Fresh, flaky fish chunks poached in fragrant broth, with crunchy peppers and carrots – that’s an infrequent meeting point of the very healthy and the very satisfying foods.
Various types of fish stew
Gumbo, bouillabaisse, cioppino and probably a dozen more dishes variously called around the world are really one, wonderful, comforting yet healthy thing: fish stew.
Some of my fondest food travel memories relate to fish stew. I had amazing cioppino at Fisherman’s Wharf, complete with a bib and all, fragrant and vibrant with tomatoes. This San Francisco classic is an immigrant’s song* but loud and proud.
The Italian original, Tuscan cacciucco has no tomatoes in it and features seafood native to the Mediterranean – no gigantic Pacific crab claws there, but rather chunks of octopus.
The French of course have their own version, bouillabaisse. The most traditional recipe comes from Marseille and can be replicated elsewhere with difficulty: it should include the scorpion fish, rascasse, ubiquitous in the Med.
Other characteristics are the addition of saffron, chopped tomatoes (but not as intense as in cioppino) and, on the side, rouille sauce and garlic croutons.
Gumbo, the Creole fish stew is slightly different yet. Primarily by the vegetables it requires: pepper, celery and onion, and how it must start its existence with roux – flour and fat paste cooked off until it turns dark brown.
Creamy fish soups
And then there are the types of stew-soups I care a little less for: chowders and bisques. Both customarily made from crustaceans and cream, bisque smoothly and chowder chunkily, with pieces of lobster if you’re lucky and potato if you’re not.
A Scottish cousin to chowder is Cullen skink (made with haddock), which I always, albeit involuntarily, insist on calling Cullen skunk.
My fish stew: lighter and healthier
This recipe is decidedly lighter than all the above dishes. It has a red pepper and a few cherry tomatoes in it but the broth is not thickened with cream or roux.
The fish chunks are poached in the broth with the exception of scallops. That’s because even though I don’t entirely agree with those who object to poached fish (and call it ‘boiled’), scallops do need a touch of fire, if only for the aesthetics.
What fish for the fish stew?
It’s a thrifty meal in my books. I usually save offcuts from haddock or cod used for fish and chips, an odd, solitary sea bass or plaice fillet and half a bag of frozen scallops or prawns.
But if you plan and shop for it, I’d suggest a nice mix of white fish you like. Especially sea bass or bream are nice in the fragrant broth, as they taste the same whether you poach or fry it, unlike salmon or cod. Add a handful of shellfish too, scallops like in my recipe, prawns or mussels.
How to make fish stew?
Peeling and chopping is the onerous part; without counting it the dish takes barely 15 minutes to make.
I make a soffritto of carrots, celery and spring rather than yellow onions to lighten the flavour. To be honest, preparing those vegetables is the main chore unless you have a commis chef or a food processor. Softening it (soffritto not the appliance) in butter and oil takes about 5 minutes.
The rest of the aromatics, garlic, peppers and tomatoes also need only about 5 minutes in the pan. The idea is to end up with the soffritto and the peppers perky and crunchy rather than wilted and mushy, to contrast in texture with tender fish.
While the vegetables are cooking, I sear the scallops very briefly, just to get some colour and charred flavour on them. Skip that step to your and the dish’s detriment!
Next step is to make the broth, with some dry wine, fish or vegetable stock (or shellfish stock if you can, for the ultimate lift of flavour) and season it with thyme, black pepper and salt, and a pinch of mustard. Taste it at this stage: the fish will steal the seasoning from the broth so it must be quite aggressively salty and flavourful.
Chunks of fish finally go in for only about 3 to 4 minutes, under a lid so they steam evenly, with scallops joining the other fish by the end. You can gently turn the fish morsels over in the broth, to ensure even cooking.
And then I shower the stew with chopped up parsley and celery leaves reserved from soffritto, the greener the better. A chunk of fresh bread, and the dish is ready.
More fish recipes
Fish stew or a fish pie? Both have their place on the table, the pie more often in colder months, with the comforting creamy sauce and the potato topping.
Various types of firmer white fish like cod, haddock, hake or monkfish should be used in Thai fish stir fry, a gorgeous combination of fish, aromatics and noodles.
Or you can just combine raw fish with seaweed flakes, tomatoes and avocado for the great Hawaiian-inspired poke (pron. poh-KAY) bowl.
*immigrant song, after the Led Zeppelin 1972 track (not a fan, I just know lots of random music), is what I call dishes created by immigrants, usually to America. Roughly rooted in the native ethnic cuisine, they tend to use ingredients available in the foreign land and to better suit the palates they are cooked for; both features completely justified. Chicken balti, deep pan pizza, hamburgers, chilli con carne, pierogis, fortune cookies and chop suey are among the best-known immigrant songs. I do hope the expression catches.