Catalan seafood stew

I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.

The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.

Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.

But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.

catalan lobster stew

Romescada (Catalan Seafood Stew) (serves 4-6)

Adapted from the New York Times

Note: This is a streamlined version of this stew, the version I’ve made repeatedly and will keep making for a while. If you want the full lobster experience, check out the original New York Times recipe linked above.

For the chile paste:

1/2 cup raw hazelnuts

2 dried ñora chiles OR 1 dried ancho chile

2-3 slices crusty bread (preferably slightly stale), crusts removed

Olive oil for frying the bread

1 Fresno chile (red jalapeño), seeded and minced

3 canned piquillo peppers, drained and chopped (optional)

3 large or 5-6 small garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp smoked paprika (pimentón dulce)

Pinch of saffron (optional)

1-2 tbsp cold water, as needed

Salt to taste

For the stew:

1 medium onion, finely diced

1 cup fresh or canned crushed tomatoes*

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 quarts (8 cups) fish stock or seafood stock

Water as needed

1 1/2 lb lobster tails, squid, sea scallops, large shrimp, or firm-fleshed white fish, or a mix of seafood

1 1/2 lb clams or mussels

3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Crusty bread for serving

*To make fresh crushed tomatoes, cut ripe tomatoes in half and grate them on the large holes of a box grater.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer, and roast, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, or until the skins have darkened and the nuts are browned and fragrant. Transfer the hot nuts to a clean kitchen towel, then wrap them up and rub vigorously to remove the skins. Transfer any fully- or mostly-peeled nuts to a bowl, then wrap up the remaining nuts and rub again. Repeat until most of the skins have been removed (it doesn’t have to be perfect).

While the nuts toast, place dried chile(s) in a heatproof bowl and pour over boiling water to cover. Soak for 15 minutes, or until soft and pliable, then drain and remove stem(s) and seeds.

Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and add olive oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. Fry the bread slices until they are golden brown on both sides and crisp all over. Transfer the bread slices to paper towels to drain for a couple minutes, then cut or crumble into pieces.

Pour off all but about 2 tbsp oil from the pot. Add onion and a pinch of salt and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 10-12 minutes, or until the onion is deeply golden.

While the onion cooks, transfer the bread pieces to a food processor. Add the skinned hazelnuts, soaked chile(s), Fresno chile, piquillo peppers (if using), garlic, smoked paprika, saffron (if using), and a pinch of salt. Process the mixture to a grainy paste; if the mixture looks too dry, process in cold water, 1 tbsp at a time, until it comes together.

Increase the heat under the pot to medium-high, then add the chile paste and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until fragrant and slightly thickened. Add tomato and wine and simmer for another 3-5 minutes, or until the liquid in the pan is almost gone. Add stock and bring to a boil. then reduce the heat to keep at a steady simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes, or until the mixture is slightly thickened and richly flavored. (At this point, you can add a splash of water and simmer up to 30 minutes more, for even better flavor.)

While the stew base simmers, prepare the seafood. If using lobster tails, flip them underside-up and use a sharp pair of scissors to cut a lengthwise slit in the shells all the way to the tail. Pull the shells apart until you can get to the meat underneath, then carefully pull the meat out and cut into 1-inch pieces. Cut squid bodies into rings, peel and devein shrimp if needed, pull hinge muscles away from scallops, and cut fish into 1-inch pieces.

Add clams and mussels to the simmering liquid, cover, and cook until they start to open. Add the rest of the seafood and simmer for 5 more minutes, until the everything is just cooked through. If the stew seems to be getting too thick before the seafood is done, add a splash of water. Stir in parsley and serve immediately with bread for sopping up the sauce.

Make ahead: The chile paste can be made ahead of time and stored just like homemade pesto–transfer it to an airtight container and pour over enough extra virgin olive oil to cover the surface. The paste will keep overnight in the refrigerator or up to 4 months in the freezer; thaw the frozen paste in the fridge overnight. When you’re ready to make stew, pour off the added oil into the pot and use it to cook the onion, then add the chile paste and proceed with the recipe as directed.

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