Sarsuela Mago

In May of 2011, the MagoGuide Team descended on Barcelona… again. One of our goals for this visit to a favorite city was to begin a series of MagoGuide journal entries whereby we visited one or more of the local markets, and based on the ingredients found in the market, build a meal. Enjoy our 2011 trip to the Barcelona markets where we pick up the ingredients to make Sarsuela Mago.


The Cybergypsies’ Barceloneta love shack is located above the venerable Can Sol restaurant. In constant operation since 1903, it is the establishment credited in local legend with inventing the Catalan fish stew known as sarsuela. Like all great fish soups, this dish began as a repository for left over fish scraps from the day before — a way to stretch ingredients millennia before “cost of food” reared its ugly head in gastronomic agony. Executed correctly with local ingredients, sarsuela will stand up to any bouillabaisse, supa di pesce, brodetto, cioppino, whatever.

In honor of Can Sole’s former owner and our landlord Ramon Homs, I set out to create a new signature sarsuela named after Mago, the chief slave cook of King Hiero II of Syracuse who plied his trade in the third century BCE (see MagoScrolls). The first step is to find a variety of fish and arthropods that were swimming free mere hours before, blissfully ignorant of the fate that awaited them in Kitchen Stadium Barcelona. While most foodie wannabes would head for La Boqueria fitfully humming the theme to “The Next Food Network Star” and rubbing body parts with every pick pocket, hustler, and buddy dressing, video cam toting tourista — suitably tricked out with whining children and sleep deprived spousal unit, we made our way instead to the Mercat de Santa Caterina, which lies just southeast of the Plaça D’Antoni Maura in the Sant Pere neighborhood of the old city. Mercat de Santa Caterina and the Boqueria are only two of an unbelievable 39 such markets that grace the city, a fact that in and of itself testifies to the nobility and civility of the Catalan people.

Weaving through the tangle of medieval alleys that lie between the Love Shack and the Mercat de Santa Caterina and past the permanent line of grumpy tourists waiting to get into the Picasso museum, we execute the first engagement necessary to all gastronomic operations: the ATM withdrawal. This requires two people in Barcelona, one to stand guard while the other negotiates a bailout interest rate with the IMF, European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve in order to cope with the hideous exchange rate, the criminal level of bank fees, and the usurious charges tacked on by Visa. Once the fun tickets are retrieved from Mr. Money, and every financial institution from the bankrupt Caixa that owns the machine to the sharks that bought our bank when it went tango uniform back in ’08 has wet their beaks, we can go buy fish.


Arriving at Mercat de Santa Caterina, we reconnoiter the entire market before we begin purchasing so as to discuss the ingredients and find those that exhibit the correct signs of freshness: clear eyes, glistening skin, and the smell of an ocean breeze. As I bend over numerous specimens ostentatiously smelling and surreptitiously touching (the flesh must be firm despite passing all the other tests, but the stall proprietors take a dim view of a non-local feeling up their goodies), Patti maintains situational awareness because, frankly, we do not blend. In fact, my Tilly hat and Keen sandals (not to mention my look of stunned bliss as I French kiss a large sea bream) mark me out as a Stranjero di Bancomat (foreign ATM), the numerous “secure” pockets embedded in my various travel togs simply daring the local light fingered lift specialists to make their day.


Having inspected every ichthyan creature within a square kilometer, purchasing begins. First, a half kilo of baby squid. Only one stand has these two inch long morsels, probably because they have been illegal to harvest for about a year, because the Mediterranean is being rapidly fished out and the EU is desperately trying to save its bounty for the 80% of its population that will retire at age 55 and live for several more centuries off the taxes levied on the rest. Oh well, perhaps one can exchange good and bad karma like carbon swaps. Vowing to work extra hard to save the two conditioned grizzly bears currently terrorizing our Montana Love Shack, we move on to baby octopus and immediately trigger the day’s first marital crisis.


Baby octopus are not only illegal, they are more expensive than dope. I’m torn between the knowledge that they are essential to the sarsuela and the desire for conjugal relations sometime before the turn of the century. Interrogating the fishmonger in bad Italian (Castilian, not to mention Catalan, being far beyond our pathetic language skills), I am so shocked by the quoted price that written confirmation is required. Sure enough, the damn things cost 65 freakin’ Euros a kilo (that’s $46 a pound at the current exchange rate of 1.4172 thanks to Uncle Ben and QE 2). Under Patti’s steely gaze, 10 perfect miniature octopi are selected and paid for. Utilizing three semesters of differential equations she informs me that this works out to $2 per octopus, a species which Patti would not eat under any imaginable circumstances to begin with.


