Genius Recipes

The Instant, Genius Way to Make Any Fish Dinner More Delicious

February 21, 2018

I'm about to give you a magic wand to make any mild-mannered fish delicious (and it doesn’t involve beer-battering and dousing in malt vinegar).

Because, with a few all-star pantry staples and virtually no time at all, you can take any fish dinner and make a brothy-delicious sauce or stew for it. (Or any not fish dinner, for that matter—but we'll get to that.)

It’s not as if making a stock for seafood soups and stews takes all that long to begin with. Unlike meatier bone-based broths, stock made from shrimp shells or fish bones typically doesn’t simmer for more than 20 or 30 minutes, which puts it squarely into the “eh, might as well” category, if you ever find yourself with a stash of them.

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But with this smart technique, you can hack a super-flavorful broth pretty much out of nowhere—no shell and bone pile required. Bouillabaisse, take a number!

The trick is nestled in Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for quick-braised fish with baby potatoes and greens (she used asparagus; in the pit of New York winter, we used some perky greenhouse-grown spinach). “I wanted to make a one-pot meal with fresh Alaskan halibut that did not require the extra time and ingredients for a fish stock,” as she wrote in the New York Times in 2015. “But I did want broth that tasted of the sea, so I did what many cooks in Southern France and Italy do, and pounded anchovies in a mortar and pestle with garlic.”

When you take flavorful ingredients like anchovies, garlic, and nuts and crush them together into a paste, they don’t just become a sauce you can smear or soften in oil, but one you can unleash to bloom in water to flavor just about anything, instantly. Or, as Shulman says, “And voilà: a quick Mediterranean broth.”

Here, it’s a delicate fish like halibut (or whatever is swimming nearer to you)—but you can use this technique with all sorts of other things that would benefit from a flavor boost: greens, pasta, couscous, beans. Not only is the trick speedy, it’s endlessly customizable. Pound in shallots or fennel seed or chiles at will, as you might when DIYing herby salsas and pestos.

The flavors latch on quickly, following a classic sear-and-simmer braise, just sped up for seafood-friendly cook time. And you—with your lovely, not-the-least-bit-boring fish dinner on the table—get to tuck away your magic wand to use another day.

Photos by Julia Gartland

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Julie
  • Billie Lee Crane
    Billie Lee Crane
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Julie February 21, 2018
This is really similar to the method I use to start most of my Korean soups. I have a bag of dried anchovies and a bag of konbu kelp. I don't smash anything, but I remove the heads from the anchovies, peel a clove of garlic, and throw it into the pot of water. Sometimes if I'm feeling fancy, I'll even use a dashi bag for all the ingredients, so it's like I'm making a giant savory tea.

I've never tried nuts in a stock. I'm intrigued by that idea. Maybe I'll try that the next time I make a stock.
Billie L. February 21, 2018
Guess what I will be making for dinner tonight?? I have all the fixins!! Thank you so much for sharing this, I can't wait to make this!!