I had planned to make an oyster stew last night. I’d been craving it, and I wanted to continue this winter oyster kick I’m on, but I found no fresh live oysters at Hannaford, and I’m loath to use those little tubs of shucked dead ones since I got mild food poisoning from a prior experiment in cooking with them.
What I found instead were some fresh, good-looking New England cod, haddock, mussels, and sea scallops, so I bought them and came home and heated a lot of olive oil in a big thick-bottomed pot and in it I sauteed 4 chopped garlic cloves, 3 diced peeled carrots, 2 diced celery ribs, a diced leek, 4 minced shallots, a diced red pepper, 2 bay leaves, herbes de Provence, cayenne, saffron threads, salt, and black pepper.
When it was all limp and fragrant, I poured an entire bottle of white Bordeaux in there, perversely, in the spirit of happy excess, and because I wanted a lot of flavor. Then I added 4 ripe, peeled, cored, minced-to-a-mush tomatoes, 2 peeled, diced potatoes, 6 minced anchovy filets (to make up for lack of fish stock), and 4 cups of water. I let it all simmer, uncovered, till the wine cooked off and the potatoes were very soft.
While this all happened, I made Dingo do a thing I call the kangaroo pose, a doggy yoga idea where he sits up on his haunches with his paws in mine, looking into my eyes (this is supposedly good for the canine spine; he seems to enjoy it, anyway). Then I babbled at Brendan, who was trying to write, distracting him with great success, but only momentarily. Then I drank a small glass of rioja (for my health) and sang along, with gusto, to Van Dyke Parks’ fabulous, calypso-inspired album, “Discover America.”
When the broth was nicely simmered and cooked, I cut cod and haddock (a pound of each) into bite-sized pieces and added them to the soup along with more water, enough to cover everything plus a generous inch. I threw in an entire bunch of flat-leaf parsley, minced. Then I floated a big piece of butter on top, about two tablespoons, and stirred it in. While I cleaned and sorted and debearded the mussels, I let it all keep simmering. I tasted the broth and added more salt and pepper, and then, when the fish was cooked and beginning to fall apart, I added the half-pound of scallops and colander of mussels and covered the soup and let it simmer some more.
Coming back from New Orleans, especially when Michael was alive, but fittingly, also after his funeral just now, has always set up a feedback loop of twitching and jonesing and waiting for something to happen. Irrationally, kidlike, I wonder, where are the floats? Why am I not in a dive bar? Where did the Dixieland soundtrack go? There’s never any folding any of it back into real life – it all hangs there in my immediate memory, glistening and dark and louche as a curtain of wet silk, while all the real things, bills, laundry, clutter, weather, sit below like cinderblocks. (This is not, by the way, a complaint about my life. I love my life. It’s an observation about returning, in general, from New Orleans, on the assumption that we all feel this way.) Also, I got a two-day hangover from a three-day trip, which doesn’t seem fair or right or, frankly, particularly healthy.
About five minutes later, when the mussels were all opened and the scallops looked firm, I turned off the flame and ladled a cup of broth out of the pot into a mixing bowl. I whisked in half a cup (it was actually more, but in theory it was half a cup) of light cream then poured the liquid back into the pot, whisked, and called it done.
Brendan and I sat at the table and feasted on this luscious, decadent, rich-yellow, spicy, savory, clean-ocean-tasting thing. While we ate, Dingo sat at our feet and stared up with fixed intensity at us and our bowls, probably because we were moaning. It never helps when I point out to him that we humans don’t do that when he eats. We all know who gets better food. And he is no fool.