Fish stew is flavored with fennel, tomatoes, leeks saffron and a big dollop of homemade aioli, stirred in at the end. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Abel Uribe

Swimming is a skill I mastered early. At the Y, the instructor stood on the deck holding one end of a long pole; I shivered in the water gripping the other. On cue — the piano hit “Alley Cat” distorted by waves and walls — she’d drag the pole and the pole would drag me, thrashing

Turns out there’s more to it. For instance, leaning “downhill.” Envisioning your body as a pencil, your nose as a golf club, and your elbow as a shark’s fin. Exhausting mental work.

Leading to deep thought. Like: How do fish make it look so easy?

After swim practice, I keep up the mental workout. Leaning into a chair, I envision my body warm, my nose steamed by stew and my elbow guiding a spoon. It’s rewarding work that calls on shallow thought. Like: Mmmmm.

SIMPLE FISH STEW

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

  • 1 pound rock fish fillet (or other firm white fish), skin and bones removed, sliced into 2-inch square chunks
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 fat pinch saffron threads
  • 1 cup fish or chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 leek, white and pale green portion sliced into matchsticks
  • 1 fennel bulb, halved, thinly sliced (chop and reserve 2 tablespoons fronds)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup canned tomatoes
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Aioli, see recipe
  • 4 thick slices French bread, toasted

1. Season: Toss fish chunks with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Chill.

2. Steep: Crumble saffron into the broth and set aside.

3. Simmer: In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium. Tumble in leeks and fennel. Season with ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper and the cayenne. Cook until soft and fragrant, about 12 minutes. Stir in tomatoes. Cook until mixture thickens, about 8 minutes. Stir in broth and wine. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 5 minutes.

4. Poach: Add fish. Cook until just done, about 5 minutes. Pull pan off heat. Stir in 1-2 tablespoons aioli.

5. Serve: Scoop stew into 2 bowls. Sprinkle with fennel fronds. Serve with toasted bread and more aioli.

Aioli: Crack 1 egg into the food processor fitted with the plastic blade. Pull out any green shoots from 2 cloves garlic; mash with ½ teaspoon salt. Add to the egg, along with 2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice. Swirl pale, about 15 seconds. With the machine running, slowly — at first drop by drop, then in a thin stream — drizzle in ½ cup canola oil and ¼ cup olive oil. Scrape into a glass jar and chill.

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