March is a weird food month: Green beer, hot cross buns, corned beef, lamb and Girl Scout cookies. Hum.
Because we live in North Carolina, March is also filled with basketball and gatherings to watch the games, and that usually involves food. It’s a month that the weather is uneven with temperature, although after February, who knows what might happen, making it hard to know what to cook. While I’m already dreaming about that first summer tomato, I believe that March is still a good month for a stew.
I want to change your mind about stew. Stewing, simply defined, is a cooking method that allows the flavor of proteins and vegetables to meld with a cooking liquid into a beautiful, comforting and absolutely delicious result. Even a soup is a type of stew.
We all have our go-to stews, whether it be a beef stew or even a chili. Brunswick stew is a Southern classic. My slow cooker gets a workout with all manner of stews. We readily think of beef, chicken and lamb for stews, but seafood should really have a place in your stew lineup.
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Seafood stews have long had a place among fishermen and those living in fishing villages and along the coast in this country and around the world. Seafood was what they had to stew.
They include the great and famous bouillabaisse of the southeastern coast of France, or cioppino of the Italian immigrants in California to the simple oyster stews all along the East Coast. Seafood stews should have a place at our tables.
I’ll be right upfront with you about this Chesapeake House Fish Stew recipe: I love it. It is also stupid-easy to make.
The Chesapeake House in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has been open for decades, and any local or regular visitor to the area will tell you that it’s on their list of favorites. Still family owned, they have resisted the trend toward huge seafood buffets and continued their traditions of fresh local seafood carefully prepared.
Every diner gets a complementary taste as you wait for their meal, or served as a meal over rice. The fish stew is very “low country,” meaning a bit spicy and tomato-based.
Don’t laugh at the ingredients. It is amazing how bacon, onions and ketchup can combine with the flounder to form an incredible taste reward. There is a deep umami note that you don’t normally get with seafood.
The bacon is such an important part of the flavor profile that I included the recipe in my bacon cookbook. While the recipe calls for flounder (and that’s what the restaurant uses) any flat white fish can be used. I’ve made this with tilapia, ocean trout, haddock and orange roughy.
Not a fan of using catfish. I also serve this recipe for parties because it holds well in a slow cooker, and folks just love the change of pace from wings and chili. Don’t worry about the amount the recipe makes. Everybody wants to take some home, and the stew freezes beautifully.
I’ve always referred to this recipe as a must-try, and I have no reason to change my mind now. Give it a shot.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “Bacon.” Reach him at email@example.com.
Chesapeake House Fish Stew
Adapted from “Bacon, a Savor the South Cookbook”
1/2 pound bacon, diced
1 cup onions, chopped
5 cups water
3 pounds flounder filets
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon celery salt
Pepper to taste
1 8-ounce can tomato paste
2 cups ketchup (a 24-ounce bottle)
Rice to make 8 to 12 servings
Fry the bacon until crisp in a medium skillet. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Add onions to the bacon drippings and cook until lightly brown. Reserve.
Bring the water to a boil in a large soup pot. Stir in the onions, drippings, bacon, fish, Tabasco, Worcestershire, celery salt and pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer.
Cook until fish is done, about 10 minutes. The fish will begin to fall apart.
Stir in the tomato paste and ketchup. Simmer the stew for 2 hours or until thickened. Serve over rice.
Note: For a more soup-like result, cut the simmering time to one hour.
Serve with: I like this over rice, and surprisingly, brown rice is an interesting change from white. Add a salad and you are good to go.
To drink: A good pale ale is perfect, and with all the craft brewers in North Carolina it would be a shame to pass them by.
Serves 8 to 12.