Resigned now to an insurmountable karma deficit, I move on to crustaceans. Four angry but gorgeous langoustines are selected, a bargain at a little more than half the price of the octopus. Then, the jewel in the crown, a big fat scorpion fish.

This is the secret to all Mediterranean fish soups. Scorpion fish range in color from coral red to dark brown. They are monumentally ugly, covered on the outside with a hedge of evil sharp spines and full of bones that resemble nothing so much as large calcium needles. They ain’t cheap either, so why bother? Because they are filled with unctuous gelatin that, when rendered into liquid triggers a gustatory apotheosis. And the flesh, once freed from its lethal skeleton, is meltingly dense and sweet. Having made her numbers for the day off of us (the locals are all buying sardines and anchovies while looking at us like we have lost our minds), the fishwife is more than happy to clean the scorpion fish. This is a major coup. I will have scars for the rest of his life on my hands and forearms from pervious encounters with this pitiless beast. Utilizing thick rubber gloves and tools clearly designed for the aftermath of an extreme rendition, the stall proprietress quickly removes the dense scales and viscera, adding a large bunch of parsley free of charge to the purchase.

The gratis herbs have not appeased Patti, so a dedicated bargain hunt ensues for monkfish tail, the final member of the sarsuela cast.


We are rewarded with a sale at one of the stalls featuring beautiful fresh monkfish tails for about half the price that it is fetching in the rest of the market. I take a while to determine that there is nothing wrong with the product.

“They’re fine, they are just a little smaller than the rest,” Patti assures me.

I continue to stare lugubriously at the monkfish until the old woman who runs the stall approaches, grasps the situation immediately, holds up one of the specimens and proceeds to deliver a lecture in rapid fire Catalan. She may as well be saying, “go ahead and buy them, they have been bathed in toxic nuclear waste for a week, but you might live, who knows, come on I double dog dare you!!”

“I wish I knew what she was saying,” I sigh.

“She is saying that they are fine, they are just a little small,” replies Patti utilizing the universal chick comms channel that is denied to the male of the species.


We buy two nice tails and the fishwife obligingly skins them for us. Fish in hand, we turn to the chorus of side dishes that will compliment our masterpiece. The sarsuela must be placed before an appreciative audience, but since we know a total of four people in Barcelona, dinner guests are pretty thin on the ground. We have invited our friend, savior, and local fixer extraordinaire Giovanni and his lovely lady Rossanna to dinner. They are Sicilians and thus the epitome of discriminating guests, brought up in a culture that prizes food and the conviviality of the table above all things. In addition, Rossanna is the rarest of all Sicilians, a vegetarian.

We decide that the soup should be accompanied by a classic Roman dish of zucchini and onions sautéed in olive oil and vinegar with mint and hot pepper. (Actually, the mint is a Sicilian interpolation. Romans would use fresh basil instead.) The ingredients are sourced at a produce stand and we move on to the nibbles that will precede the main course. In Catalan these are known as “pica pica,” an eponymous description of the way they are consumed. We decide on a Spanish tortilla (a potato omelet) made with duck eggs procured at an ovarian temple that contains specimens that have emerged that morning from nether regions of everything from quails to ostriches.

Next we select two types of Asiago cheese as well as pickled and sweet olives.


Finally, I ring the price per kilo bell with jamon iberico, the sublime prosciutto-like pork product that retails at an astronomical 100 euros a kilo. The purchase of 150 grams of this porcine platinum leaves Patti rather nonplussed for a non-trivial amount of time.

Here are some more pictures from our trip to the Santa Catarina market.

The tension is broken by lunch (shopping is hard work after all) at Cova Fumada on the square at c/Baluard where we are joined by Giovanni for plates of fried artichokes, stewed octopus, grilled sardines, salt cod in tomato sauce and pa amb tomaquet, which is grilled bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and garlic. The restoration of marital bliss owes as much to the tab as to the wonderful fare. While the wait staff would intimidate a drill sergeant and actually getting a table can be quite an ordeal, at 11 euros a head Cova Fumada is the best bargain in Barceloneta.

