Any country that has a shoreline has a seafood stew to brag about. Portugal’s Caldeirada, France’s regional Matelotes, Japan’s Nabe, Brazil’s and Moqueco and Vatapa, Italy’s Zuppa de Pesce, and Belgium’s Waterzooi offer impressive piles of fish swimming in a bit of broth served with a side of crusty bread. A seafood stew differs from a fish soup in that its broth is richer and there is less of it in the bowl (only about 3/4 cup) in relation to the amount of seafood (a nice mound in the middle).
To pull off any satisfying seafood stew, there are really only two things you need to get right: The fish has to be well-matched and the broth has to be sop-worthy.
Approaching the fish counter to buy a certain fish is often disappointing both at the time of purchase and in the bowl at dinner. If you were hankering to have halibut and it didn’t get pulled out of the ocean that morning, any fish you buy as a replacement, is just that: a runner-up.
But, if you go to the fish monger knowing you need a firm-fleshed white fish (3-4 ounces per person) like fluke, halibut, hake, black cod, skin-on snapper, or turbot to anchor the stew, you’ve got the mental flexibility to buy the freshest one that falls into your budget. It also helps to know flatfish like flounder, sole and dabs fall apart easily so they are not great options for stew.
Once you’ve got your anchor fish, pick two or three other seafood items of different shapes and sizes to add drama to the dish: whole shrimp, crab claws or legs, lobster meat, clams, squid, mussels, or scallops will all work. Pick three, buying enough so each each bowl gets two of each type of complementary seafood.
Stew doesn’t start with plain water, but with an already flavored one such as fish or vegetable stock, wine or cider, shellfish cooking liquid, chopped tomatoes, coconut milk, or dashi.
From there, the liquid gets layered with any combination of flavors you fancy (or have in the fridge, as may be the case) that don’t overpower your base fish. When selecting flavor combinations, keep in mind white fish requires a lighter touch than meatier fish like bluefish, swordfish, salmon, or mackerel.
On the lighter side, sauté sliced leeks in butter, add a bit of white wine, and gentle herbs like parsley or chervil before filling the pot with fish stock. Chopped tomatoes and vegetable broth combined with a roasted garlic paste and oregano can be adjusted to suit either category of fish. On the heavier side, render the fat from a handful of chopped Spanish chorizo, sauté a good amount of sweet onion, sliced fennel and whole garlic cloves sprinkled with either sweet or hot smoked paprika, add sprigs of thyme, and top it off with lobster stock.
The seafood in a stew is most often cooked in the broth so the fish further flavors the sauce and vice versa. The exceptions in my book are lobster (it’s just too messy to cook a whole one in the sauce, remove it, and break it down), crab claws or legs (they come steamed) and smoked mussels (the smoking happens elsewhere).
I line up my seafood on a plastic cutting board in the order I drop them into broth based on cooking times. Thick filets of fish get nestled in first as they can take 7-10 minutes to cook and should not be jostled about. Clams go in next, followed by mussels a minute later. Cover the pot at this point to help the shellfish steam, making sure to only serve ones that are open after cooking. Shrimp, squid, and scallops follow and should be watched closely as they turn to rubber if overcooked. Add any pre-cooked seafood last, once you’ve taken the stew off the heat, covering the pot so that the residual heat warms these pieces through.
Since you took pains in your seafood selection, take pains to fill each bowl with the combination you’ve curated. Use a fish spatula to transfer an intact piece of your anchor fish to each bowl and dole out the other seafood bits in equal proportions. Ladle the finished broth over the pile to moisten, but not drown, the seafood. Sprinkle over more of the green herb with which you seasoned the base liquid with for both contrast and continuity. And don’t forget the bread to sop everything up!
Tell us about your favorite seafood stew in the comments below!