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Seafood stew as an easy way to travel

The mingling of its cultural flavors offer a midwinter adventure.

By Jennifer WolcottCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 2009

Fish and tomato stew/Newscom

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Who says seafood stew can only be enjoyed on Christmas Eve? No one tells a man from Marseille that he can only enjoy a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, the Provencal city's most celebrated dish, on special occasions such as Bastille Day. So why should a Bostonian, with a similar abundance of fabulous fresh seafood at her doorstep, only cook up a steaming pot of local fish, clams, or lobster on Dec. 24?

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I've resolved for 2009 to move this dish beyond its holiday tradition. Like roast turkey and all its delectable trimmings, seafood stew is just too good to savor only once a year.

Seafood stew comes in so many different incarnations that one can never grow bored of it. Without plunking down a cent for a plane ticket, any determined cook could sample the world's cuisines right at home, touring Asia with stews from Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, which might incorporate curry, coconut milk, and fresh lime juice; or the Mediterranean with seafood stews from France, Spain, and Italy that feature olive oil, garlic, and sometimes saffron. Of course, many other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and North Africa, also boast excellent seafood stews.

Thus, the recipe options for a satisfying seafood stew are wide. To simplify, it helps to follow the lead of your own palate, intuitively choosing recipes that appeal to your taste buds. Pleasing others with your cooking will follow naturally.

Recently, when fishing for new seafood stew recipes to add to my repertoire, my expedition led me to some favorite cookbooks, culinary websites, and especially some talented local chefs who cook daily with New England's legendary fresh catch, who've shared their recipes (see recipes below). Keep in mind that their recipes can be tweaked depending on availability, preference, and one's pocketbook. For instance, those on a budget (and who isn't these days?) could make the Thai Seafood Stew with only mussels, omitting the shrimp and scallops, and it would be a lot less costly but still burst with flavor.

Two tips: Select the freshest seafood possible, and use a recipe as a guideline rather than a rigid set of instructions. Then you're ready to dive in and enjoy the adventure of making and tasting a dish from a distant land.

After all, part of what makes cooking so satisfying is the thrill of exploring a foreign culture without venturing beyond the confines of one's own kitchen. To me, that's the ultimate in budget travel for the food lover. I can hardly wait to make seafood stews that take me to warm places such as Casablanca, Jamaica, and Laos as the temperature drops outside my window.

fish stew recipesMediterranean Mussel and Clam Stew
This recipe from Jeff Fournier, chef and owner of 51 Lincoln in Newton, Mass., is quick and easy to make with dazzling rewards. He was inspired to create this stew after a trip to Italy. The saffron gives this Italian-inspired dish a Spanish accent.

1/4 cup canola oil
20 cloves garlic, sliced
5 medium shallots, diced
2 pounds littleneck clams, rinsed
2 pounds mussels, cleaned and rinsed
Salt and pepper, to taste (clam juice, mussels, and clams are salty so do not overseason)
6 cups (1-1/2 quarts) clam juice
6 cups diced canned tomatoes with juice
1 pinch saffron (optional)
1/2 cup chopped parsley

Heat a heavy 12-quart stockpot and add canola oil. Add garlic and shallots and sauté until golden brown. Add clams and mussels and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix with a large wooden spoon to distribute the shallots and garlic around the shellfish. Add clam juice, tomatoes, and saffron. Bring stew to a boil and cook until mussels and clams are all open, discarding any that do not open. Mix in chopped parsley. Serve in bowls with crusty bread on the side. Serves 4.

Thai-Curry Seafood Stew
I found this recipe on my favorite culinary website, Epicurious.com. To cut costs, one could choose only one type of seafood and this dish is still excellent and substantial. I added a bit more curry paste than the recipe called for as well as some lime zest to give it an even tangier flavor.

3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
2-1/2 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup water
1-1/2 cups broccoli slaw (can be bought in a prepared bag)
1/2 pound uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound sea scallops
1 pound mussels, scrubbed
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon lime zest (grated lime peel)
2 tablespoons fish sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups cooked jasmine rice

In a large pot, whisk together the curry paste and 1/2 cup of the coconut milk. Bring to boil, and let boil 1 minute. Stir in remaining 2 cups coconut milk and 1 cup water. Add broccoli slaw, shrimp, and scallops. Top with mussels. Return to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until mussels open and seafood is cooked, about 3 minutes. Discard unopened mussels. Add basil, lime juice, lime zest, and fish sauce, if desired. Season with salt and pepper. Press hot rice into 4 custard cups, about 2/3 cups each, dividing equally. Invert cups to unmold rice into 4 bowls. Spoon stew around rice and serve. Serves 4.

Zarzuela de Mariscos (Spanish Fish Stew)
Michael Brunson, executive chef of Solea in Waltham, Mass., says that the base of sofrito, finely diced and sautéed peppers, onions, garlic, and spices is key to the success of this sophisticated authentic stew from Valencia. He serves it with two head-on prawns in each bowl.

5 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound clams, rinsed
1 pound mussels, rinsed
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound cod
1 pound squid (frozen is fine)
3 cups sofrito (see recipe below)
4 cups fish stock
4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 pound shrimp
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter

In a large pot heat the olive oil. Add clams, mussels, scallops, cod, squid, and cook for a few minutes on high heat, searing both sides of the scallops, cod, and squid. Add the sofrito, fish stock, Worcestershire sauce, and shrimp. Cover pan and reduce heat slightly. Cook until the clams and mussels begin to open and the shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Remove seafood and put it into a large serving bowl. Keep broth in the pot and bring it to a simmer. If needed, add salt and pepper. Add butter, then stir. After butter melts, pour it over the seafood. Serve stew piping hot with a side dish for shells. Serves 4 to 6.

Sofrito
1 cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced
10 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons dried thyme
1/2 cup dried parsley
4 red bell peppers, diced
4 green bell peppers, diced
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
25 saffron threads (approximately)
1 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons sugar
1 cup vegetable stock
Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat a large pot and add vegetable oil. Sauté onions, garlic, and herbs for about 10 minutes. Add peppers and bay leaves and cook for another 15 minutes. Add all remaining ingredients (spices, sugar, stock) and let simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, turn off heat, and let cool.
– Adapted from a recipe provided by Michael Brunson, executive chef at Solea

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