One of the world’s most famous rice concoctions, paella is perhaps Spain’s best-known culinary export. Along the country’s Mediterranean coast, particularly in Catalonia and Valencia, locals eschew yellow rice for slender confetti-shaped pasta cooked in a fragrant seafood broth—a traditional dish called fideuà. Many restaurants present it as a variation on Seafood paella, beautifully adorned with seasonal vegetables and mussels and shrimp in their shells in a shallow paella pan with pasta in place of rice. But to truly find out what makes the most authentic fideuà, there’s better place no than at the fish and seafood stalls at Barcelona’s Boquería Market.
The sea in a dish
“The best fideuà is made from rockfish broth,” asserts Eva Enguix, a long-time friend and my favorite fishmonger at La Boquería Market in Barcelona. “Fideuà should taste like the sea in a dish.”
She pauses while her mother, Pepa, trills off an order in Catalan for 200 grams of fresh anchovies. Eva then begins to slice into perfect filets as she talks about the makings of authentic fideuà, “You know, spiny, bony fish like Scorpion Fish, red fish, sometimes some crab or lobster and maybe a few peeled shrimp, but most importantly stronger tasting cold-water specimens.” She gestures towards a pile of smallish fish in shades of fire. “But you have to be very careful making your broth. If the fish isn’t fresh, you’ll have ammonia soup on your hands, and if you cook it for more than 20 minutes or on too high of heat, it’ll be so strong you won’t be able to dilute it with all the water in the world.” She slides the anchovy filets into a plastic container and begins whacking tuna steaks into submission with a knife the size of her forearm.
No vegetables, shrimp, or mussels allowed
I nod and decide that if I ever attempt this recipe, Eva’s personally selecting my fish for the stock. Maybe I could even pay her to make the stock. Then I ask, “What about vegetables and tomato sauce?”
The pinched expression that comes over her and her mother’s faces make me wish for my camera and an excuse to take some candid shots. “Vegetables and tomatoes ruin fideuà. People use them to mask the flavor of fish that’s past its prime.” Eva sets down her knife and pulls off her blue rubber elbow length gloves. “I’ve been working with fish my entire life and my family has been in this business for generations. One of my grandfathers was a fishmonger like me, and the other was a skipper. Fideuà was a simple dish then, rockfish was cheap, and thrown away after they used it to make the broth. The only thing my family ever added to the fideus noodles was cuttlefish. No mussels or shrimp. I like it in thin slices, about the same thickness as the pasta. Allioli, made with eggs, not the more traditional Catalan sauce made with only garlic and oil, was served on the side, so everyone could mix it in to taste.”
Lemon is for amateurs
I think back to the last place I had fideuà out in Barcelona. “What about the restaurants serving up a squid ink allioli on their fideuà?”
Eva shakes her head, and wags a finger back and forth “It’s a mistake. It overpowers the dish. It’s worse than lemon on paella.”
I try not to show my guilt. If left to my own devices, I squirt lemon all over my paella. Except at Eva’s house. At Eva’s it’s never offered, and I’ve never once missed it, come to think of it. Her paella, like everything else that comes out of her kitchen, is amazing.
“So it’s mostly about making good fish stock?” I venture.
“Exactly. It’s a simple one-pot mainstay, really—or at least it used to be,” Eva lowers her voice conspiratorially “before so many chefs made such a complicated mess of Catalan cuisine.” She rolls her eyes. She’s told me this before. Professional chefs, while they can be extremely fussy, are some of her most faithful client base. “Fideuà’s very filling, so I serve it with a nice green salad and chilled glasses of fruity white wine and that’s it.”
Since I can’t convince Eva to make my broth, I settle for the next best thing and have her hand-select my ingredients, and pre-slice my cuttlefish into perfect circles with her scary fishmonger’s knife. She says I can use the cuttlefish’s tiny suction-cupped “feet” with the rings to top my fideuà, or I can do like she does and save them for another meal, steam them and serve them in a seafood salad, or flour and fry them.
She puts a crab, scorpion fish, and a hunk of large whitefish bone in a separate clear plastic bag for me, ties the top in a knot, accepts a fistful of Euros and sends me on my way.
Better than paella
At home I follow her advice and make my own stock, skimming off the foam as it cooks, and straining out the fish afterwards.
Then I add my fideos noodles and cuttlefish and finish off everything in the oven. While it’s baking, I use my immersion blender to whip up some allioli. Then, like the hot sauce addict I am, I put my trusty bottle of Sriracha on the table, just in case. But I don’t need it. Eva’s cuttlefish fideuà, as I’ve come to think of it, is better than any Paella I’ve ever eaten. My husband certainly has no complaints, and he’s been known to be less than impressed by the fideuà in five star restaurants.
Here Eva’s recipe so you can make authentic fideuà at home.
Eva’s Cuttlefish Fideuà with Allioli Recipe (serves 4)
2 ½ cups rockfish and crab stock (or fish stock if you can’t find rockfish and crab)
8 oz. fideos noodles or angel hair pasta broken into small pieces (about 2 cups)
6 oz. of Cuttlefish cut into 1/8-inch rings (about half a cup)
1 egg at room temperature
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil (mild)
1-2 cloves of garlic
- Heat the pasta on low heat in the rockfish stock and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add the cuttlefish rings, cover and simmer 3 minutes.
- Preheat oven to broil. Place pan (oven-safe, of course) under broiler and broil 3 to 4 minutes, or until the pasta is lightly crunchy on top—keep a close eye on it—it’s easy to overdo it.
- Make the Allioli. Peel and cut your garlic cloves into 4 small pieces. Put the garlic in a bowl or mixing cup for your immersion blender, then add the egg, oil and a little bit of salt. Mix the ingredients at low speed without making any sudden movements to keep the egg from separating. Cover and put it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it—it can be made up to a day ahead.
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