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  • Catalan Recipe: Costa Brava Fisherman’s Stew

    Fishermen Ramón and Félix preparing for their cooking demonstration at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    Fishermen Ramón and Félix Boquera prepare for their cooking demonstration at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo by Joshua Davis, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    One of the fundamental characteristics of fisherman’s stew is its versatility. Whatever kind of seafood you have at home (or on the boat) will work—as long as it’s fresh.

    Ramón and Félix Boquera—two fishermen from Palamós, Catalonia, led cooking demonstrations and taught visitors from around the world how to make a Catalan fisherman’s stew, or suquet de pescadors, using fish from The Wharf D.C. and a mortar and pestle.

    The twin brothers cooked the stew twice during the Festival, using halibut the first time and red snapper the second. Even though Ramón and Félix had never caught or cooked these specific fish, the beauty of this dish is that almost any species produces the same outcome. When making this dish in the Costa Brava, rap, merluza, gatet, congre, and cap-roig are typically used.

    Another important part of fisherman’s stew is the picada—a mixture of ingredients that are pounded down with a mortar and pestle until it becomes a thick, dense paste. The picada, which originated in Catalonia, enhances the flavor of sauces, stews, and broths. Typically, it is made with almonds, parsley, a piece of fried bread, and a dash of salt. If almonds are not available, hazelnuts or pine nuts are great substitutes. 

    Félix also made allioli, a garlic sauce used for meats, stews, and bread. The word “allioli” is made up of two Catalan words—all (garlic) and oli (oil)—and it’s one of the region’s best known sauces. It may take between ten to twenty minutes to make, because the olive oil must be added little by little. You must keep stirring until you get a thick, creamy paste, but it is well worth the wait.

    Below is the full recipe for the fisherman’s stew. Please enjoy it with lots of bread and allioli. If you are interested in learning about other seafood dishes the twins make, check out their work at the gastronomic center in Palamós.

    Camera: Felix Boquera, Jackson Harvey, Albert Tong, Anne Saul
    Interview: Charlie Weber
    Production assistance: Josi Miller, Kathy Phung
    Story and editing: Abigail Hendrix

    Fisherman’s Stew

    Serves 4


    For stew:
    1 red snapper, halibut, or any white fish filetted and cut into 2-inch chunks
    1/2 lb. (6–7) potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-by-2-inch pieces (see tip below for how to cut)
    Olive oil
    Pinch of salt

    Catalan fisherman’s stew
    Preparation for fisherman’s stew demonstration.
    Photo by Stanley Turk, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    For fish stock:
    Fish head and spine
    Tomato sauce
    4 tomatoes, grated
    Pinch of salt

    For picada:
    1 handful of parsley
    8 garlic cloves
    Handful of hazelnuts, toasted (almonds or pine nuts also work)
    1 piece of bread (baguette or sourdough), fried
    Pinch of salt

    For allioli:
    2 cloves of garlic
    1 egg yolk
    Pinch of salt
    Olive oil

    Catalan fisherman’s stew
    Fishermen’s stew with bread and allioli.
    Photo by Caroline Angelo, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives


    1. Put the fish head, fish bones, parsley, garlic, water, and tomato sauce in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and lower the heat, letting it simmer in the pan with the lid on, for no longer than 20 minutes (overcooked fish stock can become very bitter). Let it cool a little and then strain it, reserving the stock. Discard the solids.
    2. For the picada, put parsley, garlic, and salt in a mortar, and grind the ingredients with pestle until the garlic has formed a paste. Add the handful of hazelnuts and continue grinding until the mixture looks like coarse, wet sand.
    3. In another saucepan, fry a slice of bread in olive oil until it’s crisp and golden brown. Add it to the mortar with the picada and grind it up until it’s a fine paste, once again like wet sand.
    4. Pour the picada to a generously oiled saucepan and let it crisp for 30 seconds. You will experience the aroma of the garlic; be mindful it does not burn. Add the potatoes and then 5 or 6 ladle-fuls of the reserved fish stock, or more if needed, until the potatoes are almost covered in liquid. Add a spoonful of tomato sauce.
    5. Bring to a boil, cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium, let it boil for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are barely cooked. Test the potatoes by piercing with a fork. You should be able to pierce them but feel a slight resistance.
    6. Salt the fish pieces lightly and add them to the stew, skin-side up. Cover the saucepan and continue cooking until the potatoes are cooked, around 5 to 8 minutes. Follow the same procedure with a fork to test for doneness. The fork should pierce the potato easily when the potatoes are done. Adjust the seasoning if needed.
    7. For the allioli, start by putting 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of salt in the mortar and pound them down until they are finely ground. Add the egg yolk and mix the allioli in a circular motion. Continue stirring while you slowly add olive oil, almost drop by drop, making sure the garlic and yolk are absorbing the oil.
    8. Mix until the mixture achieves a thick consistency; you will know you’ve achieved it when you can hear the click, click sound of the allioli against the pestle. A good test for proper consistency is to attempt to let the pestle stand on its own in the middle of themixture. It should be like the consistency of a thick mayonnaise. Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed.
    9. Plate the stew and then dollop a spoonful of allioli on top along with a sprig of parsley.

    Cooking tips:

    1. Before you grind up the garlic in the mortar for the allioli, slice it in half and remove the sprout or germ of the clove. This makes the garlic have a milder, less bitter taste.
    2. When cutting the potatoes, don’t slice them all the way through. Slice them halfway but then just break apart. This maximizes the amount of flavor the potatoes absorb from the fish stock, and bits of the potato break off to add flavor to the stew.
    3. If making the stew with any other seafood other than fish (mussels, shark, clams, etc.), take into account their different cooking times.

    Josi Miller is an intern for the Catalonia program at the Folklife Festival and a junior at Denison University majoring in anthropology and Spanish. She enjoys studying food culture as well as cooking with her friends and family.

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