It’s like you’re living a scene out of every cook’s dreams: Your guests are circled tight around the table, leaning in anxiously as you dip your ladle into a fragrant, steaming pot. Out it comes, full of chunks of meaty fish and sweet shrimp and dotted with briny clams.
There’s a collective gasp; it looks like a complicated dish that must have taken hours to cook. But you smile slyly to yourself, knowing it only took about 20 minutes to put it all together. You must be a genius!
Or maybe you’ve just discovered the secret of seafood stew.
Think of bouillabaisse, cioppino or any of the dozens of hearty fisherman’s dinners found around the world. We tend to glorify these dishes, putting them on a pedestal that makes them seem almost impossible to prepare at home. But the reality is, a seafood stew is about as easy to put together as anything you can imagine.
Here’s how it goes: You spend a little time making a flavor base in the morning, or even a day or two in advance. When you’re almost ready to eat, you add the seafood and heat everything just long enough to cook it through.
Seafood stews are a terrific one-pot party dish: Serve some almonds and olives beforehand, maybe a salad and cheese afterward, and you’ve got a feast. The stews couldn’t be easier or more delicious. But the most amazing thing is that so few people serve them.
Say “stew” and you think of something deeply flavored and hearty that has cooked for hours. Seafood stews have all of that, except that they cook in minutes. Whereas meat is full of tough sinew that needs long, patient cooking to become tender, fish is almost pure muscle.
The biggest danger with seafood stews is overcooking. Braise them too long and the tender fish will fall apart. (But even then the flavor will be wonderful.)
LIGHTER and more delicate than meat stews, seafood stews are perfect for this time of year, when the evenings are starting to get chilly but still aren’t downright cold. They’re sweater stews: You get all the comfort and wonderfully developed flavors of meat stews, but without the weight.
Seafood stews are remarkably flexible too. About the only requirement is that you need to use meaty fish -- flimsy fillets like sole will dissolve to nothing, even with the gentlest of cooking.
So you start with a flavor base. This need not be anything fancy. It can be like a quick pasta sauce -- saute some garlic and onions in olive oil and add crushed tomatoes. Or you can make a Spanish-style sofrito, sauteing chorizo, red bell peppers and onions along with the tomatoes.
Don’t feel limited to red sauces. You can also build seafood stews out of sauteed shallots enriched with white wine and cream.
Then add fish -- do this gradually, according to how long it will take to cook. The thickest, densest fish goes in first; it will take 10 to 15 minutes to cook, depending on the size of the pieces. Every couple of minutes, step down in size and meatiness. Finally, add the shellfish, which takes only three to five minutes to heat through; you don’t want to overcook and toughen it.
Given the ever-changing inventory at most seafood markets, you’re better off buying from categories of fish rather than going in with a set shopping list. The best fish for stews are steak fish such as halibut, tuna, shark, swordfish, grouper and sea bass. Monkfish and lingcod work well too. Rockfish, usually sold as Pacific red snapper, is good as long as the fillets are thick enough. You might think salmon would work, but its flavor tends to overpower.
To my mind, it’s practically unthinkable to make a fish stew without some kind of shellfish, certainly shrimp and why not clams or mussels too? And hey, did you know spiny lobster season opened Friday?
Feel free to substitute one kind of fish or shellfish for another or to add something else if it looks especially good. The more kinds you use, the better the stew. Rather than competing with each other, two or three or even four kinds of fish set up a kind of culinary harmonic: Together they taste better than they might have individually.
Of course, “discovering” seafood stew is a little like discovering the ocean itself -- it’s always been there, even if most of us rarely think of it. Though fish stews are not part of today’s common American household kitchen repertoire, they are hardly unknown.
Probably the most famous fish stew really isn’t one at all. Bouillabaisse, the classic dish of Marseilles, is usually served in this country as a tomato-and-saffron-flavored fish stew. But in its home port, it’s traditionally presented in two courses: first as a kind of coarse soup thickened with bits of pureed fish, then as a separate plate of fish and potatoes that have been cooked in the soup. (Truthfully, orange peel and fennel are almost as important to the final flavor as tomatoes, and don’t forget the croutons spread with the red pepper paste called rouille.)
American confusion notwithstanding, the French have firm rules for how a bouillabaisse should be made, down to detailing that four of six specific fish must be present for it to qualify as the real thing, according to the Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, a group formed to oversee such things.
If you’re tempted to put this down as Gallic silliness, you’ve never talked to a Californian about cioppino. Butter or olive oil? Shellfish? And does it have to be Dungeness crab? Red wine or white? Green bell pepper or red? Celery? It sometimes seems almost every ingredient you could put in a fish stew has been the subject of heated debate.
One noted Bay Area chef published a recipe for cioppino that included saffron, fennel and orange and served it with rouille-slathered toasts. Oh, well, it did include Dungeness crab.
In her “West Coast Cook Book,” published in 1952, Helen Evans Brown remarks, “Exponents of the various schools of cookery get quite fussed -- and fussy -- about how to make cioppino,” before coming down on the side of equanimity: “The best way is as you like it.”
Still, one wonders what she thought when her friend James Beard added dried mushrooms to his (and only two cloves of garlic!).
My friend John Thorne tried to get to the bottom of the puzzle in an essay collected in his book “Pot on the Fire.” In it, he recalls turning up a detailed description of cioppino from a 1917 issue of California Fish and Game that sounds quite authentic -- until you notice that there is no wine in it (probably due to a little thing called the temperance movement).
Cioppino, his way
I try not to be doctrinaire about most food, but I do have a few firm opinions about cioppino. The sauce must be made with red wine, and a lot of it. In the final dish, it should balance the tomatoes. When the two cook down together, you wind up with a lovely wine-dark sauce that tastes like neither ingredient but some delicious third thing you can’t quite put your finger on.
I am very much a green bell pepper man as well. Its presence adds a certain fragrance (and, I think, argues a strong Portuguese influence in the dish in addition to the assumed Italian one -- historically, both groups produced great fishermen on the California coast).
And I am in favor of shellfish: shrimp and clams or mussels, certainly, but also Dungeness crab or spiny lobster when they are in season. There is a distinct flavor difference between fish and shellfish, and a cioppino needs that sweet brininess to be complete.
My personal little cioppino quirk is adding chopped squid to the red wine and tomato base while it stews. The calamari cooks to a melting tenderness and infuses the sauce with the suggestion of seafood, setting the stage for everything else you’re going to add.
There are, of course, many possibilities for seafood stew beyond cioppino.
Make a Spanish-style sauce, using chorizo and tomatoes burnished by a generous pinch of saffron; add steamed potatoes now so they’ll soak up some of the broth. Then just before serving, simmer chunks of monkfish and a slew of clams in it.
Or get creative and come up with something entirely your own. I was playing around the other day and wound up with a lovely stew of baby artichokes braised in shrimp stock, then enriched with cream and perfumed with tarragon.
This is the most labor-intensive of the stews, but it’s still no stretch. The shrimp stock is just shells simmered with a few flavorings. It cooks while you trim the baby artichokes -- certainly the most meticulous part of the dish.
Braising the artichokes in the shrimp stock infuses them with a sweet shellfish flavor. Add cubed grouper or any other meaty fish and the peeled shrimp. Simmer for a couple of minutes and you’ve got yourself one fine kettle of fish.