Following lunch Giovanni accompanies us to Vinoteca Voramar at 14 c/Maquinista to select the evening’s wine. Sicilians, unlike Italians, actually drink red wine with fish when the dish can stand up to it, and the sarsuela certainly fits that category. We settle on a Rotllan Torra 2005 reserva, which is a blend of 50% grenacha, 25% mazuelo and 25% cabernet sauvignon.


Finally, we make a quick stop at the Forn Balluard right off the square with wonderful bread and pastries.

Bearing our purchases like trophies in a Roman triumph, we return to Kitchen Stadium Barcelona to prepare the evening’s meal, the recipes for which follow:

Sarsuela Mago Recipe


  • onions
  • garlic
  • celery
  • fresh ripe tomatoes
  • canned diced tomatoes
  • fish stock
  • parsley
  • oregano (preferably Pantescan)
  • rosemary
  • harissa (preferably Tunisian)
  • anchovies (preferably salt packed Spanish)
  • 1 scorpion fish
  • 2 monk fish tails
  • 4 large langoustines
  • baby squid
  • baby octopus

Step 1 – Remoisten the fish stock

The local supermercat has excellent pre-made fish stock, so it is unnecessary to start from scratch. However, I employ a French technique called remoistening, which enriches the stock and makes the scorpion fish much easier to deal with when it comes time to eat. Combine three liters of fish stock with the scorpion fish in a large pot. As you can see from the photos, the Love Shack kitchen only has medium size pots, so I locate a cleaver and whack off the leviathan’s head so that it fits into the pot.

Add aromatic vegetables (celery, carrots, onions) and rosemary to the stock. Bring the stock up to a simmer, but do not allow it to boil whatever you do. Boiling will cloud the stock with scum rising from the fish and give it an off-putting smell and an over powering fishy taste.

Once the surface is moving slightly, let it simmer for an hour then carefully remove the scorpion fish to a platter and allow it to cool. Reserve the stock and vegetables in their pot.

Step 2 – Make the soffrito


Prep everything first so that you have a nice mis-en-place: cut the onions into a quarter inch dice; chop the garlic fine and do the same with the celery; cut the tomatoes into half inch chunks, open two cans of diced tomatoes, rinse the salt off of the anchovies and separate them into filets; stem the parsley (if you are not using broad leaf Italian parsley, quit now, go call your mother and tell her you will never be a cook); open the oregano package; pierce the top of the tube of harissa. Finally, open a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass, this should be fun and relaxing (if you do not drink wine while you cook, see instructions above concerning your mother and your culinary future).

Cover the bottom of a pan with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t be stingy, it helps with both flavor and mouth feel of the soup. Saute the onions until translucent, then add the garlic. When the garlic turns from chalk white to milky, add the celery and cook for a few minutes incorporating all the ingredients. The kitchen should start to smell really good. When your spousal unit wanders in to remark on this phenomenon, take time out to hug, kiss, and fondle said unit, but under no circumstances refer smugly to the necessity of costly ingredients. Instead, humbly thank your long-suffering spousal unit for putting up with you.

Add the fresh tomatoes and a pinch of salt along with several grindings of black pepper. Let the fresh tomatoes break down for a few minutes and then add the canned ones. I use both fresh and canned tomatoes because they have a different consistency and compliment each other. Just make sure that the fresh tomatoes are of good quality and very ripe (as in almost rotting). If you cannot find decent fresh tomatoes a) you are not in Spain or most anywhere else in the Mediterranean, b) you can rely completely on canned (which should also be high quality).


Finish your glass of wine and pour another, then pour about one and a half glasses of wine into the pan. Does one need to tell you to stir every time you put something new in the pan? (Calling from Europe is expensive so you might want to Skype your mother this time.) Chop the anchovies into a paste and add them to the pan. Here is the trick to use if you are going to serve Sarsuela Mago to someone who swears that they cannot stand anchovies: just do not tell them. The anchovies melt into the soup base giving it that umami dimension so important in this type of dish. Or you could simply defenestrate the damn apostate and be done with it.

