Life

Fresh is truly best when it comes to sumptuous seafood stew. By Andrew McConnell.

Catch of the day

If you find a fishmonger you trust, make them your friend. Nurture the relationship. Do not let them go. It will certainly pay off. 

Long term, you want the freshest fish. In the restaurant, when we want to change a dish, the first thing we will do is call our fishmonger and find out what’s available, what’s eating best, what’s local and what’s coming up. They have a big say in what hits the table. If we follow that lead, and they put their word to it, we’re guaranteed to have the freshest of what’s in the market.

I love bonito, but there’s no point putting it on in the summer because it’s just not at its best. Mussels during spawning season, which changes constantly, are not as good. Barramundi, depending on where you get it from, is no good in the autumn. People forget this, but seafood is highly seasonal and the seasons vary because of location and water temperatures. 

In my notes, I marked this “Fish stew – the old recipe”. I’ve had this recipe in various forms for about 12 years. It has the flavour base of not one seafood but a number of things, and yet the thing that holds it all together is the chermoula. It’s quite nice to let a recipe evolve and develop, to explore it, and then come back to the original.

I’ve made this base recipe and added both crayfish and yabbies. I’ve substituted leatherjacket, a good local fish, for rock flathead. Snapper works, too.

This is the first time I’ve added chickpeas. I like the way they take on the flavour but retain their texture, which complements the texture of the fish. It doesn’t hurt that they come from a tin. Exceptional convenience, especially at home. I probably wouldn’t cook this if I had to prepare the chickpeas from scratch. 

Chermoula, also spelt chrmla, is a North African spice mix. It’s often used as a marinade. I find myself using North African flavours at home a lot. For a start, I enjoy eating them. And I feel comfortable using them. This probably comes from the year I spent in the kitchen with Greg Malouf, whose iconic restaurant and books played a part in introducing North African and Lebanese flavours to Melbourne.

What I like about chermoula is that it can be personalised, for want of a better term. Most chermoula recipes have fresh ingredients such as onion or lemon or coriander. In this recipe, I’ve omitted those ingredients so that any leftovers will last in the fridge without spoiling. It can then be thinned with oil and used as a marinade for meats. 

Chicken marinated in leftover chermoula overnight and then grilled is pretty stunning. We do that at the pub on the rotisserie, and it’s great.

Seafood stew   

Serves 4

– 500g mussels, cleaned
– 500g surf clams, soaked in cold water for 1 hour and drained
– 1 tbsp butter
– 1 tbsp olive oil
– 1 carrot, ½cm dice
– 1 stick celery, ½cm dice
– 2 golden shallots, ½cm dice
– ½ cup white wine
– 2 cups light chicken stock (approx.)
– 2 tbsp chermoula (recipe at right)
– 1 cup cooked chickpeas
– 4 large prawns, peeled, de-veined and heads reserved
– 4 rock flathead fillets, skin on and pin-boned
– 1 tsp lemon juice
– ½ bunch parsley, leaves picked and chopped 

Heat a saucepan over high heat, add the mussels and a splash of white wine and cover with a tight-fitting lid. After a minute, check the mussels. Take out any that have opened, give the pot a stir, then replace the lid and leave them for another minute. Repeat until all the mussels are open and drain them immediately, straining and reserving the cooking liquid.

Heat the pot again and cook the clams in the same manner, reserving and straining their cooking liquid along with the mussel juice. Transfer the cooked mussels and clams to a serving platter or dish. Add chicken stock to this shellfish juice to make up two cups (500 millilitres) of liquid.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan and sauté the carrot, celery and shallots. When they soften a touch, add the reserved prawn heads and cook until they turn pink. 

Deglaze the pan with the white wine, and continue to cook until the wine has reduced. Add the stock and bring to the simmer before adding the chermoula. Nestle the prawns into the soup with the chickpeas and lower the heat to a simmer.

When the prawns are cooked, transfer to the serving platter with the mussels and clams. Meanwhile, heat a non-stick frying pan with a few drops of oil and place in the fish fillets, skin-side down. Lower the heat and cook the fish gently, a few minutes on each side, until it is just cooked. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Finally, take the prawn heads out of the stew with a pair of tongs and discard. Return the mussels and clams to the saucepan along with the chopped parsley and lemon juice and warm on the stovetop for a minute or two. Taste and add a pinch of salt if needed. 

Arrange the prawns, shellfish, fish and chickpeas in a deep serving platter and pour some of the broth over the top, sending the rest to the table in a warm jug.

Chermoula

– 1½ tbsp cumin seeds
– 1 tbsp coriander seeds
– 1½ tbsp sweet paprika
– 1 tbsp ginger powder
– 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
– 2½ tbsp olive oil
– ¼ tsp black pepper
– ¼ tsp salt
– ¼ tsp red wine vinegar

To make the chermoula, toast the seeds and grind them in a spice grinder. Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl.

Wine pairing:

2014 Ochota Barrels Weird Berries in the Woods gewürztraminer, Adelaide Hills ($37) – Mark Williamson, sommelier, Cumulus Inc

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Catch of the day". Subscribe here.

Andrew McConnell
is the executive chef and co-owner of Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc.

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