I can’t remember the first time I got my hands on a very used copy of Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. It’s a classic, a book that has always been there, it seems. And in my lifetime, it actually has been — it was originally published in 1975, the year after I was born.
The book is different from an ordinary cookbook. In it, Mitcham writes about the adventures of the fishing fleet and its characters. They take on a mythological force in the book. He’s famous for having called Provincetown “the seafood capital of the universe, the fishiest town in the world.”
At the same time, Mitcham’s recipes are down to earth. They make the book a treasure for anyone who loves to cook, because each time you pick it up again, even after years, you can be sure to find a gem that feels new.
The last time I found myself reading Mitcham, the recipe that got my attention was his “Zarzuela à la Cape Cod.” Zarzuela is a Spanish word describing a form of opera that originated in the 17th century, possibly at the royals’ country palace, the Palacio de la Zarzuela. Zarzuela, as performance, combines a variety of instruments, songs, and spoken words. Likewise, zarzuela, the seafood dish, features a variety of fresh seafood ingredients — though I’d say shellfish are the stars.
I’ve often made something similar to this — a fish stew with tomatoes. But always with fish stock as the base. I never thought of using clam broth except when making clam chowder. You can use bottled clam juice or make a simple clam broth — scrub about a dozen cherrystones and steam them, covered, in a pot with just a little water. They will yield enough briny liquor for this. (Chop the cherrystone meat for a pizza or make stuffed clams.)
The key to a good zarzuela is a flavorful base. It’s worth spending a little time combining elements and getting the flavors of it just right. You can make a large batch ahead of time and freeze it for a future date when the tides are right.
What gets included as you finish the zarzuela can ebb and flow depending on what is seasonally available and fresh caught locally.
With the shellfish we’re so fortunate to have here, zarzuela now seems more local than Spanish to me. Littlenecks, mussels, razor clams, and oysters are readily available, and, if you listen to Mitcham, you might venture to get some harder-to-find additions like periwinkles and even blood clams. Anything goes — as the poet William Cowper said, “Variety is the spice of life.”
At the restaurant, we always add a firm fish like monkfish or swordfish and some calamari to round out the flavor and texture.
Mac’s Seafood Zarzuela
A 2-quart batch of base
2 cups diced Spanish onion
½ cup chopped garlic
8 scallions, chopped
1 cup chopped parsley
4 tomatoes, diced
2 cups dry white wine
4 oz. Spanish brandy or sherry
1 satchel of thyme and bay leaves
1 pinch pepper flakes
1 tsp. saffron, toasted and smashed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
16 oz. can tomato puree
4 cups clam broth
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
8 oz. white kidney beans
Heat olive oil and just as it begins to smoke, add onions. Sauté the onions until they are golden brown, then add the garlic — do not let it burn. Add half of the parsley and scallions (if you’re making the zarzuela the same day, reserve the other half to use as a garnish), then the diced tomatoes, and cook for 6 to 9 minutes.
Next, add the white wine and brandy and cook 2-4 minutes to burn off the alcohol. Season the mixture with the thyme, bay leaves, and saffron.
Add the tomato paste and puree, the clam broth, and the fish sauce. Bring base to a simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the flavors are blended and the texture is correct — you want it not too loose but not too thick.
Check the seasonings. The base should be full of flavor. If it is not quite intense enough, add more fish sauce and clam broth. Finish by adding the white beans and cool the base rapidly if you’re not making the soup right away.
for two dinner servings
1 cup zarzuela base
8 littlenecks (or 4 razors when available)
1 cup sliced calamari
4 jumbo shrimp
5 oz. monkfish or other firm white fish (bass, sword, or cod, or a combination)
Chopped scallions and parsley
Scoop a cup of the base into a pan and add littlenecks. Simmer for 4 to 6 minutes, until littles are almost open. Cut the fish into 4 to 6 pieces, and add it, the mussels, and the shrimp.
When the shrimp are almost done, add the calamari.
Gently simmer until all seafood is cooked. But do not overcook — instead, undercook to perfection!
Season with parsley-scallion mixture and good sea salt, and serve with slices of crusty bread or toast.