When recipes don’t work…life sucks

fisherman's stewThis doesn’t happen to me very often. This feeling of helplessness and frustration combined with hunger and exhaustion. But I’m guessing it happens to a lot of you. You find a recipe that looks good either from a cookbook, someone’s earnest food blog or simply by googling. You’ve plucked that recipe out of millions of others to invest your hard earned money and your precious time in. You go to the grocery store, you spend anywhere from $10 to $100 on ingredients and then you clear you evening to cook. Often, the recipe is wonderful and carefully following it leads to a delicious home cooked meal for you and your family to enjoy. However, sometimes it just doesn’t work. The meat doesn’t brown the way it was described in the recipe or the promised “6 servings” are actually 2.

I have generally stopped trusting recipes all together (except my own wink wink) because of the constant LIES told by cookbook authors and editors at respected publications. That was until I decided to give a Greek Fisherman’s Stew by Florence Fabricant at the New York Times a try. It looked delicious in the picture. Light and tomatoey for summer with simple ingredients and ready in under an hour. Though I’m not sure what makes it Greek. Fennel and tomatoes with gobs of garlic would lead me to believe it’s more Italian. The recipe looked simple enough, mostly produce and fish which is the way I like to cook. Think it looks good in the photos? THINK AGAIN. It was bland, oh so bland and the fish stuck out sorely instead of blending with the vegetables. I think canned tomatoes would have been a better fit, rather than fresh beefsteaks.

fisherman's stew

I printed out the recipe and took it with me to the store and ended up spending $45 at Fairway. They didn’t have wild striped bass filets as the recipe suggests so I got Chilean Sea Bass (which is actually called Patagonian Toothfish). Don’t for a second think that swapping out the fish is why the recipe failed.

So now I’m home chopping vegetables and prepping. I look through the recipe carefully and a few things strike me as odd:

  1. The recipe suggests that the potatoes should be tender within 6 minutes of being thrown into the simmering liquid. You can’t cook a potato in the microwave in 6 minutes so it must be a misprint. Sure, you could argue that the potatoes will continue to cook as the recipe moves along but that would only allow for an additional 5 minutes of cooking time, at a LOW SIMMER. Potatoes (I don’t care how small you chop them) do not become “tender” after simmering for 11 minutes. MAYBE at a high boil but this part of the recipe is just WRONG. I ended up having to cook my potatoes over medium-high heat for at least 15 minutes to get them close to tenderness. This likely had negative effects on the stew, though I am inclined to believe that the extra cooking enhance the bland flavor.
  2. There’s no mention of bread. What’s a stew without a delicious piece of crusty bread? Clearly no one actually ate this stew because otherwise bread would be there, it just would be.
  3. It suggests adding 1 sup of Sriracha mayo. No further comment.
  4. The recipe calls for 1 cup white wine and 2 ½ cups water. That’s only 3 1/3 cups of liquid (some of which will cook off) plus a tiny bit from the tomatoes. Not sure how the author got 6 servings out of this.

My prognosis? Someone noticed a spike in searches for “Greek Fisherman’s Stew” and asked the cooking department to come up with something. The cooking department, for whatever reason, was not able to provide an original recipe for “Greek Fisherman’s Stew.

I imagine the conversation going something like this:

Person from NY Times Monitoring Traffic for Ad Sales: We’ve noticed a spike in searches for “Greek Fisherman’s Stew” can you please get a recipe up by end of next week?

The “author” of this recipe: (rolls eyes)

Editorial Assistant (we’ll call him John): Didn’t find anything for Greek Fisherman’s Stew. I’d be happy to reach out to a freelancer or set something up in the test kitchen later this week.

The “author” of this recipe:  I don’t know what the hell Greek Fisherman’s Stew is or why the hell someone from analytics is butting in. Can you just find Italian Fisherman’s stew and slap something Greek in it? Like lemon? Greeks like lemons right?

John: Sure, lemons sound good. Found a recipe for “Summer Fish Stew” but it’s a long one, cooking time is two hours.

The “author” of this recipe: Just lob off ten minutes of cooking time here and there and add something with a WOW factor at the end.

Editorial Assistant (we’ll call him John): Okay! How about Sriracha mayo? I LOVE Sriracha mayo. That’s Greek right?

The “author” of this recipe: It’s all Greek to me! 

<End Scene>

Okay, so when I say failure I don’t mean that it was inedible. It was just bland and unimpressive for the two hours and $45 dollars I had invested. I made such drastic modifications though that I imagine if a person were to actually follow this recipe word for word you’d end up with uncooked fish in about 2 inches of liquid with chunks of barely palatable potatoes. I used about ¾ of a pound of fish which took up just about the whole pot. I can’t even imagine what a WHOLE 2 pounds of fish would look like as the recipe suggested. I added cooked tortellini at the last minute because I was afraid the soup had gone south completely. I added double the salt and still it was terribly bland. It seems to be missing something: is it saffron? Cumin? Rice? This stew suffered from a complete lack of flavor. Apparently this stew is called a “kakavia.” More like a Katastrophe.

Here’s my version of the recipe which STILL needs further testing. The idea for the addition of tortellini came from my dear friend Peg who makes a tortellini, garlic and saffron soup that will cure whatever ails you.

The original recipe with some of my edits and questions.

The original recipe with some of my edits and questions.

Generic Fisherman’s Stew (adapted from the NY Times)

Serves 4 


3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about ¾ cups)
6 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 small head fennel, diced
¼ teaspoon red chile flakes, or to taste
2 large beefsteak tomatoes, cored and chopped, with their juices
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 cup dry white wine
½ pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¾ pound wild striped bass or sea bass
6 basil leaves, torn
1 9 ounce package store-bought cheese tortellini, cooked according to package directions
½ a baguette or other crusty bread


Heat oil in a 4-quart cast-iron Dutch oven  or casserole over medium heat. Stir in onion and garlic and cook until soft but not brown. Add fennel and cook a few minutes, until softened. Stir in chile flakes. Add tomatoes, potatoes and salt, cover and cook on medium about 10 minutes.

Stir in wine and 2 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil (this will take about 10 minutes). Boil for about 2 minutes, then turn flame down to a simmer. Check seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice.

Season fish pieces with salt and pepper, place them in the stew and simmer on low, covered, until fish is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. When fish is done, remove it to the warm soup plates. Remove pot from heat, stir in basil, just to wilt it, and divide soup among the 6 plates.

Like this post? Try one of these…

Perfect Lentil Soup 

Ukrainian Borscht 

Eating Greek in Astoria 

3 thoughts on “When recipes don’t work…life sucks

  1. You should be a recipe Cop! Book em Dano.
    A great story. Has Happened to me more than I care to divulge- recipes that look great and turn out terrible.

  2. Most odd. I collect cookbooks, and have a couple of Greek ones. The “striped bass” is surely striped sea-bream – which is used in fish stews and broths in Greece. But the mayo with hot sauce seems to be an attempt at rouille – which is a southern French addition to fish stews, not Greek at all. It is sometimes added to bouilliabaise, and potatoes are sometimes added to bouilliabaise, but you boil that fish stew very hard so everything cooks quite quickly.

  3. Amazing – this recipe is actually a joke. Props to you for standing 2 hours through the entire thing! NYT recipes can be so hit and miss. There was Melissa Clark’s lentil soup, which suffered from the same thing you’ve described with this one – so bland, even with all the spices and lemon and coriander. That recipe needed a total overhaul.

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