Eastern North Carolina Style Shrimp and Fennel Stew with Poached Eggs, Potatoes and Bacon

The Dutch oven is the workhorse of my kitchen. It is the one I reach for when boiling water or making any soup or stew, like this fish stew, thick with onions, potatoes, poached eggs, and a rich tomato-y, bacon-laced broth. This dish defines both my childhood and my region —  eastern North Carolina. For me, it’s the eggs that make the stew special and distinct from all the other seafood stews of the world. But I’ll admit that as a kid, the white bread used for sopping up the leftover broth was by far my favorite part. There’s no denying though that whole poached eggs bobbing among chunks of fish and potato so big you need a fork to eat them add decadence and distinction to what might otherwise seem clumsy and overly rustic. 

In my version I’ve abandoned some of eastern North Carolina’s fish stew rules. Instead of using whole fish complete with bones, head and skin for flavor and body, I’ve chosen to make a stock using shrimp shells, lots of aromatics and fennel. And rather than layering the stew and never ever stirring it, I sweat my onions, fennel and garlic, toast my tomato paste and generally take all the steps you would take to make a complex-flavored soup or stew. Also sometimes to my chagrin, I don’t sop anything up with white bread anymore, but I certainly won’t look down on the decision to use good old Wonder slices in lieu of the croutons I’ve suggested. 

The attributes I’ve kept from the original eastern North Carolina fish stew though are what I see as the backbones of the whole shebang. Rendering bacon before I do anything else sets a smoky background for the broth and creates a crunchy punctuation for the top of the finished dish. Adding thick slices of white potato and lots of yellow onion really create the “meat” of the dish. And carefully dropping in whole eggs as the stew simmers gently brings the whole thing home for me. I think it will for you too.

8 ounces, sliced smoked bacon 
2 medium yellow onions, diced
6 garlic cloves, sliced 
1 tablespoon salt, divided, plus more to taste, if needed
2 heads fennel, thinly sliced, (stalks reserved for stock, fronds reserved for garnish)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large sprig rosemary
½ teaspoon chili flakes
8 cups (2 quarts) shrimp stock (recipe below)
2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, shells reserved for stock
1 teaspoon ground black pepper 
6 to 12 large eggs
Croutons, optional

Cut the bacon slices into 1-inch squares. Brown it in the bottom of a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven or cast iron pot. Once it’s crisp, remove it and reserve. Add the onions, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt. Sweat for about 3 minutes or until translucent. Add the fennel and cook an additional 3 minutes. Whisk in the tomato paste and allow it to brown slightly. Add the potatoes, lemon zest, rosemary, chili flakes, 1 teaspoon salt and the stock. If the stock doesn’t cover the potatoes by 2 inches, add water to do so.

Over very low heat, bring the stew up to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender. Meanwhile, toss the shrimp with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper. 

Once the potatoes are just barely tender, raise the heat slightly and bring the stew up to a boil. Crack each egg into a small bowl and carefully drop each egg onto the top of the stew. Take care not to break the yolks or stir the eggs into the stew. You want whole eggs to poach on top. After about three minutes, drop the seasoned shrimp in around the eggs. Once the shrimp are submerged, turn off the heat and let the whole thing sit for 3 more minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust with additional salt and perhaps some lemon juice. 

To serve, make sure each bowl gets an egg, some potatoes and plenty of shrimp. Shower with the reserved bacon, fennel fronds and croutons if you have them. If not, do your best to find some sort of bread for soaking up the broth.

Yield: 6 servings

Shrimp Stock
1 cup yellow onion, diced
Reserved stalks from fennel (above)
2 stalks celery
2 medium carrots
5 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Reserved shells from 2 pounds shrimp (heads too if available)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 bay leaves
2 cups white wine
2 quarts water

Use the grater-blade attachment of your food processor to grate the onion, fennel, celery, carrot, and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor or have lost the attachments, chop the vegetables very small. Set them aside. In a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shrimp shells and cook, stirring, until they turn a deep crustacean pink and are lightly browned in spots. Add the grated vegetables and continue cooking for about 2 minutes or until the pan is dry. Stir in the tomato paste and the bay leaves. Cook an additional 30 seconds. Add the wine and bring it all up to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes or until it is slightly reduced and the winey aroma is gone. Then add the water. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Strain the stock and discard the shells.

Yield: 2 quarts