut into thin rings, the tentacles left whole
A heaping tablespoon of crème fraîche
A handful of flat leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Get out a big, wide casserole type pot, and heat it over medium flame. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and the butter. Add the leeks and carrot, and sauté until fragrant. Add the garlic, nutmeg, and thyme, and continue sautéing until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few minutes. Add the chicken broth and the tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and let simmer at a low bubble, uncovered, for about 8 minutes.
When you’re ready to serve the dish, add the mussels, giving them a good stir, and cook them until they’ve opened. Add the calamari, and cook just until opaque, about another 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Season with salt and black pepper, and add the crème fraîche. Stir, tasting for seasoning. Add the parsley, and take it to the table.