Seafood stews in a jiffy for Lent

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Seafood is considered by many to be the food of Lent and thus is associated by some with deprivation. To others, eating seafood doesn’t seem like a sacrifice at all.

For discriminating diners, a seafood stew is the elegant entree par excellence. No wonder a seafood stew was the opening act of President Obama’s inauguration luncheon.

There is a big difference between Good Housekeeping’s old-fashioned codfish stew, made by cooking frozen cod with canned potatoes, canned tomatoes and ketchup, and the elaborate presidential seafood stew, with lobster, shrimp and scallops in a vermouth cream sauce, then baked under a crown of buttery puff pastry.

Seafood cooks quickly, and so you can get a seafood stew on the table much faster than one made of meat.

Choose fish that doesn’t easily flake apart, such as monkfish or sea bass. Fish steaks are a good choice, as they are thick and tend to hold together well. However, you can also use thin, delicate-textured fish fillets like salmon, sole and tilapia, as long as you cook them carefully. Add them to the sauce just before serving and cook them for only a few minutes.

Shellfish lend themselves readily to stewing. Shrimp are the easiest to stew; even stirring them vigorously won’t cause them to break up. Scallops and crayfish hold together well, too, but, like shrimp, they overcook easily and should be added to the sauce for the last few minutes of cooking.

Lobster and crab are easiest to handle when cooked separately, remove the shells and add the meat to the sauce. Country-style dishes in most seafood-loving lands call for stewing lobster and crab in their shells in a sauce.

Mussels and clams also hold together well and can be cooked directly in a stew. To avoid the risk of making the sauce sandy, cook these bivalves separately and add them to the sauce with a little of their strained liquid.

Don’t forget rule No. 1 for cooking any seafood: Use it promptly so it is as fresh as possible, whether you have purchased it fresh or whether it was frozen and thawed. If the stew is thinner than planned, serve it in bowls.

Easy halibut curry with ginger root

Salmon steaks can be substituted for the halibut.

Makes 4 servings.

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger root

5 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 or 2 jalapeno peppers, minced

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 teaspoons tomato paste

28-ounce can tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 1/2 pounds halibut or salmon steaks, about 1 inch thick, rinsed, patted dry

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)

Heat oil in a large saute pan, add onion and ginger root and cook over low heat for 7 minutes, or until onion is soft but not brown. Add garlic, jalapeno peppers, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and cayenne, and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in tomato paste, then tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Sprinkle fish lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Add fish to sauce, cover and cook over low heat 7 minutes. Turn over and cook 3 more minutes or until fish becomes opaque and loses its raw color. Stir in half the cilantro. Serve fish sprinkled with remaining cilantro.

Sea bass and shrimp with leeks and olives

This dish is a simplified adaptation of a recipe in “La Cuisine du Poisson” (Flamarion). the seafood cookbook I wrote in France with master chef Fernand Chambrette.

You can make this stew with fish and shrimp or use 1 1/2 pounds fish and omit the shrimp.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to clean leeks, omit them. In this case, along with the carrots, saute about 3/4 cup of chopped onion.

If you prefer a smooth tomato sauce to a chunky one, after you cook the fish, puree the sauce in a blender or food processor or with an immersion blender. Then stir in the olives. You can stir all the leeks into the pureed sauce instead of using them as a bed for the fish.

Makes 4 servings.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, rinsed well, sliced thin

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 small carrot, finely diced

1 medium celery stick, diced (optional)

3 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 large sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried, crumbled

28-ounce can tomatoes, diced, with their juice

1 pound sea bass, halibut or cod fillet, about 1 inch thick, cut in 4 or 6 pieces

1/2 pound large shrimp, shelled

3/4 to 1 cup pitted mild olives - black, green, or equal parts of each

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large, deep heavy skillet. Add leeks, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until tender.

Transfer about 3/4 of the leeks to a bowl; cover and keep warm. Add remaining oil to leeks left in the skillet and heat briefly. Add carrot, celery and garlic and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer.

Add fish pieces and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 4 minutes. Turn fish over carefully and cook for 2 minutes. Add shrimp. Cook 2 or 3 minutes more or until shrimp turns bright pink and changes color throughout and fish becomes opaque and loses its raw color; cut a shrimp to check, and check fish with knife also. With a slotted spatula, carefully remove fish and shrimp.

If you want a thicker sauce, cook it uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes or until thick. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Stir in olives and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To serve hot, return fish to sauce, cover and reheat briefly. Spoon reserved leeks onto a platter or plates and top with fish; or serve leeks alongside fish. Spoon sauce over and around fish. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Middle Eastern fish with tomato sauce and yogurt mint dressing

Makes 4 servings.

1 1/2 pounds cod, halibut or other lean fish steaks, about 1 inch thick, rinsed, patted dry

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

MINT YOGURT DRESSING:

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

1/2 small garlic clove, finely minced

TOMATO MINT SAUCE:

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

28-ounce can tomatoes, drained, chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Mint sprigs (garnish)

Put fish steaks in a tray in one layer. For marinade, mix lemon juice with oil, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper and cayenne. Pour over fish and turn to coat both sides. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 30 to 60 minutes, turning steaks occasionally.

Prepare yogurt dressing if you like: Mix yogurt with mint and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to room temperature for serving.

For tomato mint sauce, heat oil in a large deep skillet. Add garlic and saute over medium heat, stirring, for about 1/2 minute. Add cumin, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered over medium heat until juice begins to come out of tomatoes. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes or until tomatoes are soft and sauce is thick. Add tomato paste.

Add fish steaks to sauce with their marinade and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, basting fish occasionally, for 10 minutes or until fish becomes opaque and loses its raw color. Stir in mint. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve the stew hot, cold, or at room temperature, garnished with fresh mint sprigs. Serve yogurt dressing on the side.

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