Best of pot luck

Beat the New Year blues with this infinitely variable fish stew

This column has quoted Elizabeth David's sensible advice on the subject of cassoulet (which may, she says, be infinitely varied as long as it is not treated as a dustbin). Here she is on another French classic, bouillabaisse: "It is useless attempting to make a bouillabaisse away from the shores of the Mediterranean." Forbidding at first sight, the remark is in fact wonderfully liberating. You can make a fish stew, and you do not have to live up to the standards that you imagine a bouillabaisse should reach. As David says, there are numerous versions of the dish, all claiming to be authentic: why should your variation be inferior? Even if you are preparing it in, say, Uttoxeter.

Look on a bouillabaisse recipe, then, as a useful template for a very nice meal. The base ingredients, in addition to the fish, include onions, leeks, tomatoes, orange peel or zest, and saffron; aniseed notes from fennel and - if you like - pastis are good, too. If you are not using pastis, you might consider white wine; that may be "culinary heresy", in the words of an authority quoted by David, but you have already decided to ignore such taunts. It is worth borrowing, too, a technique from the recipe: that of fast boiling, which blends the oil with the stock and thickens the sauce. The large quantity of liquid in the pot acquires a surprising amount of body.

My fishmonger - I realise that I am lucky to be able to use those words - sold me some offcuts to make a stock. He charged me £1. He gave me a few heads, some bones, and a few fillets that were too scraggy to sell otherwise. I covered them with cold water, brought them to a simmer, skimmed off the froth, and added vegetables including the green parts of some leeks, some onions, celery sticks, parsley stalks, garlic cloves, and the stalks and fronds from a fennel bulb. I simmered the stock for 35 minutes. Recipes warn that overcooked fish stock is bitter.

I sieved this stock, and reduced it to about 1.5 litres. The following day, I discovered how gelatinous the liquid was: the leftover stew set into a wobbly mass in my fridge.

The base of the stew consisted of onions, spring onions, celery, leeks and fennel, chopped and cooked in olive oil and then simmered in passata. Once that mixture was thickened, I turned up the heat and poured in the hot stock, grinding over some salt. I allowed these ingredients to bubble together for a few minutes.

I had 1.5kg of various fish fillets. No rascasse or shellfish, I am afraid. I cut them into slices about three times the size of a forkful, and submerged them in my stew. They cooked in about five minutes. I turned off the heat, and only then stirred in a teaspoon of saffron fronds and some chopped parsley.

The stew served eight, among us a Frenchwoman. She was very polite about it.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot