A Modern Take On A Classic Fish Stew

Poached eggs and sourdough croutons elevate this rustic recipe.

With fall in full swing, we’re tapping into the month’s most interesting flavors. We’ve partnered with Vivian Howard of A Chef’s Life to bring you recipes, ideas, and tips inspired by the seasonal shift.

Fish stew -- thick with onions, potatoes, poached eggs and a rich tomato-y, bacon-laced broth -- is a dish that defines both my childhood and my region. I’ll admit that, as a kid, the white bread used for sopping up the leftover broth was by far my favorite part. But there’s no denying that whole poached eggs, bobbing among fish and potato chunks so big you need a fork to eat them, add decadence and distinction to what might otherwise seem clumsy and overly rustic.

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In my version, I’ve abandoned some of Eastern Carolina’s fish stew rules. Instead of using whole fish complete with bones, head and skin for flavor and body, I’ve chosen to make a stock using shrimp shells, lots of aromatics, and fennel. And rather than layering the stew and never-ever stirring it, I sweat my onions, fennel and garlic, toast my tomato paste and generally take all the steps you would to make a complex-flavored soup or stew. Also, sometimes to my chagrin, I don’t sop anything up with white bread anymore, but I certainly won’t look down on the decision to use nice fluffy slices of sandwich bread in lieu of the sourdough croutons I’ve suggested.

The attributes I’ve kept from the original Eastern Carolina fish stew, though, are what I see as the backbones of the whole shebang. Rendering bacon before I do anything else sets a smoky background for the broth and creates a crunchy punctuation for the top of the finished dish. Adding thick slices of white potato and lots of yellow onion really creates the “meat” of the dish, and carefully dropping in whole eggs as the stew simmers gently brings the whole thing home for me. I think it will for you, too.  

Eastern Carolina Style Shrimp and Fennel Stew with Poached Eggs, Potatoes and Bacon

“For me, it’s the eggs that make this stew special and distinct from all the other seafood stews of the world.” —Vivian Howard 

Servings: 6

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Ingredients

Shrimp Stock:

(Makes 2 quarts)

1 cup yellow onion, diced

Reserved stalks from fennel (above)

2 stalks celery

2 medium carrots

5 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Reserved shells from 2 pounds shrimp (heads too, if available)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 bay leaves

2 cups white wine

2 quarts water

 

Stew:

8 ounces, sliced smoked bacon (1 pack)

2 medium yellow onions, diced

6 garlic cloves, sliced

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt, divided

2 heads fennel, thinly sliced, (stalks reserved for stock, fronds reserved for garnish)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds

Zest of 1 lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler

1 large sprig rosemary

½ teaspoon chili flakes

8 cups (2 quarts) shrimp stock (recipe below)

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved for stock

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

6-12 large eggs

Croutons or bread

Instructions

For the stock:

Use the grater-blade attachment of your food processor to grate the onion, fennel, celery, carrot, and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor or have lost the attachments, dice vegetables very small; set aside.

In a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add shrimp shells and cook, stirring, until they turn a deep crustacean pink and are lightly browned in spots. Add grated vegetables and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, or until the pan is dry. Stir in tomato paste and bay leaves; cook an additional 30 seconds. Add wine and bring all to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes or until slightly reduced, and the wine’s aroma is gone. Add water, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the stock and discard shells.

 

For the stew:

Cut bacon slices into 1-inch squares. Brown in the bottom of a 6- or -8-quart Dutch oven or cast-iron pot. Once it’s crisp, remove and reserve. Add onions, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Sweat for about 3 minutes or until translucent. Add fennel and cook an additional 3 minutes. Whisk in tomato paste and allow it to brown slightly. Add potatoes, lemon zest, rosemary, chili flakes, 1 teaspoon salt and the stock. If stock doesn’t cover the potatoes by 2 inches, add water to do so.

Over very low heat, bring the stew to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender. Meanwhile, toss the shrimp with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper.

Once potatoes are just barely tender, raise heat slightly and bring the stew to a boil. Crack each egg into a small bowl and carefully drop each one onto the top of the stew. Take care not to break the yolks or stir the eggs: You want whole eggs to poach on top. After about three minutes, drop the seasoned shrimp in, around the eggs. Once shrimp are submerged, turn off heat and let sit for 3 more minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust with additional salt and perhaps some lemon juice.

 

To serve:

Make sure each bowl gets an egg, some potatoes and plenty of shrimp. Shower with reserved bacon, fennel fronds and croutons, if you have them. If not, use bread to soak up the broth. 

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