Brodetto alla gradese was a fish soup created out of necessity in Grado, a seaside town in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in Italy's northeast. Considered a ‘poor man’s dish' that utilises offcuts of fish and seafood fishermen could not sell to restaurants, this stew is much loved today by Italians all around the world.
Melbourne-based chef and Italian native Marco Dazzan has many recipes he holds close to his heart, but when I asked him how to cook brodetto alla gradese, he opened up. It was hard for him to stop at just one memory relating to the dish.
Just like the brodetto alla gradese made in Italy, he uses leftover seafood (like monkfish, mullet and fish heads), as well as eels in this stew.
"I am originally from a little town on the east side of Italy called Lignano Sabbiadoro [which is an hour from Grado]. My childhood memories are all based all around food and the seasons. I remember my mum and grandmother in the kitchen, cooking with vegetables my father and grandfather grew in our garden. Brodetto all gradese has been passed down from many generations, my father taught me how to make this dish and I remember him making it with seafood he caught with my grandfather," says Dazzan.
"Each family has their own way of making brodetto all gradese, which translates to ‘little soup stock’ and is made with basic ingredients you can find in your pantry, which are then combined with cheap seasonal fish to feed a whole family."
When he was a kid, his family used seafood that restaurants did not want and fishermen could not sell. The recipe can be eaten during the summer – when the chef would go fishing instead of attending school – as well as winter time. The flavour of brodetto changes according to the fish that's available with the seasons, too.
"For me, autumn and winter are actually the best months to make my brodetto," says the chef. He often cooks the dishes when his friends come over. Or if it's freezing outside, he'll enjoy the stew by the fire pit with a glass of Italian wine like Friulano – which he also tips into the brodetto itself.
Dazzan has worked on his recipe for years. By watching his family cook it and looking at recipes by professional chefs, "I have now found the perfect balance for the perfect brodetto". Traditionally, the dish is cooked slowly over charcoal in a big copper brazier, but soffritto is the key to a good brodetto. This means mixing vegetables like celery, carrot and onion in oil with garlic, before adding in lots of pepper.
"Every time I make it, I remember the fragrance from the garlic and oil frying in our kitchen," he says. "My mother did not allow my father to cook it in the house because of the strong smell, I remember mum screaming, 'Get the hell out with that garlic!'” The brodetto had to be prepared in the outside kitchen, situated in the rear garden.
"Once you have the base of the brodetto, the tradition is to put the biggest fish at the bottom, layering the different seafood mix one layer, after another – but you should never stir or mix the soup to keep all these layers intact," the chef says.
His memories of his father's brodetto are as wide-ranging as the seafood that would flavour the stew: everything from sea cicadas to crabs and goby fish would power this dish. Scorpion fish is something "you cannot forget to put in the dish", he says.
Eel was a specialty addition: because it had to be fresh, his family would only eat it during the summer.
"My mother did not allow my father to cook it in the house because of the strong smell, I remember mum screaming, 'Get the hell out with that garlic!'”
"When you add eel to the dish, it transforms the dish and it should be cooked separately firstly, slow-braised with tomato and onion, as well as garlic, of course!" says the chef.
"After a few hours simmering, the eel should be tender, with the meat falling off the bone and so you can easily remove the larger backbone but definitely keep the skin," he adds. "Many people do not like it but I like the gelatinous texture, it gives a richness to the whole dish and adds different dimensions and consistency to the brodetto."
The chef concedes that his family brodetto might not be for everyone, but it's something he savours deeply.
"I grew up with it, so every herb and spice brings memories of my childhood when I cook and eat it," he says. "I remember sitting at our family table, surrounded by family and friends – it was magic for me."
Marco’s brodetto alla gradese
- 1 snapper fillet
- 1 scorpena fillet
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 garlic bulb, peeled
- Black pepper
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 1 eel, cleaned
- A few bay leaves
- 200 ml dry white wine
- Chopped tomatoes if you like them - I do!
- 200 g crab meat
- 150 g scallops
- Rustic bread, sliced to serve
- Parsley, to garnish
- Clean all the fish and portion into 3 cm x 3 cm pieces. Set aside.
- In a large pan, add 2 tbsp oil and cloves of peeled garlic (adjust the amount to taste and reserve one clove to rub on toasted bread later). Cook until the garlic is golden and brown.
- Remove garlic and add cracked black pepper and half the onion.
- Cook for 10 or 15 minutes before adding in the remaining onion and the eel. Cook for a few minutes.
- Add the bay leaves and most of the white wine (make sure to reserve a splash of wine and set it aside, so you can deglaze the pan later).
- Top up with water when the wine is reduced and cook gently without stirring (now is the time to add in the tomatoes as I do)!
- In a clean pot, add 2 tbsp oil and sear the fillets of fish. Add a pinch of salt while searing the fish.
- Add in a splash of white wine and deglaze with water before combining the first pot with the second pot. Add in the crab meat and scallops just before serving. Don’t overcook. Season with salt if needed.
- Toast some rustic bread and rub with peeled garlic.
- To serve, place the grilled garlic bread in the bottom of a large bowl. Carefully place the fish fillets on top of the bread and pour over the thickened brodetto. Finish with some fresh parsley, pepper and some more bread.
- You can keep leftovers in the fridge for 3-4 days.
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