Eastern Carolina Fish Stew
By Vivian Howard
Many North Carolina restaurants, including those in Asheville listed below, will serve this stew Oct. 30–Nov. 5, with proceeds going to the victims of Hurricane Matthew. Donations can also be sent to www.lenoirgreeneunitedway.org with the tag #fishstew.
In Eastern Carolina when a group needs to raise money for a cause, they sell food. From church fellowship halls, volunteer fire departments, or community buildings, five times out of ten, the offering is something we call “fish stew.” Deceptively simple, our particular brand of stew is unique to the three counties around where I live. It starts with rendered bacon and ends with whole eggs that are cracked over top about five minutes before serving. A proper serving includes some fish (usually rockfish, sheepshead, or catfish), a few slices of potato, onions, a whole hard-poached egg, reserved crisp bacon for the top, and a slice of white bread to sop up what’s left of its tomato paste–laced broth.
I believe the tradition of cracking eggs over top came about when a resourceful farmer needed to stretch a stew further than the fish could take it. And because eggs were something most farmers had plenty of, they became the way to add heft and heartiness to an otherwise lean offering. What a happy accident that the thing thrown in to make it stretch, made it memorable.
1 pound sliced smoked bacon
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
3 pounds white or red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
2 pounds yellow onions, peeled, halved, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 garlic cloves, sliced (optional)
3 pounds fish steaks, about 3 ounces each, with bones intact (red drum, rockfish or sheepshead are good options)
1 fish head, rinsed well (optional)
2 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons chili flakes
1 dozen eggs
1 loaf white bread
Cut the bacon slices into 1-inch squares. Brown it in the bottom of an 8- to 10-quart Dutch oven or cast-iron pot. Once it’s crisp, remove it and reserve. Whisk the tomato paste into the bacon fat, making sure you scrape up all the scattlings left from browning the bacon.
With the heat off, begin layering the ingredients. Keep in mind you want to end up with three layers. Start with a layer of potatoes, followed by a layer of onions and of garlic, if using, followed by a layer of fish. Top the fish with a third of the salt and a third of the chili flakes. Repeat with two more layers. Fill the pot with enough water to just barely reach the top of the fish. If there’s a little fish peeking out over the top, that’s okay—better than if it’s swimming in water. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and bring it up to a boil slowly over medium heat. Once it starts to boil, reduce the heat and let it cook at a high simmer for about 15 minutes. Check the potatoes for doneness. They should be barely tender, not falling apart.
Taste the broth and add more salt if needed. Then, with the stew at a good simmer, add the eggs one by one in a single layer over the top of the stew. I like to crack the eggs into a small cup before I drop them in. What you’re trying to do is cook whole eggs in the broth. Once the eggs are cooked through, use a large ladle to portion the stew. A proper serving is at least one piece of fish, two potatoes, some onions, and an egg swimming in broth. Shower each bowl with some bacon and set it up with a slice or two of white bread.
Vivian Howard is chef and co-owner of Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room in Kinston, North Carolina. This recipe is reprinted from her cookbook, Deep Run Roots (Little Brown & Co., 2016).
Participating Asheville restaurants: Ambrozia, Avenue M, Blue Dream Curry House, Buffalo Nickel, Buxton Hall Barbecue, The Cantina, Carmel’s Kitchen and Bar, Chai Pani, Chupacabra Latin Café, Cúrate, Hilton Asheville, Kitchen 732 at Isis Music Hall, The Lobster Trap, Local Provisions, Nightbell, Rhubarb, The Rhu, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, Roux, Village Wayside, Vinnie’s, White Duck Taco Shop, and Zambra.