It all started when Vivian Howard, Chef and Co-Owner of Chef & the Farmer and Boiler Room in Kinston, NC put out a call to folks in the restaurant industry. Then Katie Button, Chef and Co-Owner of Curate and Nightbell in Asheville, NC forwarded the call to Asheville area industry folks and got a big response. See the Fish Stew recipe at the end of this post.
Chef Katie Button’s message:
“I am writing to you in regards to an important CALL TO ACTION! Eastern North Carolina has been severely impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Many homes are still under water, businesses are shut down, mold will take over and destroy what is left, and no one is talking about the seriousness of the issue. This is our state and many of our friends and families or friends of friends are affected.
Vivian Howard, chef and owner of The Chef and the Farmer and Boiler Room in Kinston, NC, approached me with a way that we, the restaurant community, can come together and make a difference to help those in need. Please read Vivian’s call to action proposed below. At Cúrate and Nightbell we will be serving fish stew from October 30 to November 5 and donating our profits from that dish. We will also be putting Vivian’s story and call to action on an envelope to explain the effort so that our diners in addition to ordering the fish stew in our restaurants can make an additional charitable contribution should they desire to. Advantage Printing is donating a certain amount of envelopes for this purpose so please if you decide to participate let me know and we can share the envelopes. Thank you!”
Chef Vivian Howard’s original call to action:
“Dear Friends, many of you know that parts of Eastern North Carolina are flooded as a result of Hurricane Matthew. After more than a week, the water has not receded and parts of my already challenged region face unprecedented devastation and a seemingly insurmountable rebuild. As a member of the food and beverage industry, an industry that increasingly goes to bat for those in need, I’d like to propose a way we, as an extended community, can help a place and a people in dire straits. Here’s the idea:
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, 5 times out of ten, the offering is something we call “fish stew.” Deceptively simple, our particular brand of stew is unique to the 3 counties around where I live. It starts with rendered bacon and ends with whole eggs that are cracked over top about 5 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.
That’s sort of the genesis of this idea. What if we as restauranteurs and chefs offered our own version of Eastern Carolina’s fish stew- rendered in giving, stewed in storytelling and finished with substance? What if we told our guests about Eastern Carolina’s food fundraisers, stew stretched by eggs and my region’s flood. What if we sold that stew as a special for one week- beginning October 30 through November 5– and donated the proceeds to help a community while telling stories that exalt its culture? Please join me in making this “what if” a reality.
If you choose to participate, and I hope you do, please consider sharing this message with like-minded people in the industry and beyond. My hope is that we not only help Eastern Carolina recover, we help it thrive. Make donations at www.lenoirgreeneunitedway.org with the tag #fishstew. Thanks, Vivian”
Looks like participating (serving Fish Stew or participating in some other way) Asheville restaurants as of this writing are: Ambrozia, Avenue M, Blue Dream Curry House, Bouchon, Buffalo Nickel, Buxton Hall Barbecue, The Cantina, Carmel’s Kitchen and Bar, Chai Pani, Chupacabra Latin Café, Cúrate, Hilton Asheville, Karen Donatelli Bakery & Cafe, Kitchen 732 at Isis Music Hall, The Lobster Trap, Local Provisions, Nightbell, Okie Dokies Smokehouse, Rhubarb, The Rhu, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, Roux, Ultimate Ice Cream, Village Wayside, Vinnie’s, White Duck Taco Shop, and Zambra.
This recipe* mirrors the Deep Run classic, but some people add flourishes like fish heads, garlic, sausage, shrimp, and additional spices. In the words of my friend Warren, “I’ve seen it done every which-a-way.” In that spirit, don’t get caught up with specific knife cuts, portion sizes, or equipment. If you want to add something extra, add it.
What makes this stew unique is the layering of the ingredients, the water level, the type of fish, the cooking time, the way you add the eggs, and the soft white sandwich bread for sopping up the broth. Fish Stew Serves 12
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.
*This recipe is reprinted from her cookbook, Deep Run Roots (Little Brown & Co., 2016).