This morning, while sitting in on a graduate design seminar, I heard the ten-thousand pound phrase “idealistic usage occasion” bandied about by a market researcher. Googling this phrase produces zero exact matches, indicating that the guy probably invented it, but still – it’s an extremely useful phrase, because it refers to the fantasy that someone has when they see a product. So, for example, when I see an iPad Mini, I imagine myself laying around in my L.L. Bean men’s tartan flannel nightshirt for six hours straight looking at stuff on Pinterest; and when I look at an L.L. Bean men’s tartan flannel nightshirt, I imagine myself sipping hot chocolate in the dead of winter in Vermont and spending six hours straight looking at Pinterest; and when I look at Pinterest, about a hundred idealistic usage occasions start mating with each other in my head, making little baby idealistic usage occasions that cry and scream until I buy them a $350 cashmere throw.
My point is that market researchers are really on to something. When we see a neat thing, we often do imagine ourselves interacting with it in a way that supports our ideal vision of our lives and ourselves. And this is exactly what happens when I see a picture of a really beautiful meal – I imagine myself gathering ingredients, chopping, simmering, baking, plating, and tasting, in a Pinterest-worthy fantasy land of gustatory gratification. I mean, isn’t that kind of what all recipe bloggers do? The hard part, I think, is getting both the photograph and the flavor to match the fantasy. They so rarely do.
As the secret menu enters (sporadically) into its second year, I’ve been thinking about what defines the things I write and make here. I guess I like to think of the secret menu as a safe space for imperfection: imperfect photos, imperfect recipes, and all the imperfections that make JM and myself who we are (and, as it turns out, make us work as a couple). So at the time of year when most people are mulling over their New Year’s resolutions, trying to scramble that much closer to their ideal visions of themselves, I’ve decided to abandon idealism in favor of celebrating a slightly out-of-focus, missing-a-few-key-ingredients seafood stew that I made for my mother-in-law this past Sunday. Vive la déficience!
Luckily, my mother-in-law is way awesome and saw this stew’s finer points. Plus, if you use plenty of good olive oil and have thick slices of baguette for dipping, you are 90% of the way to an idealistic stew usage occasion.
(Imperfect but Delicious) Bouillabaisse
-1/2 cup olive oil
-1 medium onion, diced
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-1 celery stalk, chopped
-1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
-2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
-1 small bulb of fennel, trimmed and chopped (you can reserve the fronds for garnish)
-a pinch of saffron (optional)
-a 16 oz. can of chopped tomatoes
-3-4 cups of water or stock (fish stock is not easy to find, but works best)
-salt and pepper
-1/2 lb. squid, slices into rings
-1/2 lb. raw shrimp, deveined
-6-8 littleneck clams, scrubbed
-6-8 mussels, scrubbed
-3-4 sea scallops, rinsed and dried thoroughly
-1 good quality baguette, sliced into thick pieces
Fill the bottom of a Dutch oven or a large, deep skillet with the oil. Over medium-high heat, fry up your onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and potatoes, sprinkling a little saffron over them if you have it on hand. When the onions are translucent and the potatoes have softened a little (about 10-15 minutes), add the chopped tomatoes. You can use fresh tomatoes for this, of course, but it’s not necessary. Then add about 3-4 cups of water or stock. When the mixture starts bubbling, lower the heat to a simmer. Now let the liquid cook down a little, until the stew has reached a stew-like (rather than soup-like) consistency. Give it a taste. Does it need salt, pepper? Add that stuff. Make it delish!
The tricky part of this recipe, which is otherwise easy-peasy, is figuring out when to add the seafood. To make a straight-up, Frenchtastic bouillabaisse, you may want to add some nice chunks of boneless fish – I skipped that part, because I prefer seafood with a bit of chewiness. In any case, start with the firmer fish – in this case, the squid rings – to give them more time to simmer. Each time you add something, give the stew a gentle stir to cover the seafood.
After a few minutes, add the clams and mussels. When the shells start opening, add the scallops. The shrimp go in last, right when the clam and mussel shells have reached peak openness. As an aside, any mollusks that don’t open should be thrown the heck away.
Once the shrimp are pink, the stew is ready to serve. Use tongs to separate out the seafood into as many bowls as the people you’re serving. Then ladle in the veggies and broth. If you want to get fancy, you can use the reserved fennel fronds for garnish. Serve immediately, so you can dip the baguette slices into nice hot stew, close your eyes, and imagine you’re wearing a men’s flannel nightshirt. That always does it for me.