Moving with the times, a year ago our local supermarket opened a fresh fish counter. The first tentative offerings of shrimp, salmon and flounder were mundane enough, but now the repertoire is likely to include tuna, monkfish, porgies (a local favorite), squid, carp, sturgeon, you name it. The stand is the busiest of all, a sure sign of changing tastes.
There's no better way to enjoy such variety than in a stew, which accommodates just about any fish, the more the better. Firm fish like monkfish, eel or blowfish go in the bottom of the pan followed by most common types such as cod, haddock, hake or grouper. Delicate fish like flounder, catfish and whitefish are added last with a topping of mussels.
All are simmered together so that the firm fish at the bottom of the pot are done at the same time as delicate ones on top. Notice I mention less expensive varieties: stew is the ideal end for these less sought-after varieties, so make your choice of what you find available locally at the lower end of the price range.
Fish stew is inseparable in my mind from Fernand Chambrette, a brilliant, curmudgeonly, Parisian chef. On Fridays Chambrette would clean out the refrigerator and what he found there went into the dish of the day -- fish stew. To a base of sweated onion he would add celery, carrot, fennel, tomato, mushrooms, potato, even green beans or zucchini if the fancy took him.
Seasoning might be saffron and cayenne, or herbs like dill and thyme. A dash of wine or vinegar would be counterbalanced by some cream . . . and so it went on. Toasted crou tes of bread, often rubbed with garlic, were the mandatory accompaniment.
Following his example, here I've concocted a colorful heart-warming brew flavored with fennel, saffron and cayenne. For ease of eating, the fish is cooked in fillets and the broth made ahead with the bones.
With it comes a simple, crusty bread made with cracked wheat, which for speed requires only one rising in the pan. Eaten the day of baking the bread is excellent plain. After a day or two, I like it even better brushed with garlic butter and browned as toast.
Dessert is also appropriate to winter -- a compote of dried fruits, cooked in spiced syrup one by one, so each is tender but still firm. After all, the wealth of fresh fruit we now enjoy year around is only as old as refrigeration and a return to such seasonal treats can be very refreshing. Just before serving, a spoon or two of cognac will add welcome winter warmth.
Perfect for the career cook, all the dishes in this menu can be prepared ahead, with only 15 minutes needed in the kitchen before supper.
Up to 3 days ahead: Bake bread and store in airtight container. Make compote and keep in refrigerator.
Up to 8 hours ahead: Prepare soup, shellfish, and fish and refrigerate. Transfer compote to serving bowl and keep in refrigerator. Set the table. Chill the wine.
15 minutes before serving: Prepare garlic bread for toasting.
10 minutes before serving: Start cooking fish.
5 minutes before serving: Toast garlic bread. CHEF CHAMBRETTE'S FISH STEW (6 servings)
To save work, be sure to ask your fish man to fillet the fish, giving you the heads and bones.
FOR THE BROTH:
Heads and bones of the fish
1 onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons peppercorns
1 1/2 quarts water
FOR THE SOUP:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 small bulb fennel or 3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
16-ounce can Italian-style tomatoes, crushed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Large bouquet garni: 2 bay leaves, 2 sprigs thyme and 6 parsley stalks
Large pinch saffron threads or 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron, soaked in 3 tablespoons hot water
Salt and pepper to taste
24 mussels or clams, or 12 of each
5 pounds mixed white fish with heads and bones, filleted and cut in 2-inch pieces
For broth: combine fish heads and bones with onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and water in a pan. Bring to a boil, simmer 20 minutes, skimming occasionally, and strain.
To make the soup; in a kettle heat oil and fry onion and fennel or celery until soft but not brown. Stir in broth with tomatoes, garlic, bouquet garni, saffron and liquid, salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile scrub mussels and clams under running water, discarding any which do not close when tapped. Wash and drain fish fillets. Soup, shellfish and fish can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead and refrigerated.
To finish: Bring soup to a boil. Add firm fish and fish cut in thick fillets. Cover with thinner fish fillets and finally top with delicate fish and mussels. Bring stew to a boil and simmer until mussels open, 5 to 8 minutes. Meanwhile put clams in a heavy pan, cover and cook over high heat until they open, stirring once, 4 to 6 minutes.
To serve: lift mussels from stew and set aside. Transfer fish into individual bowls. Add clam juice or broth, taste for seasoning and discard bouquet garni. Spoon broth and vegetables over fish, set shellfish on top and serve at once.
CRACKED WHEAT BREAD (Makes 2 medium loaves)
Depending on what texture of bread you prefer, choose fine, medium or coarsely cracked wheat.
2 cakes compressed yeast or 2 ( 1/4-ounce) packages dry yeast
3 cups lukewarm water, more if necessary
2 cups whole wheat flour
5 to 6 cups flour
1 cup cracked wheat
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
Crumble or sprinkle yeast over 1 cup of the water and let stand until dissolved, about 5 minutes. Grease two 3-by-4-by-8-inch loaf pans.
In a bowl mix both kinds of flour, cracked wheat, sugar and salt and make a well in the center. Add yeast mixture with remaining water and gradually work in flour with your hand to make a smooth dough. Note: The dough should be soft and lightly sticky; if it seems dry, add more water before flour is completely mixed.
Turn dough onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Divide dough in half, shape into loaves on a well floured board (to give a floured top to loaf) and put in pans. Cover with a damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place until pans are full -- 1 1/2 hours.
Bake loaves in a 350-degree oven until, when loaves are turned out and tapped, the bottom sounds hollow, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Bread can be baked up to 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container.
GARLIC CRACKED WHEAT BREAD
Heat 1/2 cup butter with 1 clove crushed garlic and 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley until melted. Cut bread in 3/8-inch slices. Brush slices lightly with butter and brown in toaster or under broiler.
SPICED COMPOTE OF DRIED FRUITS (6 servings)
Most dried fruits no longer need soaking before cooking. However, follow package instructions if this is suggested.
FOR THE COOKING LIQUID:
li,2 Pared zest and juice of 1 lemon, more if needed
3-inch stick cinnamon
6 whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice berries
2 quarts water, more if needed
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar (optional)
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
FOR THE FRUITS:
6 ounces dried pears
6 ounces dried apricots
6 ounces dried peaches
6 ounces dried apples
6 ounces dried prunes
For cooking liquid: tie lemon zest, cinnamon stick, cloves and allspice in cheesecloth. Put in a saucepan with water and lemon juice and simmer 10 minutes.
Add pears to liquid, cover, and simmer until tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer pears to a bowl, add apricots to liquid, cover and simmer also until tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Put apricots with pears and continue cooking fruit, one by one, allowing 25 to 35 minutes for peaches, 15 to 20 minutes for apples and 12 to 15 minutes for prunes.
Note: Cooking time varies very much with dryness of fruits. Add more water during cooking if fruits get dry.
At end of cooking, about 2 cups cooking liquid should remain; if necessary boil to reduce it. Taste, adding sugar, lemon juice and nutmeg. Let liquid cool slightly, then pour over fruits, discarding cheesecloth bag. Stir fruits to mix, then chill. Compote can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in refrigerator. Serve it chilled.