French cookbook author Madeleine Kamman couldn't understand why the bouillabaisse she made in the United States didn't taste like the classic French fish stew. She blamed herself. Then she taught a class in Aix-en-Provence, using fish from the Mediterranean. The dish suddenly bloomed with flavor, forcing her to advise American readers hungry for the authentic fish stew to make something else. "There exists no recipe written which, executed with the fish available in this country, will taste quite like the true Marseilles concoction, or I would refer you to its text immediately," she wrote in "The New Making of a Cook" (Morrow, 1997).

There are plenty of other reasons not to make bouillabaisse. For many of us, it seems, the dish that made Marseilles famous becomes such a production and source of angst you want to turn off the stove and open a can of tuna. Some cooks don't want to go through all the steps involved: first cooking the fish, then passing the broth through a food mill, then straining it, then serving the broth and fish in separate crockery as two different courses. Or it's the thought of collecting enough fish heads and bones to make a stock for the bouillabaisse.

Instead, there are plenty of other stews that do a fine job of turning fish into a meal with half the fuss. For the seafood challenged -- those who quake at the very idea of cooking fish -- these less heralded preparations are a blessing. There are no fancy gadgets, no strainers, poachers or food mills to mess with. No, these are simple, one-pot affairs cooked mostly on the stovetop in fairly quick order, then ladled into a bowl in a cloud of tantalizing aromas, perhaps over a thick slice of crusty bread.

"Stew" is a bit of a misnomer. These are not like meat stews that simmer for hours and hours to tenderize tough cuts. Fish are delicate creatures: they want to be cooked only to the point of doneness. The word "stew" merely differentiates this food from soups that contain much more liquid than solids, meaning that a fish stew should be thick with fish, surrounded by a bit of flavorful broth.

You will find these kinds of stews wherever saltwater laps against a shoreline. The fish involved is usually of the firm, white, non-oily variety (see box, above); whatever looks best that day. There is a base of aromatic vegetables, typically onions, and perhaps something more assertive, such as green bell pepper, and very likely garlic. Potatoes often play a supporting role. Precious saffron frequently stars.

But look for the imprint of the country of origin. For instance, you might find a tomato sauce in a fish stew from Italy. The Portuguese love their cilantro and paprika. In Morocco, swordfish is first marinated in an exotic blend of spices, then topped with preserved lemon. The Brazilians prize moqueca, a luxuriously tropical dish made with coconut milk and palm oil.

The fish and vegetables contribute their own delicious broth, sometimes with the aid of a little wine. You may be tempted to dress up your stew with additional shellfish: mussels, clams, whole shrimp -- they make a dramatic presentation, and their briny juices add flavor. Just be careful you don't overdo it.

That's the beauty of stews: There are no hard and fast rules. It's a little of this, a little of that, and pretty soon you have dinner.

While it might seem more authentic to use big pieces of fish on the bone, current sensibilities lean more toward tender fillet. Be sure to inspect your fillets carefully with your fingers, and remove any pin bones you find.

Ligurian Fish Stew

(Ciuppin)

6 servings

In the region of Italy around Genoa, ciuppin (chuh-PEEN) refers to any fish soup or stew. In the classic version of ciuppin -- not to be confused with the famous San Francisco dish, cioppino (chuh-PEE-noh) -- fish parts are cooked until the meat falls from the bone. The meat and cooking liquid is then passed through a food mill to create a flavorful broth for larger pieces of fish fillet and squid.

If you find grinding fish parts a bit scary, this rendition, adapted from Mario Batali's "Simple Italian Food" (Clarkson Potter, 1998), is for you. The broth is composed of a tomato sauce and white wine. The precise fish types may vary according to market availability; just look for those that are fresh, firm and not oily.