Taste the harissa, it can be very salty or very hot and you need to gauge it before you go squirting it wildly into the soffrito (you can always put in more, you can’t take out an excessive amount). You want the soup to have a slight amount of heat on the tongue during the finish, not a raging inferno. Depending on the taste, add 1 to 3 teaspoons of harissa to the pan. Add about a tablespoon of the oregano (note: if you are going to use fresh oregano, then you do not know what you are doing, but if it is all you have, do not add it now — wait until ten minutes before serving the soup and for penance do not chop it but tear apart each and every little leaf, moron). Chop the parsley roughly, just to get those big plump leaves down to about one third of their size and add it to the pan.

Now simmer and reduce the soffrito by about one third to one half depending on the amount of liquid shed by the tomatoes. You want it thick and the flavor concentrated, because you will be adding it to the stock later. Stir and taste it every 15 minutes. Add more harissa and oregano as required. Remember that you are going to dilute the soffrito prior to serving, so in order to have that nice bite of heat it needs to be zesty when you are finished reducing. DO NOT OVER REDUCE. A sure sign of this is if the bubbles in the soffrito become so thick that they make plopping sounds and send spatters all over the stove. Over reduced soffrito will make the soup taste bitter. Do not wander off or ignore the soffrito while executing the following steps. Do not assign the reduction to your spousal unit under any circumstances. If you see the soffrito getting too thick, dilute it with a cup or so of the fish stock and turn the heat way down. Reserve the reduced soffrito off heat once it is ready.

Step 3 – Bone the scorpion fish

The monster should be cool by now. Start with the head and remove the cheeks. I usually celebrate this stage by eating them with the rest of my second glass of wine, but they really should be reserved for the soup. There are a lot of globs of gelatin in the head as well as nice little chunks of meat — note and avoid the multiple rows of razor sharp teeth. Make sure to put all these on a plate as well as the gobs of fat around the eyeballs. Now move to the body of the fish. There is a lot of meat on the scorpion fish, but it is full of deadly needle shaped bones, both big and small. In the Neolithic era these would be saved for domestic tools, but all you have to do is make sure you get all of them out of the firm but sweet flesh. Use your fingers and go slowly, break up big chunks to make sure you are getting all of the bones, because nothing kills the wonderment of great fish soup like trying to extract a four inch bone from a guest’s gullet while attempting to figure out what 911 translates to in Catalan. Reserve the boned scorpion fish meat.

Step 4 – Clean the squid

For baby squid, do not worry about the skin. A lot of it will sluff off under running water. Use a colander and then pick through the squid removing the small translucent piece of cartilage that runs the length of the body sack. Then rinse out the body sacks gently and do not try to get the innards out like you would with large squid, it all ends up flavoring the soup. Leave the tentacles attached to the body sacks if they survive the cleaning process. Otherwise police up all the separated tentacles and add them to the pile of cleaned squid.

Step 5 – Clean the octopus

These will be a lot sturdier than the squid. Wash them thoroughly to remove the black gunk, which is a combination of ink and sand, that can accumulate in the tentacles and the gill areas of the head. Do not attempt to cut into the bodies and/or remove the ink sacks inside. This ink tastes delicious and adds a level of complexity to the flavor of the soup as well as darkening the color nicely.

Step 6 – Clean the langoustines


Simply rinse them. The time to deal with interior grit is when you buy them. Make sure that their shells are intact and that you cannot see any muck through the translucent sections of the shell. These are expensive little lobsters so insist on ones in pristine condition.

Step 7 – Slice the monkfish


Slice each monkfish tail into pieces that are an inch to an inch and a half in width. Leave at least three inch pieces at the end of the tails. Cut straight through the central bone and leave it in the pieces. The pieces are easy to bone with a spoon when cooked and the bones are not jagged or sharp like those of the scorpion fish. Also, the marrow from the monkfish bones leaks out into the soup adding yet more body and flavor complexity.

Step 8 – Assemble the soup


Remove the aromatic vegetables from the fish stock and combine the stock with the soffrito. I had to use two medium size pots (dear Santa, I would really like a decent sized stock pot for the Barcelona Love Shack this Christmas, oh and may Ba’al never flame boil your elves, thanks so much, Mago). Bring the resultant soup base to a simmer, but do not let it boil, ever (your phone bill to your mother is going to cost more than an entire jamon iberico if you are not careful).

