A dish to ward off the New England chill

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I spent most of my family vacations on Cape Cod, until we finally moved there in 1969 after I graduated from high school. My first job in the summer of that year was working at Pond Village Cold Storage in North Truro. Built in 1893 right off the beach, this large five-story facility dominated Cold Storage Beach on the bayside. At one time, the facility was home to a thriving business, which could store 3,000 barrels of fish in its three floors of freezers. It was built close to the Old Colony Railroad depot, which allowed for easy transport of freshly frozen fish to Boston and beyond. The facility and everything associated with it exist only in pictures and memories now.

By the time I started working there, it was a moribund operation used mostly to process and freeze whiting, a fish considered to be "trash fish" with little use in restaurants and retail markets. We would unload crates of the freshly caught whiting, which would arrive on a tractor-trailer from Provincetown. Our next task was to place the fish, one by one, on a conveyor belt with a circular saw toward the end of the belt that would behead the fish, with their heads and guts spilling onto the floor beneath and the remaining fish carcasses landing in a large bin. The whole operation was an OSHA nightmare as the circular saw and gears for the conveyor belt operated without shields. We were simply told to be careful.

On arrival for my first day of work, I was immediately given a large shovel and directed to shovel the heads and guts of the whiting into a barrel. I came to learn our other duties weren't much more stimulating ... or pleasant, for that matter. However, as with so many things, you get used to tasks and shortly it all became routine. At the end of the process, 10-pound boxes of frozen headless whiting would be shipped to a mink farm to be used as food for the voracious little critters before they became coats.

Among the whiting we received would be the random mackerel, butterfish, scup, skate or other trash fish, now politically correctly referred to as underutilized species, which we were free to take home. I would take the fish home to my mother, who would good-naturedly scold me that she could smell me before she saw me as I arrived from working my shift. She was an excellent cook who loved a challenge and gladly accepted the fish. Between her and my co-workers, who had lived off the sea their entire lives, I learned a tremendous amount about preparing and appreciating the bounty from the Atlantic. It's these experiences that were the genesis of my romance with seafood.

Almost a decade later, my family bought The Captain Linnell House Restaurant in Orleans on Cape Cod, where I was the chef de cuisine. With all the wonderful seafood available to me there, I took a crack at preparing a version of bouillabaisse, a Proven al seafood stew originating from the port city of Marseilles. I left the restaurant business more than 30 years ago. I'd like to share a seafood stew I've been making at home, based on my original bouillabaisse recipe.

SHELLFISH STEW

Once you've made the sauce for the stew, you can finish the dish when you'd like, making it a dish you can serve to guests or your family without spending a great deal of time in the kitchen, better spent socializing before the meal. Besides setting the table with knives and forks, serve the stew with soup spoons and a warm sliced baguette to fully enjoy the sauce. Serve with the hot sauce of your choice on the side. The sauce makes enough to serve 6 to 8. Any leftover sauce can be used with pasta.

INGREDIENTS:

1 pinch of saffron threads

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups sliced onion (1 large)

2 cups sliced fennel bulb (1 medium bulb)

2 tablespoons sliced garlic (4 cloves)

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1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup pastis, such as Pernod (an anise-flavored ap ritif from France)

1 pinch red pepper flakes

1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes

1 cup fish stock or clam juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Suggested shellfish per person:

1 large dry pack scallop

6 mussels

3 littleneck clams

3 large shrimp

DIRECTIONS:

Soak the saffron in the wine for at least an hour before beginning preparation. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, saut the onions and fennel in the olive oil until softened about 7 to 8 minutes. Add sliced garlic and red pepper flakes and continue to saut until the onion and fennel are clear about 3 to 4 minutes longer. Add the pastis and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the white wine and saffron and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Break up the whole peeled tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the mixture. Puree the mixture with an immersion blender. Add the fish stock or clam juice and simmer for about 10 minutes. Can be made a day or two ahead at this point.

When ready to cook the shellfish, place all the shellfish in the sauce, which has been heated over medium heat to bubbling in a large Dutch oven and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the mussels and clams open. Serve in large shallow bowls with empty bowls available to discard the shells.


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