Recently I reread Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. This time round, one particular character stood out–her good friend and fellow writer, Norman Douglas. Her anecdotes about dining with him in Italy and how he’d keep a hunk of salami in his pocket even when going to the best restaurants were hilarious. As were her accounts of his writing the aphrodisiac cookbook, Venus in the Kitchen. His maxims about food, “Indigestion and love will not be yoked to together” “Good intentions–no. . . Gastritis will be the result of good intentions” “To be miserly towards your friends is not pretty; to be miserly towards yourself is contemptible,” were so amusing, I ordered his book.
There is much to love, starting with the introduction by Graham Greene. “There are said to be certain Jewish rabbis who perform the operation of circumcision with their thumbnail so rapidly and painlessly that the child never cries. So without warning Douglas operates and the victim has no time to realise in what purgatorio of lopped limbs he is about to wake, among the miserly, the bogus, the boring, and the ungenerous.”
Mr. Douglas’ recipes are really funny and not just because they have titles like Marrow of Leopard or Vulvae Steriles. The latter was apparently a favorite of Horace, Pliny, and Martial. Those crazy Romans. “I have been perusing Seneca’s letters. He was a cocoa-drinker, masquerading as an ancient.” There are lots of brilliant little jewels in this humorous last book of Mr. Douglas’ but my favorite would be his recipe for Stewed Crabs. Not because it’s particularly entertaining but because it reminded me of home.
Going back to Elizabeth David. . . There is an article she wrote for The Spectator, 8 December, 1961 which is included in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. The piece is entitled West Points. In it she reviewed Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book which was published in 1952. “The recipes, says the author, are the regional ones of the three Pacific States–California, Oregon, and Washington State. Some, brought from all over Europe, originated with the early settlers, and proving suitable to the new world, settled in as native dishes.” David goes on to write that one such dish is cioppino which is what Mr. Douglas’ stewed crabs reminded me of.
Cioppino is a seafood stew and a west coast classic, especially in San Francisco. It’s the Italian-American answer to bouillabaisse and I ate lots of it as a kid. My mother made a version with hazelnut romesco. Fishermen from Genoa who settled in Northern California used to make this dish aboard their boats in the 1800s. Later when some of them went on to open restaurants, this became one of their most famous dishes on the menu. The name cioppino comes from a word in the Ligurian dialect, ciuppin which means to chop. As the stew is made from chopped up pieces of the day’s catch, this seems appropriate.
So many food writers begin their careers when they leave the land of their birth. Like Claudia Roden who contacted her friends and family for recipes before leaving Cairo. Through food she could reconnect to the feelings and memories of her old home whilst living and growing roots in her new one. When I read her writing, I sense the attachment to her childhood. She writes about it with nostalgia as I think a great many food writers do. I certainly do and it wasn’t until I left Los Angeles for London that I started doing so. Food is a great communicator. It summons memories and gives them life again.
If you want a taste of my childhood, try the cioppino recipe I’ve written below. The broth is made from tomatoes, wine, garlic, onions, peppers, herbs, and spices. I like mine a bit spicy so I add chopped chilies or red pepper flakes. All kinds of seafood is then simmered in the broth. Since I live in England now, I’ve adapted the recipe to use what’s around me–Cromer crab and smoked fish. I serve it with parsley, basil, and the nicest bread I can find. And of course, I raise my glass and toast to home.
1 pound fish pie mix–salmon, cod, and smoked haddock
1/2 pound crab meat (I usually use uncooked but as I shopped late in the day, cooked was all they had. I always think it’s fun to see crab claws in my stew)
2 handfuls of clams
2 small onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
7 cloves of garlic, grated
1 chili pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
a bunch of fresh thyme
a bunch basil, chiffonade
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 jar fish soup (I use the soupe de poisson from our fishmonger)
1 can of chopped tomatoes
1/2 bottle white wine (I use Vinho Verde as that’s what I like to drink with this meal)
Dry roast the fennel seeds until you can smell their fragrance. Remove from heat and grind with a mortar and pestle.
Next, add some olive oil to a large pot. Over medium-low heat, saute the onions, bell peppers, garlic, chili pepper, bay leaves, thyme, basil, parsley, and fennel dust.
Once everything starts to caramelize, add the can of tomatoes and wine. Simmer for about 15 minutes or until flavors start to meld.
Pour the jar of fish soup into your mixture. This will enrich it. Then, stir in the clams. As soon as they start to open, add the fish. After two minutes, stir in the cooked crab. Turn off the heat and allow everything to stand for a few minutes under a lid.