The first time I ever made a seafood stew, it was a disaster. I overloaded a pot with fish and potatoes and left it on high heat for so long that half an hour later, the fish was so overcooked it resembled Sally Field’s performance in Not without My Daughter. The secret to Waxman’s remarkable fish stew (which he talked me through, improvisation ally, after a fisherman delivered an enormous portion of swordfish) is that you only need to cook it just enough.
Heat the olive oil in a medium pot on medium heat and add the garlic and shallot. Cook briefly, until aromatic, and then add the fennel. Season with salt and pepper and continue to cook, tossing occasionally, until tender. Add all the fish, season again, toss, then add the mussels, tomatoes, wine, lemon juice, and butter.
Cover the pan and shake. Cook for a minute or two, until the mussels open and the fish is just cooked inside. Pour onto a large platter and serve hot. * Waxman is very particular about how to smash garlic properly. Place a clove on the corner of the cutting board, hover the flat end of a chef’s knife over it, and then punch the blade with the bottom of your fist. The garlic should be smashed so thoroughly, it looks practically minced.
Nothing’s worse than finding grit in your muscles. To ensure that this doesn’t happen, soak the mussels in a bowl of cold water with a spoonful of flour in it an hour before cooking. The flour helps draw out the grit; rinse the mussels off before using. * When I asked Waxman what kind of white wine, he scoffed, “It doesn’t matter!” Though, I suspect, if prodded, he’d agree that a dry white is preferable to something fruity.