Saffron Fish Stew

Saffron is one of the world’s oldest spices and one of the most expensive.  Its name is derived from an Arab word which translates as yellow and it was used as a dye beginning with the Sumerians dating back to 2300 BC.  Saffron is common in cooking throughout Europe and was brought to the United States by the Pennsylvania Dutch who continue to use the spice in cooking today.  The saffron thread is actually the stigma of a crocus flower.  The flowers are cut in the morning, transported to the processing facility where the stigmas are separated from the flowers by hand, and then starts drying by early afternoon.  Each crocus flower has 3 red stigmas and it takes approximately 80,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron.  Saffron adds a unique color and floral aroma to food, with a unique earthy flavor that is impossible to replicate.

This recipe is a take on a traditional Spanish fish stew with ingredients we can find here on the Eastern Shore.  It starts with building a clear broth that is used to poach the rest of the ingredients.  It is definitely a special occasion meal and has a lot of steps.  It’s worth the effort.


As a note about the saffron.  We recently found out about Rumi Spice out of Chicago who have partnered with Afghan farmers to grow, harvest, and dry saffron grown in rural Afghanistan.  They are producing some of the finest in the world.  You can order saffron directly from Rumi Spice or also pick it up from us at Night Kitchen beginning in February.


Poaching Broth:

1 small fennel bulbs

1 white onion

1 celery stalk

1 medium onion

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon whole allspice berries

1 teaspoon whole coriander

1 teaspoon white peppercorn

White from one large egg, whisked lightly

2 quarts of water

1 lb fish bones or shells from 1 pound of shrimp (optional)

Coarsely chop all of the vegetables and add all of the vegetables and the spices to a stock pot.  Add in water and bring to a gentle simmer.  The goal here is to not allow the stock to boil but gently cook, covered, for about 90 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.  Fish bones or shrimp shells are optional but will add additional flavor.

Once the vegetables have cooked down, strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer.  You can line it with cheese cloth to help make sure the broth is clear.

Bring the broth to a roiling boil and pour in the whisked egg whites.  Turn off the heat and stir the egg whites around. This will further clarify the broth.  Pour through the strainer (line with a new piece of cheesecloth if desired).

Separate the broth into 2 sauce pans dividing evenly.

For the stew:

12 ounces of halibut or other flakey white fish.  Remove the skin and cut into 4 even servings

8 peeled and deveined shrimp

4 large sea scallops

1 medium fennel bulb, cut into quarters

4 radishes, trimmed and quartered.  If you can find them, Black Radishes are ideal

4 medium shitakes, cut into thin slices

1 large pinch of saffron (about 20 threads)

Salt and pepper, I used Aleppo pepper in this version.

Add the saffron to one of the pots of clarified stock and heat at low.  Reserve this until you are ready to serve.

Heat the second pot of stock keeping it below a boil.
Add the fish to the stock and poach until done.  I use the James Beard method – 11 minutes per inch of thickness of fish.  Remove the fish and place into large flat bottomed bowls and season with salt and pepper.  Store the bowls in a warm oven.

Add the shrimp and poach for 1 minute then add in the scallops and poach until done, about another 2 minutes.  Remove and arrange in the warm bowls.

Add the mushrooms to the poaching liquid and cook for about 4 minutes, remove and add to the warm bowls.

Poach the radishes and the fennel until done, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the stock and arrange in the bowls.

Ladle in about a cup of the saffron broth and serve, preferably with a good crusty bread and a nice rose.

Serves 4.

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