Seafood Stews

By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC

Seafood stew makes sense for your menu, both from a customer demand and food cost perspective. It’s an opportunity to showcase a myriad of seafood and get creative while maximizing value through full product utilization. And, with a nod toward classical cooking techniques, everything from fish bones to shrimp shells can be used when creating seafood stews, extracting every last bit of valuable flavor! Executing superior seafood stews during a busy line service requires a little planning and preparation, but the results are well worth the effort. Good broths and stocks, exceptional produce, and superior seafood will all but guarantee a great result. You need a plan, from stockpot to à la minute plate up. This is how we do it!

Stock up…The best seafood stews are possible when you prepare a great stock from scratch. Nothing can replicate the depth of flavor produced through the use of aromatics like garlic, shallots, and leeks along with fresh herbs, good wine or spirits, and the richness that can only come from the use of collagen-rich fish bones or crustacean shells. This is truly the most enjoyable kind of cooking and the foundation of remarkable cuisine. If labor and time constraints prevent you from preparing your own stocks, Maines is happy to provide a variety of seafood bases, clam juice, and lobster stock. Choose the route that makes the most sense for your operation while building the most flavorful foundation you can afford. Stocks can also be made ahead of time, frozen, and thawed when it’s time to build your stew base. This single benefit allows for two things: 1. you can purchase and fully utilize that

The best seafood stews are possible when you prepare a great stock from scratch. Nothing can replicate the depth of flavor produced through the use of aromatics like garlic, shallots, and leeks along with fresh herbs, good wine or spirits, and the richness that can only come from the use of collagen-rich fish bones or crustacean shells. This is truly the most enjoyable kind of cooking and the foundation of remarkable cuisine. If labor and time constraints prevent you from preparing your own stocks, Maines is happy to provide a variety of seafood bases, clam juice, and lobster stock. Choose the route that makes the most sense for your operation while building the most flavorful foundation you can afford. Stocks can also be made ahead of time, frozen, and thawed when it’s time to build your stew base. This single benefit allows for two things: 1. you can purchase and fully utilize that 25 pound case of lobster bodies to create a large batch of stock, and 2. you can make these stocks when it’s convenient for your prep schedule, maybe on a slower day or during a down turn.

Build your base…

The next step is to use that delicious stock to build the stew base, and, like seafood, the freshest produce will have the same positive impact on your final product. Take pains to use the freshest products Maines Produce Express has to offer, and if labor or time are a concern, ready to use fresh diced mirepoix, tomatoes, and peppers are always available. Plan to have these ingredients on hand first thing in the work week so you can prepare and serve a fresh stew base each week. Prepare your stew base up to the point where you would normally add fresh seafood, tender herbs, and last minute garnishes. Adjust seasonings and then cool the base quickly, suspending the flavor and cooking process. That’s right… contrary to some customers’ perception, your seafood stews are not all-day simmering affairs. They are last minute culinary miracles only possible through stealthy planning. Once the base is cooled, package it up until it’s showtime!

Flexible Fish

Using fresh seafood for stews is always preferred, and our partners at Indian Ridge, Hopkins, and Pierport are masterful fresh seafood buyers. Not every operation can capture the investment premium seafood can sometimes demand, but high quality IQF products from Hidden Bay are fantastic options. IQF shellfish, squid, shrimp, finfish, octopus, and clam meat are just a few examples of items that lend themselves perfectly to seafood stews. I recommend prepping and portioning all of your seafood ahead of time, and storing it on ice, even during service, if possible. One hour at room temperature reduces shelf life by one day, so keep it cold. Have your fresh herbs, garnishes, and other mise en place ready for service and you’ll be ready to go!

Easy as 1-2-3!

During service, the best-laid plans can sometimes go up in smoke (literally,) so make sure your stew pick-up plans are solid. The printer just coughed up a stew order, so here we go…

1. Add your stew base to an individual pan or pot and bring it to a simmer. Each order gets built in its own pan because the last thing anyone wants to do is count clam shells, squid tentacles, and lobster claws in the middle of service. One order, one pan, one bowl. And, do not hold the seafood stew base hot. Remember how preparation was suspended when making it? What’s the point of going through that extra effort if your base is going to die a slow death in a steam table?

