A bowl of this stew is like a tiny little trip to the Mediterranean. It’s unbelievably easy, but I would serve it to guests in a heartbeat (and it would be a pretty special Mother’s Day lunch or dinner). It’s hearty, but still so light and clean and simple.
The saffron is optional, mostly because of cost. Saffron is a wonderful but pricy spice; it’s made from the stamens of crocuses, which might not sound delicious, but it adds a flavour that is at once elusive, aromatic and deep. And a little goes a long way just a pinch of saffron adds so much dimension to the soup.
You can absolutely positively serve the stew as is, with no extra adornment besides the shredded basil. Traditionally, in the south of France, this type of fish stew or soup is served with rouille, a bread-thickened sauce featuring peppers and seasonings. It’s usually also accompanied by bread, and the sauce can be dolloped on the bread, and then floated in the stew so the sauce swirls into the liquid. As an unconventional but practical shortcut, you can stir a little bit of harissa or other chili paste into a mixture of sour cream and mayonnaise for a spicy-creamy approximation of rouille.
But truly, once the fragrance of this stew, both warmly and brightly flavoured, rises from the bowl, the only accompaniment you’ll be looking for is a spoon.
PROVENCAL FISH STEW
45 minutes start to finish
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small bulb fennel, cored, quartered and chopped (about 1 cup)
1 onion, chopped
1 zucchini, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
Pinch saffron threads (optional)
2 Yukon Gold potatoes (about 8 ounces total), scrubbed or peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice
1 1/2 pounds flaky white fish, such as cod, scrod or halibut
1 orange, zested and juiced
3 tablespoons halved pitted black olives
2 tablespoons torn fresh basil leaves
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pot over medium heat. Add the fennel and the onions, and saute for 5 minutes until they start to become tender. Add the zucchini and the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and saute for another 3 minutes, until all of the vegetables start to become tender. Add the white wine, and stir to scrap up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Add the tomatoes with their juice, the broth, thyme and saffron, and bring to a simmer; add the potatoes and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper, and sear the filet on both sides, for 5 to 7 minutes per side, until the fish is just barely cooked through (it depends on the thickness of the fish). It’s fine if it falls apart a bit. Remove and set aside.
When cooled slightly, use a fork to break the fish into 1-inch chunks. Add them to the pot along with the orange zest and juice, and olives, stirring gently to combine.
Serve hot with slivered basil on top of each portion.