Fish and Seafood Stew
roma tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
2 c. water or 1/2 c. stock and 1 1/2 c. water
a few chunks of saltwater fish filets
a handful of frozen or raw shrimp
3 frozen mussels
a handful of mushrooms, past their prime from sitting too long in the fridge
fresh basil leaves
extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 chopped garlic cloves
1. Open the fridge when the digits on your microwave scramble to 7:00. It is important not to know what you want from it, so that for dessert you may claim the satisfaction of having begun with nothing and ended up with something.
2. Answer some questions: What did you eat earlier in the day? What have you not eaten in a while? Are your toes cold? (Canned minestrone). Are you content, beyond what you are used to lately? (Two pieces of toast: smashed avocado on one, green peas heaped on the other). Are you restless, but not enough to deviate from comfort? (Curry udon with pork). You live alone now. You answer only to yourself.
3. Minestrone, with its connection to Tuscan austerity—the soup, after all, has its origins in scraps and alimentary pulp—quickly loses its appeal. Everything you know about eating well you owe to the six months you spent cash-strapped in Italy, where meals were daily puzzles of extracting maximum flavors from minimal ingredients. But you don’t owe that country anything anymore, least of all your memories of it. Thankfully, cooking is a practical exercise.
4. Speaking of practical, take two vitamin gummies. These are your appetizers. Remember, there is nothing noble in rejecting modern medicine. Your body, too, is made up of compounds you can neither name nor define.
5. Reach for the Roma tomatoes on your counter. Tomatoes always make a solid base. Slice them into thin wedges.
6. Chop the garlic cloves. There are very few recipes you know that don’t begin well with garlic. Practice the way you have seen your father maneuver a knife like a seesaw—a skilled man’s mezzaluna—until fresh basil and parsley leaves become confetti. Heat some olive oil in a pot.
7. Open the fridge again. Look inside, systematically from top to bottom, connecting the dots: main course—cod filet; flavoring particle—mushroom. You begin to see the formula for some kind of fish soup coming together. It won’t be the velvety, milky white broth from your childhood in Hong Kong, but if this succeeds in its own right, you will never forget how it was thrown together by accident, under a spell of complete self-possession. (Your father insists the white is simply a matter of frying the fish first before simmering for hours; you wonder how many children, even as adults, depend on food as sources of unconditional trust.)
8. Suddenly recall that the oil has been heating. Throw the chopped garlic into the pan. Turn down the heat if it browns too quickly. Add half of the parsley and basil leaves and toast for flavor.
9. Add the tomatoes. Let them break down before adding the liquid, then simmer while you wash and prepare the rest of the ingredients: shrimp, a reward for not having eaten out all week, thawed quickly under running water and patted dry; and mussels from the back of the freezer—to think that you almost had canned minestrone. Season the fish with salt and pepper.
10. Open the fridge again. Sigh. Pour yourself a glass of wine from a box.
11. Add fish and seafood to the pot and simmer for about five minutes (set a timer). Once done, sprinkle in the remaining parsley and basil. Ladle into your favorite soup bowl and drizzle olive oil to finish. If the drizzle turns into a puddle, soak it up with crusty bread.
12. Do not let the soup go cold. Do not linger on whether something is false if it’s fleeting, although you may make it true by taking a photo and sending it to your parents. They will not recognize this incarnation of what you both call fish stew, but they will be proud that you finally put last Christmas’s Costco gift card to use by stocking up on frozen seafood. (Do not mention the hour-long, three-transfer commute). Do not choke. Do not give into nostalgia if it has to do with what’s missing in the present rather than which pasts you can recreate in the future. This is, after all, only one of many, many evenings when you still believe that being less sentimental will save you from disappointment, from falling in love, and from other realities predicated on what can’t be devoured alone.
Jaime Chu (@j__mechu) is a writer and translator from Hong Kong currently living in Brooklyn. She will eat all your noodles.