Fish Stew with Fennel and Baby Potatoes (a.k.a. Pirate Stew)

At our house, this fast and fancy little number is also known as "Pirate Stew", a name inspired by one of my favourite children's books,  The Troll written by Julia Donaldson,  author of the beloved Gruffalo franchise. In it, a hapless Troll desperate to eat a goat (à la Three Billy Goats Gruff), is captured by a gang of fish-loving pirates with poor culinary skills.  The Troll is saved from jumping the plank when Pirate Peg Pokadot discovers his cookery book and frying pan. Sick of their own bony, briny, slimy cooking, the Pirates spare the Troll's life and make him the ship's cook.   Sadly for the Troll, when he turns to his "favourite page in his cookery book" a recipe for a nice goat stew, the incredulous Pirates inform him that he will be cooking fish and only fish, because that is what pirates are supposed eat.  

As someone who has many favourite pages in many cookbooks,  I feel terrible for the poor old Troll who will never realize his lifelong epicurean dream of cooking and eating a goat stew.  So as comfort, I imagine that at least if he's destined to a life full of fish stew, it is something  akin to this perfectly creamy, white wine and dill scented dish that appeared in Bon Appétit a couple of years ago.       

This stew takes under half an hour from start to finish, and it's elegant enough to feel special, but simple enough to make any old night of the week.  It's a cozy bowl full of fragrant chowder-like broth studded with bits of  fennel and satisfying chunks of fish and potato.  I enjoy sopping up the broth with a thick slice of buttered wholegrain bread, so as not to waste a drop.   This is undoubtedly a meal to warm the cockles of the heart - even the cockles of pirates, trolls, picky children and tired adults.  

From Bon Ap
1/4 cup olive oil
8 oz baby potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 medium bulb of fennel, finely chopped
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 cups of broth or water
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1 1/2 lbs skinless white fish,  cut in 2 inch pieces (I used local pickerel)*
2 tbsp. chopped fresh dill

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium high heat.  Cook potatoes until beginning to soften, around 3 minutes.  

2. Add fennel, garlic and season with salt and pepper.   Cook for 2 minutes, until fennel is soft, stirring occasionally.

3. Add wine, bring to a boil and reduce until almost evaporated.  Pour in 2 cups of broth.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, until potatoes are soft.  

4. Stir in fish and crème fraîche and simmer for 4 minutes, or until fish is just cooked through.   Sprinkle in the fresh dill, and more salt and pepper, to taste. 

Serve with lemon wedges, if desired (the recipe calls for this, but I actually prefer it with out the lemon) 

*I haven't tried it with anything but white fish, as per the recipe, but I think it would be just as delicious with other types of fish including trout, cold smoked trout or salmon, or even shrimp.  

Serves 4


Cucumber, Fennel and Ricotta Salad

In my humble opinion, this is a perfect early spring salad, especially for those of us who live somewhere where the sky and the ground seem irreverent towards the date on the calendar, and to our yearnings for sunshine and fresh food.  It's light and green, like spring, but calls for veggies that are available all year long:  avocado, fennel, cucumber and a handful of sprouts.  The light freshness satisfies my desire to move away from heartier winter veg like kale and squash, although it does little to curb my envy towards people living in warmer climates,  filling their faces with legitimate springtime delicacies.   

This recipe comes from award-winning British food writer and cook Nigel Slater's book Eat, in a section entitled On a Plate.  In the intro to the section he says,"Stuff that goes pretty much straight on to the plate often includes a raw ingredient at it's heart - something so perfect you want to eat it in all its glory."  In this recipe, I think the star is really the ricotta, especially if you make your own (which is surprisingly very simple) or you can get your hands on some that's really fresh.    I love how this salad uses a delicate creamy scoop of quality ricotta as a starting point for a lovely light meal.   In the case of this particular salad,  there are shavings of sweet anise scented fennel, a slight creamy textural variation from the avocado and a bright, refreshing crunch from cucumber and lemon, but this really could go in a variety of directions. Roasted or fresh cherry tomatoes, arugula, smoked trout or salmon, prosciutto, zucchini, pine nuts,  pistachios, mint or basil would all be welcome variations.  

So I will continue to make ricotta salad and eat "spring like" meals until the ground finally yields dusty pink stalks of rhubarb, pungent wild leeks and grassy green stalks of asparagus.  And when they finally, finally do appear I will most definitely feature them, in all their glory, on my plate. 

From Nigel Slater's Eat ( the original recipe is in The Guardian here)

2 tbsp. lemon juice
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
3 sprigs of fresh dill (I also added a bit of mint) 
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in chunks
Small bulb of fennel, shaved
1 avocado, thinly sliced
Several handfuls of sprouts
1 large scoop of ricotta (about 1/2 a cup)
Flakey sea salt
1 handful of shelled, smashed pistachios

Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic and dill in a medium size bowl.  Add in the cucumber, fennel and gently fold in slices of avocado.  Let this sit for about half an hour.

Add in several handfuls of sprouts and transfer to plates.  Top with a large scoops of ricotta, a sprinkle of pistachios and flakey sea salt.  Serve with more lemon on the side.  

Serves 2