A Sumptuous Seafood Stew

A Chesapeake Bay weekend serves up good sailing, a spectacular sunset, and a simmering stew to top it off. "People and Food" from our March 2010 issue

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St. Michael's Seafood StewLynda Morris Childress

Shivering in the early morning cold, I sipped coffee and waited for sunrise. My friend Carl and I were anchored in Dividing Creek, just off the Wye River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Carl and I'd skipped Friday-afternoon work and jumped aboard his Island Packet 32, Sea Gypsy, in Rock Hall, hoping to make it to a safe anchorage before a late-September storm moved in. The tides were right, so we headed directly through Kent Narrows, dropping the hook just as the sun set.

In our hurry to get under way, I'd trusted him to provision the boat for our weekend sojourn, so I was underwhelmed when he pulled out a loaf of bread and a package of cold bologna for dinner. Getting on the water for a weekend was very important to Carl, even with a storm approaching, but obviously haute cuisine wasn't a high priority on his list.

The front hit at about 2200, with lashing rains and 45-knot winds, but the anchor held tight in the Chesapeake muck, and by morning, all that was left of the storm was a brisk wind blowing cold out of the north. I made it through another cold sandwich for breakfast, then insisted on stopping in St. Michaels for additional provisions before we headed out. At the local market, I grabbed fresh scallops, shrimp, fish, clams, a decent wine, a fennel bulb, and some other items. At the last minute, I decided to add some saffron: expensive, but worth it.

That afternoon was one of those rare Chesapeake days when the wind blows strong, but not enough to aggravate the chop; the sky is bright blue, and the sailing is fantastic. We sailed all day and eventually headed up the Chester River to Grays Inn Creek, perhaps the loveliest spot in the entire Chesapeake. While a seafood stew simmered on the stove, we sat in the evening light and watched blue herons stand motionless along the shoreline, waiting for dinner to swim by. Geese and ducks paddled past the boat. As the sun dipped behind the western shore, two deer appeared for an evening drink.

Carl raised his glass. "This," he said, waving his hand across the anchorage, "is what it's all about-a grand day of sailing, a spectacular anchorage, a good wine, and a beautiful sunset. What more could a guy ask for?"
"Maybe a good meal!" I answered, as I hustled below to serve up bowls of seafood stew.

St. Michaels Seafood Stew

1 fennel bulb, diced
1 onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
Olive oil or butter for sauteing
32 ounces chicken broth
6 ounces tomato paste
Healthy shot of white wine (optional)
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon saffron
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 cup mushrooms, sliced
1 pound combined seafood (white fish, clams, scallops, deveined shrimp)

In a saucepan, saute the fennel, onion, and garlic in olive oil or butter until soft. Add broth and tomato paste and heat to just below the boiling point. Add wine. Season with thyme and saffron and let simmer at least 10 minutes. Season to taste with the salt and pepper. Saute mushrooms in olive oil or butter and add to broth.
Add clams to broth first. Simmer for 10 minutes, making sure shells open completely. If not, remove and discard. Cut fish into small fillets and add to broth. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add scallops and shrimp and simmer another 10 minutes. Don't overcook! Garnish with chopped fennel fronds. Serve with French bread. Serves three to four.