A soup from the sea

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 01-17-2023 4:42 PM

 

Last week I wrote about National Soup Month and gave readers a simple soup recipe of my own. This week I return to the topic with an expert on soups I don’t make very often, those involving fish and seafood.

That expert is Craig Fear of Southampton. Fear’s newest book, “New England Soups from the Sea” (Countryman Press, 296 pages, $25.95), came out a few months ago. He has written three other books, two of them directly addressing soup.

As well as a connoisseur of flavors, Fear is an expert in how those flavors and the foods that convey them can help us. He’s a nutritional therapy practitioner. I asked him in a recent conversation what that occupation entails.

“Consulting with people over various health issues they have. It involves helping them with digestive health issues,” he said.

In fact, he told me, his love of soup started with his work as an NTP. “I would encourage (my clients) to make their own bone broth, which is beneficial for many digestive-health issues,” he explained.

His passion for soup was further jump-started by travels to Southeast Asia over the years. There he was amazed by the variety and complexity of the soups he tasted. His first book, “Fearless Broths and Soups,” stemmed from that experience.

“I thought it would be a one-off,” he laughed. “I didn’t really expect it to turn into another book.” He went on to describe his career as “one detour after another.” He has clearly enjoyed all the delicious detours.

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Although Fear was reluctant to choose a favorite soup from the many he has made over the years, he was willing to acknowledge that the current book features his favorite type of soup, soup that is based on fish and/or seafood.

“Soups from the Sea” is subtitled “Recipes for Chowders, Bisques, Boils, Stews, and Classic Seafood Medleys.” It begins with a couple of extremely useful non-recipe sections. The author dons his therapist/educator cap to counsel readers on how to shop for the highest quality, most sustainable fish and seafood.

He describes tools for identifying CSFs (community-supported fisheries) and reliable fishmongers.

Although our area is a little too far from the coast to support many CSFs, they can be found nearby in Orange and in Brattleboro, Vermont. Fear told me that he can also find a variety of fish and seafood at the River Valley Coop, at North Shore Seafood in Northampton, and even often at his local Big Y supermarket.

“New England Soups from the Sea” goes on to describe many of the types of fish and seafood that can be found in New England, several of which were unknown to me before I read the book. That general lack of knowledge is something Fear directly addresses.

He helpfully explains which varieties can be substituted for others. He likes to suggest that readers try new fruits of the sea as much as possible.

His recipes show that, just as New England has many lesser known types of seafood to offer, it has also spawned many lesser known seafood soups and stews.

“I have 80 recipes in the book. A lot of people are kind of surprised,” he told me. “Most people would struggle to name more than two, New England Clam Chowder and Lobster Bisque. But if you really dig deeper, you’ll see there is a huge history and tradition of dozens more.”

He describes regional variations of several recipes. I had no idea before reading the book that a Connecticut Clam Chowder or a Rhode Island Clam Chowder or a Maine Clam Chowder (and others!) existed in addition to the Classic and Manhattan versions.

Fear’s favorite among these chowders, he told me, may be the Portuguese Clam Chowder; the book pays special attention to the Portuguese influence on New England fishing and seafood cuisine. “I absolutely adore this soup,” he told me.

I look forward to trying that chowder and many other dishes from Fear’s book. It was snowing the day I read “New England Soups from the Sea,” however, so I was most immediately tempted by what may be the ultimate seafood comfort food, Oyster Stew.

The recipe below makes a quick and easy winter meal.

Traditional Oyster Stew

Fear writes, “In the days when oysters were plentiful and cheap, oyster stew was a staple dish up and down the East Coast of the United States. Prior to World War II, cookbooks were replete with oyster recipes.

“It is thought that the popularity of oyster stew gained steam when mid-19th-century Irish immigrants, following their Catholic customs to avoid eating meat during certain religious holidays, adapted a traditional stew recipe that called for ling, a fish not found in New England waters.

“Oysters have a chewy texture and briny flavor that is similar to ling, so the adaptation was a natural one and oyster stew was here to stay. The dish became customary to consume on Christmas Eve in many Irish-American communities, and it caught on around the country as a tasty, simple oyster dish.

“The key to a good oyster stew is simplicity. The shining star is the oyster liquor that flavors the milk or cream with an intense briny flavor that needs little adornment. Typically, a little cayenne, paprika, or celery salt might be added, but they are not necessary.

“Finally, there is one addition that I highly recommend, and that is a little dollop of butter. Yes, butter. Old-school New Englanders know this well (and they don’t fear butter). It may sound odd to add butter to an already rich, milky stew, but it adds an extra depth of creamy richness that can be oh so very satisfying.”

Ingredients:

1 dozen Eastern oysters

2 tablespoons butter

1 small yellow onion or 2 to 3 shallots, about a half cup, diced into ½-inch pieces

2 cups whole milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream

Optional Seasonings to Taste:

a pinch of paprika, cayenne and/or celery salt

freshly ground black pepper

a dollop of butter

Instructions:

Shuck the oysters and reserve the liquor.

Heat the butter over medium heat in a small to medium saucepan. Add the onions and sauté for about 5 minutes or until softened.

Add the oysters and sauté until the edges start to curl, a few more minutes.

Add the reserved oyster liquor and milk and bring to a very gentle simmer for a few more minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve immediately. Ladle into individual bowls and add optional seasonings to taste.

Serves 2.

Used with permission from “New England Soups from the Sea” by Craig Fear.

TinkyWeisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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