Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lemongrass and Coconut Seafood Chowder

It looks like Mark Lane, owner of Poppa's Fish, has found his calling. Sure, he's been selling seafood at an ever-expanding number of farmers markets in San Diego, but little by little he's also been expanding his culinary repertoire. Starting first with ceviche, sea urchin, and freshly shucked oysters topped with homemade pico de gallo, he's since brought out the grill and is now making dishes like scallop and ginger tacos, shrimp chile rellenos, jalapeño shrimp poppers, and lemon pepper grilled mussels.

Everything is simple but beautifully cooked. And now, he's partnered with the Ryan Smith of Bitchin' Sauce, having him in his stall at the Hillcrest Farmers Market to sell their delicious almond-based sauces and using the sauces to make "Bitchin' Tacos."

It was there I tasted his tacos and the mussels and was so inspired on that chilly first day of spring that I decided to buy a yellowtail fillet and a rock crab to make a seafood chowder.

One of the benefits of getting to know your vendors is that you can ask plenty of questions. While I'd shown lobsters the end of life, for some reason I hadn't done the same with crabs. Lane stepped away from the grill to give me a brief crab anatomy lesson (crabs with a wide chest plate are females and mine was definitely female), explain how to hold it to avoid the painful pinch of claws, and how to clean it once it was cooked.

The flavors of chowder recipe were inspired by my experience the day before with Su-Mei Yu of Saffron, who taught a marvelous hands-on cooking class in the outdoor space above Saffron. I already had lemongrass, ginger, and coconut milk at home. I picked a lime from my tree and cut it the way she demonstrated to get the most juicy yield. I don't know that Su-Mei would approve of exactly what I did, but I hope she wouldn't argue with the results. The flavors are fresh and tangy and the chowder was infused with a tender heat that complemented the creamy coconut milk and sweet seafood. It was a perfect dinner for a stormy night.

Lemongrass and Coconut Seafood Chowder
Serves 4

There are a lot of ingredients here, but they all serve to build flavor. Instead of using plain water when cooking the vegetables, use the water the crabs are boiled in to create a flavorful base for the chowder.

4 cups cold water
12 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into bite-size chunks
1 medium onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, seeded and diced
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and cut into chunks
2 jalapeño peppers, diced (for more heat, add 1 or 2 Thai peppers)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1, 4-inch stalk of lemongrass (the soft part), thinly sliced
½ inch of a knob of ginger to equal 1 tablespoon, peeled and minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Zest of 1 lime (reserve the lime for juice)
1, 14-ounce can coconut milk (I use “light.”)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
Juice from 1 lime
2 live rock crabs
1/2 pound skinless firm-flesh raw fish (such as cod, sea bass, halibut, yellowtail), cut into bite-size pieces
1 pound raw mussels, shrimp or calamari – or combination of them, cleaned
1 cup Asian greens, chopped (optional)
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped

Pour water into a medium-size soup pot and bring to a boil, then carefully add the crab. Cover and cook the crab for 10 to 15 minutes. Pull the crab out and let cool, saving the water for cooking the rest of the ingredients. When the crab is cool enough to handle, pull out the meat from the body and claws, also saving the legs.

Add all the rest of the ingredients (except the seafood, greens, lime juice and cilantro) to the pot with the hot crab water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the potatoes are just tender (about 15 minutes).

Transfer 2/3 of the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree.

Return the puree to the pot with the rest of the mixture. Add the seafood (including the crabmeat and legs) and greens to the saucepan. Cover and simmer until the seafood is cooked (the fish should be opaque, the mussels open, the shrimp pink).

Squeeze in lime juice from the reserved lime and stir in cilantro, saving some for garnish.

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