Once the soup is steaming and the surface is moving ever so gently, add the monkfish pieces and let them poach until they are tender to a fork but not soft or falling off the bone. There should still be a little “tooth” to them when served. While the monkfish is poaching, taste the soup and correct for seasoning, now is your last shot at the harissa, so do not blow it. When the monkfish is done. Add the baby octopus and let them cook 3 to 5 minutes until they are tender but still a little chewy. They will have shrunk a bit, especially the tentacles. Add the baby squid and cook until tender. This should not take long if they are fresh, two to three minutes max. Now add the langoustines and pay close attention. Cook them to the consistency that you would large shrimp, but remember that they are bigger and will thus take a little longer. Do this by eyeball and touch. The tails will curl up but still be flexible and they will turn a brighter shade of red.

Step 9 – Serve the soup.

Serve the soup in large bowls with plenty of crusty bread. We use baguettes from the Baluard bakery just up the street from Cova Fumada.

Want to know how to make that Spanish tortilla? OK, peal three large potatoes and cut them into ¼ inch thick rounds. Slice three medium onions. Whisk together six duck eggs with seven tablespoons of cold water, salt and pepper. Sautee the onions in at least 1/3 cup regular olive oil. When the onions are translucent, add the potato slices stirring or tossing to cover the slices thoroughly in oil (don’t try tossing those taters an’ onions in that much oil over an open flame unless you have a lot of practice or you will have too many bandages on your hands and arms to Skype your mother). Lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring/tossing occasionally until the potatoes are translucent and tender. If either of the ingredients start to brown, lower the heat even more. They should cook at least 10 minutes, 12 would be better. Once the potatoes and onions are done, drain them in a colander to remove most of the oil. Once they are drained, put at least four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium low heat. When the oil is rippling in the pan, but not smoking, add the beaten eggs. Give them a minute to set on the bottom and then add the onions and potatoes distributing them evenly throughout the eggs. Turn the oven broiler on high. Cook the eggs over medium low heat for ten minutes. Oil should bubble slowly around the edges of the tortilla but not rapidly. The tortilla should move freely in the pan. After ten minutes, or when you smell the aroma of scrambled eggs, put the pan under the broiler until the top of the egg/potato mixture is golden brown. Press the tortilla with your finger to make sure it is done throughout and turn it out onto a plate. It should come easily out of the pan. Serve at room temperature.

How about the zucchini with mint and vinegar? If you insist. Slice four large zucchini into quarter inch rounds. Slice four medium onions. Stem a medium size bunch of mint. Sautee the onions in four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until translucent then add the zucchini and stir toss to coat in the oil. Sautee until the zucchini have released their liquid, then add a quarter to a third cup of red wine vinegar and hot pepper flakes or cayenne to taste. Increase heat to high and boil off the vinegar and zucchini liquid, tossing or stirring frequently. When the vinegar has evaporated, cook the zucchini for a couple minutes more and then turn out into a serving dish. While the zucchini are still warm, chop and add the mint. Let the dish cool to room temperature and serve.


Giovanni and Rossanna show up around 8:30PM for dinner with even more food (of course, they’re Sicilian after all). They bring three types of dessert cakes from the Baluard Bakery as well as a potato and broad bean dish and a cannelli bean dish so that Rossanna will not have to transgress her vegetarian vows with Sarsuela Mago. We work on the pica pica in the kitchen while I finishes up the soup and then move into the dining room for the main event. Rossanna ends up eating two bowls of sarsuela sans sea creatures as well as her body weight in Spanish tortilla. Patti has her soup with a nice big chunk of boneless scorpion fish while Giovanni and I down two swimming pools each as well as having a go at all the side dishes. The wine is voted superb by everyone even though several of the attendees are not usually red wine drinkers. Then we slowly eat the desserts, filling in the corners while Giovanni rages late into the night about “the psycho dwarf Berlusconi and his big tits bimbos.” Then we take a walk on the beach before passing out to the sounds of Barceloneta residents celebrating a win by their beloved soccer team that clinches the national league title.

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Morgan Hart was launched in 2011 as a website and virtual storefront to showcase Patti's software and Morgan's content. Dedicated to slow travel, culinary excess, and ripping good yarns, MagoGuide is the digital scriptoria for the Mago Scrolls, Morgan's historical fiction series about the Punic Wars in general and one Mago of Syracuse in particular. Although Morgan has written a great deal of non-fiction over the years in the form of specialized journal articles, book reviews, op-ed pieces, and (his personal favorite) the most unpopular coffee table book in the history of the planet, he always viewed himself as a happily frustrated novelist. Get more information about Morgan's novel and travel writing at our Products page.