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Seafood stew as an easy way to travel

The mingling of its cultural flavors offer a midwinter adventure.

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Fish and tomato stew/Newscom

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Who says seafood stew can only be enjoyed on Christmas Eve? No one tells a man from Marseille that he can only enjoy a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, the Provencal city's most celebrated dish, on special occasions such as Bastille Day. So why should a Bostonian, with a similar abundance of fabulous fresh seafood at her doorstep, only cook up a steaming pot of local fish, clams, or lobster on Dec. 24?

I've resolved for 2009 to move this dish beyond its holiday tradition. Like roast turkey and all its delectable trimmings, seafood stew is just too good to savor only once a year.

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Seafood stew comes in so many different incarnations that one can never grow bored of it. Without plunking down a cent for a plane ticket, any determined cook could sample the world's cuisines right at home, touring Asia with stews from Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, which might incorporate curry, coconut milk, and fresh lime juice; or the Mediterranean with seafood stews from France, Spain, and Italy that feature olive oil, garlic, and sometimes saffron. Of course, many other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean, Mexico, and North Africa, also boast excellent seafood stews.

Thus, the recipe options for a satisfying seafood stew are wide. To simplify, it helps to follow the lead of your own palate, intuitively choosing recipes that appeal to your taste buds. Pleasing others with your cooking will follow naturally.

Recently, when fishing for new seafood stew recipes to add to my repertoire, my expedition led me to some favorite cookbooks, culinary websites, and especially some talented local chefs who cook daily with New England's legendary fresh catch, who've shared their recipes (see recipes below). Keep in mind that their recipes can be tweaked depending on availability, preference, and one's pocketbook. For instance, those on a budget (and who isn't these days?) could make the Thai Seafood Stew with only mussels, omitting the shrimp and scallops, and it would be a lot less costly but still burst with flavor.

Two tips: Select the freshest seafood possible, and use a recipe as a guideline rather than a rigid set of instructions. Then you're ready to dive in and enjoy the adventure of making and tasting a dish from a distant land.

After all, part of what makes cooking so satisfying is the thrill of exploring a foreign culture without venturing beyond the confines of one's own kitchen. To me, that's the ultimate in budget travel for the food lover. I can hardly wait to make seafood stews that take me to warm places such as Casablanca, Jamaica, and Laos as the temperature drops outside my window.