As I mentioned last week, I’m just back from a holiday in Spain (specifically, Ibiza) and one of the local specialities there is a fish stew called bullit de peix. There’s one particular restaurant called El Bigote which is famous throughout the island for its version, in fact, aside from a mixed platter of grilled seafood it’s the only thing they serve. The reservation system is to put it charitably, quirky: you have to book in person and this means a long car journey around very narrow, winding roads backing onto some scarily steep cliffs, then you have to ring (remarkably, they only had a phone line installed last year) on the day of your meal to confirm your place and, of course, make the arduous journey back again to eat.
There’s a legendary story about the eccentric owner who once turned away the King of Spain because he didn’t have a reservation so it’s not a place you can just turn up expecting to get a seat! Unfortunately due a ‘communication error’, i.e., me making a mess of the booking, we arrived too early for the stew which starts at 2.30pm meaning we had to settle for the grilled fish being served from noon till two. I wouldn’t feel sorry for me though: as you can see from the picture below, the boat that brings the catch in in the morning is parked right outside the restaurant; it doesn’t get much fresher than this. As expected, the food was excellent.
The reason for my lengthy digression is because in the search for a recipe I couldn’t find anything in English so I had to do it through Spanish using Google Translate. Amazingly enough, one of the recipes I found was on a post about El Bigote although given the similarity of the ingredient list to the one here I’d say they’re working from the same source. Unfortunately there seems to be some important things missing, most noticeably the saffron and after a bit of digging I found a few more informative links.
As you can see, several of those have another step after the stew where a second course of rice is prepared from the broth the fish was cooked in, this is called arroz a banda (literally, ‘rice apart’) and can be quite a surprise the first time you order bullit de peix because you gorge on the fish and potatoes only to be presented with a huge pan of rice afterwards.
I’ve made a few changes to the recipes there, notably using fish stock instead of water and adding white wine, mainly because there’s no way the flavour of the stews I’ve had in Ibiza could come from fish only cooked in water for five minutes. There’s also an unfamiliar ingredient (well, certainly to me) called ñora which appeared a few times in my research and it happens that this is the dried pepper pimenton is made from. I had ordered some whole ones online but they didn’t arrive in time so I just used sweet paprika powder instead. Finally, I’ve reduced the amount of potatoes and replaced the traditional cuttlefish with squid as it’s impossible to find fresh in Dublin (I’ve seen it frozen in the Asian on Jervis Street).
One thing I couldn’t replicate was the bright yellow rice I associate most readily with the dish: I am nearly certain the effect comes from a Spanish food colouring called colorante because to do so using just saffron would require an absurd amount which would not only be prohibitively expensive but also very overpowering in flavour. To extract the maximum natural colour from the saffron I used a tip from On Food And Cooking and steeped the threads in warm alcohol before adding the whole lot to the pot.
Speaking of imposing flavours, the traditional accompaniment to bullit de peix is the Catalonian staple allioli which is an emulsion made from just garlic and oil. With no egg and only the garlic to act as an emulsifier, it is notoriously difficult to make and requires you to mash a ridiculous amount of cloves in a mortar and pestle and drip olive oil in drop by drop and pray that the sauce doesn’t split. I have no mortar and pestle so I cheated by using an egg and a whisk and just made standard aioli (minus the mustard), no doubt much to the horror of Catalan chefs who thoroughly disapprove of such expedients.
150ml white wine
Saffron, pinch of
25ml olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 small green peppers, finely chopped
2 ñora peppers
1l fish stock
3 medium potatoes, quartered
600g large chunks of mixed white fish (any type as long as they are as fresh as possible, preferably on the bone)
300g paella rice
2 squid tubes diced
- Pour the white wine into a saucepan and gently heat.
- Add the saffron, remove from the heat and leave to infuse.
- Heat a large stew pot over a low heat and pour the olive oil in.
- Add the onion and sauté for around 10 minutes until translucent.
- Add the garlic and fry for another 2-3 minutes.
- Stir in the peppers and tomato and gently cook for 20-25 minutes.
- Turn the heat up to medium and pour in then wine and saffron.
- When most of the alcohol has evaporated, add the fish stock.
- Pierce the nora peppers with a knife to stop them floating and add to the pot.
- Add the potatoes and season the broth aggressively.
- Cook for around ten minutes until the potatoes nearly cooked.
- Add the fish and simmer for 4-5 minutes until cooked through.
- Remove the fish and potatoes from the pot and place on a serving dish.
- Mix 50ml of aioli with 15ml of the broth and pour over the fish and potatoes.
- Put the platter in the centre of the table along with a bowl of aioli and allow people to serve themselves.
- In a wide pan add the rice and cover with 700ml of the broth (strained).
- Cook over a low heat until all the stock is absorbed (around 15 minutes).
- Add the squid, take off the heat and cover the rice leaving to steam for another 5 minutes. Alternatively, fry the squid in a separate pan and sprinkle over the rice at the end.
- Put the pan in the centre of the table and allow people to serve themselves.