1 round loaf country-style bread

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into about 1/4-inch dice

1 stalk celery, cut into about 1/4-inch dice

1 carrot, peeled and cut into about 1/4-inch dice

4 cloves garlic, minced

11/2 cups dry white wine

2 cups tomato sauce, jarred or homemade (recipe follows)

8 ounces grouper fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces snapper fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces halibut fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces cod fillet, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound mussels, in their shells, rinsed

8 ounces squid, cleaned and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds (including tentacles)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Cut 6 thick slices of bread from the loaf. Grill or broil the bread, turning once, until browned on both sides. Set aside.

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Add the wine and tomato sauce and bring to a boil Add the fish, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the mussels, cover again and simmer until the mussels begin to open, about 4 minutes. Add the squid, stir and cook just until the mussels have completely opened and the squid have turned opaque and are cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove any mussels that have not opened. Remove stew from the heat; season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place the bread slices in large shallow bowls. Ladle the stew over the bread and garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 531 calories, 48 gm protein, 27 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 165 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 688 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Tomato Sauce

Makes about 5 cups

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into small dice

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and cut into small dice

2 teaspoons dried thyme

Two 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes, with juices

Salt

In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic and carrot, stir to coat with oil, cover and cook, stirring or shaking the pan occasionally, until the vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes. May need to reduce the heat to low to prevent scorching. Add the thyme, cover and cook for about 5 more minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice, increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, until the sauce has thickened. Season with salt to taste.

Per 1/2-cup serving: 94 calories, 1 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 378 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Portuguese Fish Stew

With Shellfish

(Caldeirada com Mariscos)

6 servings

This stew uses a simple yet ingenious technique: The vegetables, aromatics, seafood and spices are layered in a heavy pot, starting with onions and potatoes on the bottom, closest to the heat, and ending with the most delicate item, the shrimp, on top. Once assembled, the stew is never stirred. Instead, the pot is shaken once or twice during cooking to keep things from sticking to the bottom.

Adapted from Ana Patuleia Ortins's "Portuguese Homestyle Cooking" (Interlink, 2002):

1 round loaf crusty, country-style bread

1 generous pinch saffron, crushed

1 tablespoon warm water

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup olive oil

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

3 large Red Bliss potatoes (or other red potato), scrubbed but skins intact, thinly sliced

21/2 cups diced tomatoes with juice (about 20 ounces)

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 bay leaves, torn in half

11/2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons sweet paprika

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

24 small littleneck clams

2 pounds non-oily white fish cut into 1-inch chunks (I use a variety of fish, such as halibut, monkfish, red snapper and cod)

1/2 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

Cut loaf into thick slices. Grill or broil the bread, turning once, until browned on both sides. Set aside.

In a small bowl, dissolve the saffron in the warm water. Set aside for 15 minutes. Add the wine to the saffron mixture and set aside.

Meanwhile, pour the oil into a large heavy pot or Dutch oven. Spread the onion slices evenly over the oil. Cover the onions with the the potatoes, overlapping the slices slightly to form a single layer.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes and their juices, garlic, bay leaves, bell peppers, cilantro and crushed red pepper flakes. Spoon 1/3 of the tomato mixture over the potatoes and season with paprika, salt and pepper to taste.

Place the clams in a single layer over the tomato mixture. Spoon 1/2 of the remaining tomato mixture over the clams and season with paprika, salt and pepper to taste.

Spread the fish evenly over the tomato mixture in a single layer and top with the shrimp. Spoon the remaining tomato mixture over the shrimp and season with paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Pour the reserved saffron mixture over the top. Cover the pot tightly and place over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until you hear the wine bubbling. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally. Check for doneness; the fish and vegetables should be cooked through and the clams fully opened. Discard any unopened clams.

Place the toasted bread in the bottom of large, shallow bowls. Using a ladle, reach deep into the bottom of the pot and ladle some of the stew over the bread, making sure to get part of each layer into every bowl. Try to remove and discard the bay leaves as you go or warn diners if any go missing.

Per serving: 596 calories, 51 gm protein, 39 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 135 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 1100 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Moroccan Fish Stew

6 servings

The ingredients in this North African fish stew strongly resemble those in the Portuguese version, and also are layered in the pot. But in Morocco, the fish is marinated first with cilantro, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and cayenne. Preserved lemon furnishes a tang that works well with a more robust fish such as swordfish.

