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Fish Stew with Fennel and Saffron

While the use of saffron elevates any dish to specialty status, this elegant stew is simple to prepare. Fennel seeds fortify the anise flavor, creating a taste more like that imparted by the wild fennel often used in Mediterranean cooking.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 tsp. saffron threads 
  • 2 Tbs. hot water
  • 4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1/4 cup chopped shallot 
  • 1/2 jalapeño chili, chopped 
  • 1 cup bottled clam juice 
  • 1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc 
  • 3 fresh thyme sprigs, or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme 
  • 1 bay leaf 
  • 1 orange zest strip, 3 inches long by 1 inch wide 
  • 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds 
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 fennel bulb 
  • 1 red bell pepper  
  • 1 red onion, chopped 
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, or more, to taste  
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste 
  • 1 firm white fish fillet such as halibut or cod, about 1 lb., cut into 4 equal portions 
  • 1/2 cup nonfat sour cream 
  • 2 Tbs. chopped fresh mint

Directions:

In a small bowl, combine the saffron threads and the 2 Tbs. hot water. Set aside for 20 minutes to soften the saffron and release its color.

In a Dutch oven or large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 2 tsp. of the olive oil. Add the shallot and jalapeño and sauté until the shallot is translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the clam juice, wine, thyme, bay leaf, orange zest, fennel seeds, saffron and its liquid and the 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes to blend the flavors.

Remove the broth from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Set aside. Discard the solids and rinse out the pot.

Cut the stalks and feathery leaves from the fennel bulb. Discard the outer layer of the bulb if it is tough, and cut away any discolored areas. Halve the bulb lengthwise and cut away any tough base portions. Cut each half lengthwise into 8 wedges. Remove the stem, seeds and ribs from the bell pepper. Cut the flesh into strips 1 1/2 inches long by 3/4 inch wide.

Add the remaining 2 tsp. olive oil to the rinsed pot and place over medium-high heat. Add the fennel, bell pepper and onion and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 4 minutes. Pour the reserved broth into the pot and stir in the salt and several grinds of pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the fish, pushing down on it to immerse it in the liquid. Simmer gently until the fish is opaque when tested with a fork at its thickest point, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Using a slotted spoon, place a piece of fish in the center of each warmed wide, shallow bowl. Lift the vegetables from the pot and divide evenly among the bowls. Ladle 1 cup of the broth from the pot into a small bowl. Whisk in the sour cream until combined. Pour this mixture back into the pot, stirring gently. Ladle as much of the broth into each bowl as desired. Garnish with the mint and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma, Essentials of Healthful Cooking, by Mary Abbott Hess, Dana Jacobi & Marie Simmons (Oxmoor House, 2003).