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.
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.