Adapted from Clifford A. Wright's "A Mediterranean Feast" (Morrow, 1999):

For the marinade:

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

Juice from 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 generous pinch saffron, lightly toasted in oven, then ground in a mortar

11/4 teaspoons salt

About 21/2 pounds swordfish steaks, about 1 inch thick

For the stew:

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced

3 large Red Bliss potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

11/2 green bell peppers, cored, seeded and thinly sliced

21/2 cups diced tomatoes, with juice (about 20 ounces)

6-ounce can tomato paste, mixed with enough water in a measuring glass to measure 1 cup puree

1/3 cup finely chopped preserved lemons*, rind and pulp (seeds removed)

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

For the marinade: In a bowl, combine all of the marinade ingredients except the fish. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour to allow the flavors to meld.

Pour half of the marinade into a large shallow dish, baking dish or resealable plastic bag, add the fish steaks, turn to coat, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Cover and refrigerate the unused marinade.

For the stew: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a large heavy pot or Dutch oven with the oil.

Arrange the onions in a single layer in the pot. Arrange the potatoes on top of the onions, overlapping the slices slightly to create a single layer and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Scrape the marinade from the fish, discarding the used marinade. Arrange the fish on top of the potatoes. Arrange the bell peppers over the top and pour the reserved unused marinade over the top. Next pour the diced tomatoes with their juice and the tomato puree over the top. Sprinkle the preserved lemons, cilantro and parsley evenly over the stew.

Cover with the lid or create a tight cover of aluminum foil, transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour, until the vegetables are softened.

Using a large metal spoon, stir the tomatoes into the top layers of the stew. Then reach down to cut through the fish steaks to get the bottom of the pot and spoon some of the stew into individual bowls, being careful to get some of each layer.

NOTE: Preserved lemons are available at Mediterranean markets as well as some grocers such as Whole Foods.

Per serving: 532 calories, 42 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 28 gm fat, 74 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 1202 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber

Brazilian Fish Stew

(Moqueca de Peixe)

6 servings

This simple stew, native to the coastal Brazilian province of Bahia, is creamy and looks a bit like a fish curry, with just a faint coconut flavor.

The signature ingredient is dende, an African palm oil with a musky flavor. It leaves a telltale yellow color in food, a bit like saffron or turmeric.

If you like, add shrimp or lobster to this stew. Serve with white rice.

For the marinade:

21/2 pounds sea bass (or other thick white fish, such as cod) cut into about 24 large pieces

Juice from 1 lime

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the stew:

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped fine

1 green bell pepper, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced small

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

15-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

2 cups coconut milk (preferably Brazilian)

2 tablespoons dende oil (may substitute peanut oil, although the flavor will not be quite the same)

Coarsely chopped fresh cilantro and parsley leaves for garnish

For the marinade: Place the fish in a large shallow bowl, squeeze the lime juice over the top, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and toss gently to combine. Cover and refrigerate for no more than 1 hour while you prepare the rest of the stew.

For the stew: In a large pot over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and bell peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nearly translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the cilantro and parsley and cook another minute or so. Add the tomatoes with their juice, increase the heat to medium and cook until the vegetables begin to steam. Season with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste. Add the marinated fish, stir and cover the pot until the fish is just cooked through, about 12 minutes.

Remove the lid from the pot. Add the coconut milk and increase the heat to medium. Drizzle the dende oil over the top.

To serve, ladle the stew into wide, shallow bowls and garnish with cilantro and parsley.

NOTE: Dende oil is not widely available in the United States. Locally, check groceries that specialize in Brazilian or African foods, such as Brazilian Market in Wheaton, European Market in Rockville, A&H Seafood Market in Bethesda and European Foods in Arlington, or order online at www.Sendexnet.com.

Per serving: 504 calories, 38 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 34 gm fat, 77 mg cholesterol, 20 gm saturated fat, 468 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Ed Bruske last wrote for Food about long-cooking green beans.