Easy, Sustainable Seafood Stew (with variations)

Here’s a method for making a quick seafood stew that’s both sustainable and perfect for casual summer dining. No need to turn the oven on or fuss for hours in the kitchen.

Sustainable seafood is a complex topic. Even if you conscientiously refer to the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, you’ll likely still encounter grey areas and gaps in information.

Just a few of the common problems:

1. Species are often misnamed at fish counters; for example: rockfish is commonly referred to as red snapper, which is endangered. And while some Northern California rockfish are plentiful, others are not.

2. Sustainability often depends on where and how a fish was caught (information that isn’t usually available).

3. Farmed seafood can be farmed poorly or environmentally responsibly. Without visiting the operation, you’ll never know.

4. Not all types of seafood make it on to those little wallet cards, so you’ll often find yourself left in the dark.

Thankfully, there are a few fairly sure bets in the world of sustainable seafood. And they happen to make great seafood stew!

US Farmed clams, oysters, and mussels:

Mollusk aquaculture has low input (feed) requirements, if any, and mollusks are low on the food chain, (and consequently low in environmental toxins), fast reproducing, and plentiful

California squid:

Our local squid comes from a sustainable fishery and is also quick to reproduce and low in toxins. Make sure you buy California squid and clean it yourself. If you buy cleaned squid, it’s entirely possible that it was caught here, shipped to China, processed, and shipped back. Not so great from a carbon footprint point of view. Plus the fresh (never frozen stuff) just tastes better. Read this post for instructions on how to clean them.

DIY Delicious includes one recipe for sustainable seafood stew, but I like to use the basic technique and vary my stew according to my mood, the season, or what’s in the market. We made the stew pictured above in a cooking class I taught at River Myst Haven in Healdsburg, CA. It was a hit!

Here’s the basic recipe with variation suggestions:

Sustainable Seafood Stew

You can make this stew as basic or as luxurious as you like. The basic broth is easy, quick, and invaluable in the kitchen. You can vary the alcohol, adding anything from wine, to beer, to Pernod. For a Southeastern US flair, add Old Bay Seasoning. For a classic Mediterranean flavor, add saffron. If tomatoes are in season, add them. If not, leave them out. You can vary the aromatics and herbs however you like. You can even add chiles, lemongrass, and coconut milk and go in an entirely different direction. Experiment away. For serving this version, I like to float baguette croutons spread with a homemade lemony, garlic aioli in each individual bowl.

Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for croutons

1/2 medium onion, (or 3 leeks), roughly chopped

1 celery rib, roughly chopped

1 medium carrot, roughly chopped

1/2 small fennel bulb, chopped

2 garlic cloves, left unpeeled and smashed with the side of the knife blade


1 pound fish heads and bones (from a sustainable, local fish—I use wild salmon in season)

1/2 cup dry white wine (or Pernod)

1/2 cup fresh, chopped Roma tomatoes (optional in season)

3 or 4 sprigs fresh parsley (and/or other fresh herbs)

6 black peppercorns

Pinch fennel or coriander seeds

A pinch of saffron (optional)

2 pounds mussels, washed and debearded

2 pounds clams, washed

1 pound squid, cleaned (see Note)

Freshly ground black pepper

In a medium soup pot over medium heat, warm the 1/4 cup oil. Add the onion, (or leeks) celery, carrot, fennel, garlic, chiles (if using), tomatoes (if using), saffron (if using), and a few pinches of salt. Let the vegetables cook gently until soft and aromatic, about 10 minutes.

Add the fish heads and bones, 5 cups water, the wine, (or other alcohol), parsley, (or other herbs) peppercorns, and fennel (or coriander) seeds and bring to a boil. (this is when you would add lemongrass, if you were using it) Skim any scum from the top and lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer until fragrant and the broth begins to color, about 20 minutes.

Remove the broth from the heat and strain it. Return the broth to the pot, taste, and adjust the salt, pepper, and acid by adding a little more white wine (this is when you would add the coconut milk if you were using it) if desired.

Add the clams and mussels, cover, and simmer until they just open, 3 minutes or so. Add the squid and turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for 30 seconds. Discard any unopened clams or mussels and ladle the stew into 4 warmed, shallow bowls.

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