2. Add seafood in the order it takes to be cooked properly. In other words, if your stew needs four different kinds of seafood added before pick-up that take a range of one to four minutes to cook properly, they need to be added to the simmering stew base in the reverse order at the right times and not all at once, which would result in some being over- or under-cooked.

3. Add the volatile and fleeting flavors last and ship it! Tender herbs, delicately flavored finishing oils, crispy garnishes, and brightly colored microgreens don’t get better when you add them to hot liquids, so make sure you see the whites of the server’s eyes before you add them and then chase them out of the kitchen!

Abide by this simple (not always easy) method and your seafood stews will be hot, fresh, perfectly cooked, maxed out with flavor, and mind-blowingly delicious!

A Word about Cross-Utilization

If you already have excess fish or shellfish on hand, seafood stews are the perfect way to improve food cost. For instance, lobster shells, tomalley, roe, and offal can all be used to make a rich and flavorful stock that can then be used to make a classic lobster bisque or lobster-based stew. If you prepped ten orders of fish for service and only sell eight, break down the remaining two and use them along with other fresh or frozen seafood products to create another ten orders of seafood stew.

By utilizing finfish trim like tail meat, belly, or shoulder that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to tidy entrée portions, you maximize product utilization. Using every ounce of product is cost effective and profit producing, not to mention waste reducing.

Choose Your Stew

Everybody does their seafood stew a little different, and it’s usually based on the traditional preparations of a given region or your own personal experience. Either way, you can never go wrong with the classics, whether they’re favorites from San Francisco or Tuscany.

Cioppino

Originating in San Francisco, Cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew invented by fishermen in the 1800’s who used seafood leftover from the day’s catch to prepare their meals. Brimming with the catch of the day, cioppino contains regional ingredients such as Dungeness crab from the west coast or Maine lobsters complemented by ripe and sweet tomatoes, white wine, and
garlic. No matter where it’s being served, cioppino guarantees a vast array of seafood including mussels, clams, crab legs, scallops, halibut, or shrimp, and firm-fleshed white fish, which is a constant in cioppino.

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is a seafood stew that was first prepared in the French port city of Marseilles. The term bouillabaisse comes from a compound of two verbs corresponding to “boil-abase.” The differentiation between cioppino and bouillabaisse is the addition of saffron and a white broth base. The unique flavor of this highly favored stew stems from various vegetables, herbs, and spices such as tomatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, fennel, orange peel, and bay leaves. Bouillabaisse was initially prepared with Mediterranean fish, but typically contains a variety of seafood such as cod, halibut, snapper, shrimp, and occasionally scorpion fish, conger, or red mullet.

Cacciuco

Created in 1500 by fisherman in Livorno, Italy, cacciuco is a spicy Tuscan seafood stew traditionally comprised of fish that are considered “bottom of the boat.” Cacciuco’s unique medley of seafood includes mussels, squid, octopus, prawns, shrimp, and clams. Octopus is on the rise in culinary trends, so take advantage and prepare cacciuco with octopus and sustainable alternatives such as lobster or yellowtail. Must-have ingredients to prepare cacciuco are garlic, red pepper flakes, and red wine vinegar.

Jamaican Rundown

This traditional Jamaican stew consists of fish, mainly mackerel, coconut milk, tomato, and onion, and is an excellent way to incorporate trending tropical flavors with an island feel onto your menu to attract curious diners, especially Millennials. Mackerel’s qualities like its tender texture and abundant fish oils create the perfect component to showcase in a stew. Rundown is commonly served with dumplings, boiled bananas, or rice for added thickness and flavor. SEE OUR RECIPE HERE!

Moqueca

The key to creating this traditional Brazilian seafood stew is its distinct foundation. Moqueca has a base of African palm oil and coconut milk that’s often paired with a hot sauce made from malagueta peppers. Lobster, shrimp, and fish such as cod or snapper are the main seafood ingredients. Other necessary elements include onions, tomatoes, garlic, and cilantro. Moqueca is frequently served with farofa (toasted manioc flour) and pirão (polenta-like and prepared with manioc flour) and served over rice. Traditionally served in a clay pot, moqueca provides ample opportunity to utilize creative serving ware for a cool presentation.