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Fish Stews: Comfort Without The Work

Nearly every culinary tradition has its own version [of fish stew], from the chowders of New England to the paprika-tinted broths of Portugal and the lemongrass and coconut milk melanges of Southeast Asia.

All food tastes good in fall, but of all my returning appetites the one I welcome most is the appetite for comfort foods. However, when I think about comfort foods — fried chicken, roast pork buns, beef stew — I realize that none of them can be made in less than two hours or with fewer than 12 steps. We may call them comfort foods, but whoever is responsible for getting them on the table is definitely in for a not-all-that-comfortable production.

There is, though, one way to have warmth, autumnal flavor and the soulful reassurance of a full-bodied broth without working yourself senseless in the kitchen: fish stew. I'm sure there are ways to make fish stew more difficult, but in my house it never takes longer than 45 minutes. My kind of fish stew involves more shopping than chopping, which means you can still find time to while away October's few remaining golden afternoons leaf-peeping, straightening out your garden or reading a novel on the porch with a cup of tea. Dinner will taste just as good as if you had bustled away all day like a squirrel, stockpiling winter acorns.

From a dining perspective, fish stew has a gentle, moderate sort of quality. Although I like a good food coma as much as the next person, I think it's unsporting to give in to one before Thanksgiving. Fish stew can be rich, and fish stew is eminently satisfying. Yet it doesn't leave your family groaning on a couch, unable to lend a helping hand or lift a helping finger at washing-up time.

The key to fish stews lies in the seasoning, which should be heady, strong and thick. It has to be, because you don't get to cook the delicate flesh of the fish for long: 10 minutes at most, for the thickest fillets. Fortunately, fish doesn't just cook quickly, it absorbs flavor quickly, too. While bouillabaisse, with its trumpeting notes of Pernod and saffron, is perhaps the iconic fish stew, it is only one of many. Nearly every culinary tradition has its own version, from the chowders of New England to the paprika-tinted broths of Portugal and the lemongrass and coconut milk melanges of Southeast Asia.

Do you have to have fish stock for a fish stew? Not necessarily, though it's nice if you happen to be able to get some easily. I've used everything from salted water to clam juice to chicken broth or mixtures of all of the above. How much you use determines whether your final result is more stewy or more soupy. I use widely varying amounts of liquid, depending on what sort of bread or potatoes or rice are traveling alongside the stew.

Which fish to use? Any fairly sturdy white fish provides a lucid medium through which the light of seasoning passes. Any kind will do — hake, haddock, pollock, halibut. (I try to go easy on the cod, though I love it, since it's endangered.) A brief simmer is all that's needed to get fresh white fish to take on the character of its surrounding flavor universe. Compared to fish, waiting for a chicken breast to take a hint from a marinade is like watching paint dry.

But then again, if you want to spend your russet-hued, sun-speckled, crisp and breezy fall afternoons watching paint dry, go right ahead. When you're done, you'll still have time to make fish stew, and savor it as well.

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T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.