The Chef's Take: Seafood and Tomato Stew from John Finger and Ron Stainer

Photo by: Rina Jordan ©2010 Rina Jordan Photography

Rina Jordan, 2010 Rina Jordan Photography

"With fish especially, I really like people being able to taste all the ingredients without covering them up with sauces and lots of fats and calories," says John Finger, the founding partner of  Hog Island Oyster Co. who first earned his reputation in the food world as an oyster farmer. An unpretentious seafood restaurant, Hog Island Oyster Co. is built around a buzzing raw bar in the iconic Ferry Plaza Building in downtown San Francisco.

The restaurant, which also has an outpost in Napa Valley, is the standard-bearer for exceptional seafood in the Bay area, where great chefs and Eden-like farmers markets abound. This stew -- satisfying, sharply flavored and brimming with beautiful seafood -- illustrates why, with delicious effect. Neither cream nor heavy flourishes distract diners from the shellfish's sweet and briny qualities. With the dish, which chef Ron Stainer invented at the Napa Hog Island, the focus is exactly where it ought to be: on the naturally lean seafood.

Though one can make the recipe year-round using fresh or dried beans and chard leaves, Stainer likes to swap in different varieties of fish depending on the season and what is best at the market. When winter gives way to spring, mussels appear in the bowl alongside the clams and squid because they are particularly plump in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, Stainer says.

Bound in a tomato-flavored broth with just enough vegetable matter to add extra depth and texture, the stew is pure pleasure. Small wonder the Hog Island crew can't keep up with demand. Next month, the San Francisco location is scheduled to open an expanded version of the restaurant. "In our current space, we were opening 1.25 million oysters a year," Finger says. "With our new space," which will have twice the footprint of the original, "we'll be doing at least double that."

Rustic Seafood Stew

Serves 4 to 6 people
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup garlic, roughly chopped
½ onion, chopped into small dice
4 individual Calabrian chiles, roughly chopped
¼ bunch Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dry oregano
1½ cups white wine
8 to 10 large canned tomatoes, seeded and roughly diced
2 pounds Manila or other small clams, rinsed
2 pounds Mediterranean mussels, rinsed, beards removed
2 pounds fresh squid, cleaned and cut into 1-inch strips
½ pound wild medium shrimp
2 pounds Rock Cod or similar white fish, cut into 1-inch cubes
Kosher salt, to season

Prepare the stew's base. Swirl 2 tablespoons olive oil into a medium pot set over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic, onion, chiles and parsley. Once the garlic is golden, after 1 to 2 minutes, add the oregano and 1 cup wine. Bring liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook until liquid reduces by half and add the tomatoes. Cook for 30 minutes more.

Once the base is built, make your soup. Heat the remaining oil in a large, lidded pot, set over medium high heat. Once hot, add all the fish and shellfish. Saute until the cod changes color and the clam shells start to open, about 2 minutes. Stir in remaining wine and simmer to reduce by half, about 1 minute more. Pour in the stew's base and add splashes of water to stretch the base if needed.

Cover the pot and allow ingredient to simmer together until clams fully open and fish is just tender, about 2 minute more. Season with salt to taste. Serve with grilled bread, if desired.

Kitty Greenwald is a Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer. She eats a lot for work and pleasure. Her column Slow Food Fast appears in the Wall Street Journal.

Photos by Rina Jordan (stew; John Finger) and Ed Anderson (Ron Stainer).  

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