Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fish Stew: Corfiot "Bianco" & My Love for Rick Stein

Bianco: White Fish Stew from Corfu

One of the things I unabashedly adore about the UK is Rick Stein.

A Little Background on Rick
Cornish Chef extraordinaire.

Rick, Chalky and some delicious Cornish seafood.

He is a middle-aged, awkwardly balding, ambiguously gay - but previously-married, like so many fruity British men - celebrity chef. I do have to say that I cringe a little when I use that loaded term "celebrity chef" to describe him, because Rick is just about anything but a culinarily-inclined-diva. What he is, is as non-glitzy and down to earth as someone who owns numerous award-winning restaurants, has written countless books, filmed countless cooking and travel shows, and is essentially *the* poster-boy for British seafood and therefore all of Cornwall, can be.

He is best known for his funny mannerisms, eloquent, typically British way of speaking ("it works a treat" most famously) and for toting his charming, scrappy little Jack-Russel Chalky (RIP) with him on all his world-wide cooking and eating adventures. With a degree in English from no less than Oxford University, it's no surprise all his programs have an air of the educated and refined. And his food, while both elegant and delicious, is also based on the respectable principles of sustainability, regionality, authenticity and - most importantly, in my mind - simplicity.

Currently showing on British tv are reruns of his "Mediterranean Escapes" (get the book on Amazon) and I happened to catch the one on Corfu a couple of weeks ago. I was immediately intrigued and lured in by a Corfiot fish-stew that Rick came across. It was made so simply and looked so delicious that I went out only a few days later and got all the ingredients to make it myself.

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A Little Background on "Bianco"

(pronounced bee-ahn-coh)

Bianco, in Italian, means "white." Odd that a Corfiot dish would have an Italian name? Not so much if you know that Corfu was once controlled by the Venetians, which is where it and other fish stews in the Ionian sea, such as bourtheto - or "red" fish stew - (spicy and red from the tomatoes used to make it) take their origins. Though much simpler, Bianco, which is white because it lacks the "tomato" that bourtheto has, can also be compared somewhat to the Greek kakavia, a fisherman's fish soup which involves a quintessentially Greek touch - it is typically cooked on the boat, using seawater. How delicious does that sound?

What first caught my eye and piqued my interest about bianco - apart from the sheer quantity of lemon juice and garlic used in this recipe - is another important aspect of Greek cuisine that I dearly love: the use of whole, bone-in fish. As Rick sits down on a Corfiot beach, bowl of bianco before him, sun shining, and the whole giant cauldron of the stuff on the other end of his table, he makes a key observation:
"I thought of putting this on the menu in my restaurant [in Padstow, Cornwall] because I really liked it, but the only way that customers in Britain would like it would be chunks of fish off the bone, cooked in this garlicky lemon-and-peppery sauce. And I thought - nah, I'm not doing that. Because you need the bones of the fish to give the liquid its gelatinous quality. Without that, it wouldn't be the same, and someone would be bound to sue me for getting a bone in their throat anyway."
I love eating whole fish, or even chunks of fish with the bone in. It is something that the Greeks have mastered in their cuisine, and to me it is infinitely more appetizing. I've found my whole life in the US that people scare you about choking on fish bones to the point of absurdity, and for that reason we live in a boring world of fish sticks and salmon steaks. To me that is not what seafood is about.

Give me shrimp head-on. Give me a whole grilled sea bass cooked simply in butter and garlic. Give me octopus tentacles and whole baby calamari. Baby eels and live whole lobsters and crawfish, shell-on, galore. I'm so sick of people being squeamish about the food they eat. If you like calamari, don't complain about the tentacles. If you like fish, don't cry about having to pull the tail and head off - it's a FISH not just a chunk of meat!

Anyway, bianco is a great opportunity to get past the squeamishness of eating whole or bone-in fish because, as Rick says, without the bones in, the flavor is just not the same.

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Bianco or "White Fish Stew" from Corfu

Serves 2

To me this dish screams summer, even though it's a stew. The simplicity and freshness of the ingredients "work a treat" on a hot summer day when you wish you were in Greece instead of stuffy old London. Fresh fish, fresh lemon, fresh garlic...I can't imagine something more appetizing.

In Rick Stein's show the Greek woman makes her bianco with a large Grouper fish. You can substitute seabass very easily for this fish as they come from the same family. I used Greek seabream because it was fresh and available that day in my supermarket. Oh and because it was Greek. :)

Here is a video of how to make Bianco from Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escape. I love watching it because it is an example of home-cooking at its best. Quantities are guest-imated, everything is chopped over the pot, and there is a large helping of Rick's commentary which makes it all the more pleasant.

1 whole Greek seabream or seabass (about 1-1.5 lbs in weight),
cut into steaks, keep the head and tail too*
1 cup lemon juice + 1 lemon cut in half
10-15 cloves of garlic, crushed and sliced
2 tbsp freshly ground pepper (don't be shy!)
1-2 cups water (or seawater!), adjust as necessary
1/2- 3/4 cup olive oil
3-4 medium potatoes sliced into thick-ish rounds
salt to taste
chopped parsley for garnish

* Ask your fishmonger to do this for you before you leave!

NB: I was tempted to add crushed red chili pepper to this, but thought it blasphemy as part of the allure is actually the spice and taste of the black pepper.


1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the garlic and let it simmer in the oil for a minute to infuse it with its flavor.

2. Add the pepper, fish (steaks, head and tail), potatoes, lemon juice, and enough water to just cover everything.  Add the salt and adjust to taste.

3. Cover the pot and allow to simmer on low for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Then simmer another 15-20 minutes with the top off, allowing the sauce to reduce. It should not be soupy but rather like a light stew. Correct the seasoning.

Serve in shallow bowls with parsley sprinkled over them, some crusty bread and extra lemon wedge on the side for good measure. Oh, and don't forget the bone plate for the fish!

A Small Bone to Pick: You can also cook the fish in the stew whole, not chopped. If you do this you can easily remove the head, tail and bones before serving and just dish out flaked or chunks of fish with the potatoes and stew. Yum without bones in your throat. :)

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  1. A white fish stew sounds amazing, a must try for sure!

  2. So funny you love Rick Stein. Husband and I watch him on youtube (places we want to go) before we go to bed once or twice a week.

  3. I love Rick Stein too and have a few of his books, he even autographed one for me. I was lucky enough to eat at a dinner he prepared in Washington, DC. It was an Oxford Alumni dinner, and his brother spoke along with the then editor of the Economist. Why does my alma mater not put on meals like this? I will remember it to my dying day.

    Your recipe sounds amazing. Can't wait to give it a try.

  4. At about 3:10 in the video Rick comments that she adds a spice called "mirro" or "marro"; what is that?

    1. What you're hearing is when Rick says "Some water. Nero? Nero?" "Nero" is the word for "water" in Greek. There are no spices except for garlic, salt, pepper and lemon juice. The time stamp for the "nero" comment is 0:59 - not 3:10. Hope this helps!

  5. Brenda, thanks, sorry I typed 3:10 when 0:59 is correct. So the spice being add at about 0:59 is ground pepper, and a lot of it, as Rick comments about!

    1. Hey Jeff - that's right. Lots of pepper. :)

  6. Actually, Brenda, Rick Stein is rather well known for his enthusiasm for the company of women. And, while he is divorced, he is also married for a second time to a woman. And this is a great recipe.