ANY region situated near the ocean is sure to have two things: beaches and at least one ''classic'' seafood stew. In New England, it's clam chowder. But even within this region, concoctions can vary dramatically. There's the creamy New England style, beloved by Bostonians and Mainers; the tomato-based ''Manhattan'' variety; and even a lesser-known broth-based Rhode Island type.
The French introduced bouillabaisse, New Orleans is famed for its gumbo, and almost every region has its own hearty, flavorful way to stretch the catch of the day.
In recent years, Americans have increased their seafood savvy. As Susan Wyler writes in her book ''Simply Stews'' (Harper Perennial, 1995): ''American chefs have carved out a whole new area of fish cookery, serving up shellfish with beans and thick filets of salmon and firm-textured white fish in aromatic light broths, paired with vegetables that range from delicate leeks and mushrooms to hearty turnips and cabbage.''
Gourmeli's restaurant in Boston has won the city's celebrated annual ''chowdafest'' five out of six years. Despite the trend toward innovation with chowder recipes, executive chef Mike Minerd has no plans to mess with his.
''New Englanders don't like change. If we adulterated our chowder, we'd hear about it. We use good clams, a good clam stock, celery, and onions, and thyme and tabasco as seasoning, and that's about it,'' Mr. Minerd says.
Legal Sea Foods, a popular restaurant in Boston and now also in Washington, is known for its fish and clam chowders, which have been served at the last four presidential inaugural dinners. They sell 100 gallons of chowder per day. And John McIntyre, supervisor of kitchens there, says its appeal isn't seasonal, but year-round.
''It could be 90 degrees out, and people want to try the chowder,'' he says.
He adds that, in general, people are looking for spicier stews that incorporate different textures and tastes. For those who want to stray from tradition, Legal Sea Foods offer a Portuguese fish stew; a light, broth-based version of clam chowder; and a new item - seafood gumbo.
Whatever their finished flavor, most seafood stews start with three common ingredients: rendered salt pork or bacon, sauteed onions, and potatoes. The seafood is clams, other shellfish, or fish.
Many seafood stews are quicker and easier to prepare than one might suspect. But they do have to be served right away. One way around this, Ms. Wyler suggests, is to make the base ahead of time and add the seafood at the last minute.
THAI-STYLE CRAB AND FISH STEW WITH CILANTRO AND LIME
Tart and spicy, this bright, light stew is perfect as a first course or light lunch or supper. Thai fish sauce, called nuac nam, is now available in the Asian food sections of many supermarkets.
3/4 pound firm-textured white fish fillets, such as snapper or bass
1/2 pound lump crabmeat
5 to 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms
2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce (see note above)
1-1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into long, thin shreds
3 mild long green chiles, seeded and thinly sliced
2 hot red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced
3 - 4 pound Napa or celery cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 scallions thinly sliced
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
Cut the fish fillets into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Pick over the crabmeat to remove any bits of shell or cartilage. Cover and refrigerate until time to cook. Cut the shiitake caps into 3 wedges each and set aside.
In a large flameproof casserole, combine the chicken stock, fish sauce, ginger, garlic, salt, and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
Add the shiitake caps, carrots, green and red chiles, and cabbage. Simmer, uncovered, until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add fish and crab. Simmer 3 minutes, or until the fish just begins to flake. Stir in the lime juice, scallions, and cilantro, and serve at once.
You could quibble about whether this substantial, chunky, and thick chowder, bolstered with potatoes and corn, is really a stew or a soup. I like it for lunch or supper, with a side of coleslaw and, in season, a ripe tomato salad.
1-1/4 pounds salmon filet
Freshly ground pepper
4 large ears of sweet corn
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound lean salt pork or thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1/4 inch dice
2 medium onions, cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 cup canned or bottled clam juice
2 cups whole, lowfat, or skim milk
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh savory or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4 inch dice
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
Remove skin from the salmon, pick out any small bones, and cut the fish into 1-inch pieces. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate while you prepare the chowder base.
Cut kernels off three ears of corn. Grate the corn from the fourth ear. Set corn aside. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the salt pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about six minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the onions to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the clam juice, milk, savory, and cayenne, and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes, reduce the heat to moderate, and cook 8 minutes.
Add the corn and cream and cook three to five minutes longer, until the corn is almost tender but still slightly crunchy.
Add salmon and salt pork, and simmer until the fish is just opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of chives. Serve at once, with remaining chives sprinkled on top.
- From ''Simply Stews,'' by Susan Wyler (Harper Perennial)