Tomatoes past and future

The tomatoes we planted  about a month ago were transplanted from tiny cells into larger pots today, and taken outside for some natural light.

Of 33 seeds sown, a number (mostly from older seed) failed to germinate. The 12 strongest that I chose for transplanting were: 2 beefsteak, 2 clear pink, 2 sungold, 2 black prince, 1 black cherry, 1 black krim, 1 Japanese black trifele, and one mystery one that I could’ve sworn was sungold, but looks a lot more like the Japanese black trifele and the clear pink.

Since those tomatoes aren’t quite ready for the kitchen yet, here’s our adaptation of a favourite tomato-centric recipe from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook“: Santa Barbara Fish Stew.

The book itself is an interesting specimen: it’s an invaluable reference in many ways, with an odd blend of enduring classics, creaky old antiques (Celery Victor, anyone?) and late-80’s anomalies (Chinese Manicotti?!) One of the best things about the book is its method of providing a master recipe, followed by several variations. It’s a great way for beginning cooks to learn the fundamentals, and to get a sense of what elements of a recipe can and should be varied.

The recipe in question starts with Julia’s All-Purpose Mediterranean Soup Base, from which she derives a fish stew, a pureed Provençale fish soup, and a molded creation of fish in aspic.

Her Santa Barbara Fish Stew is a hybrid of the San Francisco / Italian-American cioppino, and a casual bouillabaisse. Here’s our adaptation. We make this year-round, probably about 10 times a year.

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 smallish Spanish onion, sliced
  • 1 small bulb fennel, sliced, with fronds reserved for garnish
  • 1 carrot, sliced into 1/4 inch coins
  • 5 cloves of domestically grown garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
  • 1 cup bottled clam juice
  • 2 cups chicken stock or 1.5 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf (fresh if you can find it)
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 strips of orange zest, completely stripped of white pith, about 1/2 inch x 1.5 inches
  • 1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette (you can substitute good, full-flavoured mild paprika and a touch of cayenne – smoked paprika is nice, too)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1/2 tsp fennel pollen
  •  3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cans (28oz / 796 ml) San Marzano tomatoes, with their juice. (If you have good, fresh tomatoes, use half fresh and half canned)

In a thick, 6-quart or larger pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sweat the onions until they lose their raw aspect. Add the fennel and carrots, and cook until for a few minutes longer; don’t let the onions brown. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Again, don’t let it brown.

Add the white wine, and boil for a minute. Add the clam juice, stock/water and all the seasonings, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and their juice. You can crush them through your “impeccably clean fingers”, as Julia used to say, or smush them up with a spoon once they’re in the pot. Bring to a simmer as you prep your seafood.

Here’s where you can get creative. Julia suggests “2 to 2 and 1/2 lbs skinless and boneless lean fish cut into 2-inch chunks, such as cod, hake, halibut, sea bass, monkfish, catfish, snapper… a variety is preferable.”

We usually go for a slightly more high-end, shellfish-intensive version. This time, since it was an “occasion”, we went all-out:

  • 4 cooked stone crab claws
  • 6 super-jumbo white shrimp (stay away from farmed black tiger shrimp, please – look for U.S., wild-caught shrimp)
  • 8 diver scallops
  • 16 mussels

Usually, though, we use a mix of shrimp, mussels, clams, and halibut or monkfish. We actually missed the fish in the luxe version, so we encourage you to include it.

Back to the cooking: bring your soup base to a boil, remove it from the heat, add your fish and the uncooked seafood, ensure that it’s covered by the soup, then cover the pan and let it sit for 3 minutes.

Uncover, add any cooked seafood such as shredded crab meat,  ladle it into wide soup bowls, and scatter some fennel fronds and/or chopped parsley atop. Serve with olive-oil toasted baguette. If you have some tasty rouille to spread atop the bread and mix into the soup, so much the better.

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