Queen crab

Henri cleans out the pantry for Colette’s special recipe

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Henri and his dear Colette spent much of January seeking refuge from Chico’s near-arctic temperatures by huddling in front of the fireplace, playing Scrabble and catching up on our film noirs. We both especially loved the 1947 film Dark Passage, in which Humphrey Bogart plays an escaped convict, offered sanctuary by a très sultry Lauren Bacall, who hires a superciliously foul, board-dishonored plastic surgeon to change his face so that he can conceal his identity (ordinarily, naturellement, Henri is aghast at the very idea of identity deception).

We’ve also—when mid-day temperatures have allowed—taken occasional walks in Lower Park, Colette lifting the quivering Mr. Theo into the safety of her arms at the first sight of a squirrel and making every attempt to convince him that they most likely will not attack.

And we’ve been cooking together, sharing recipes and playing what Colette calls the Pantry Challenge: Creating the very best meal you can with only the ingredients on hand—no fair going to the store. We’ve had some absolutely lovely salads, soups and stews and stumbled on some unlikely but quite workable pairings. Particularly delightful was a Romaine, chicken, bacon and roasted-red pepper salad, dressed with almond slivers and light mustard vinaigrette, which Colette paired with an Anderson Valley pinot grigio.

Colette’s most successful creation, though, was a delicious winter stew, a sort of cioppino that she whipped up in about an hour—although, granted, she did violate the rules of the Pantry Challenge by running over to the Butcher Shop for the fish. She said it was a favorite of one of her husbands—she couldn’t remember which one: either the fireman in Marblehead or the accordion player in Palm Beach. She’d never prepared it on the West Coast with Dungeness crab, but we agreed it was absolutely divine, especially with a couple of bottles of Valpolicella, which I did happen to have on hand—but it would also be good with a sauvignon blanc or even a gewürztraminer.

Colette’s Quick and Spicy Crab Stew
2-3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon chile flakes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 medium onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

4 stalks celery, thinly sliced

1 cup white wine

4 cups chicken stock

1 14-ounce can tomato sauce

8-12 mussels and/or clams, scrubbed

1 pound firm white fish (halibut, swordfish, snapper, cod, etc.) cut into two-inch chunks

8-10 large shrimp, shells and tails on

1 cleaned and cracked crab, legs separated and body cut into four pieces

2 cups chicken meat (torn or cut into bite-sized pieces)

2 precooked sausages (hot links, Italian, kielbasa, etc.), sliced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the chile flakes, oregano, onion, peppers, celery and chicken, and sauté until chicken is nearly done (about 30 minutes). Add the white wine, bring to a boil, then add the stock and tomato sauce, and return it to a boil. As the broth warms, season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add the sausages, mussels/clams, fish, shrimp and crab, and cook on medium heat for 2-3 minutes or until the fish is cooked and the clams and mussels have opened. This should be just long enough to heat the crab.

Add the lemon juice and adjust the seasoning with more chile flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sourdough bread (torn, not sliced) and a generous supply of napkins.

1) For a fishier tasting stew, you can use fish stock instead of chicken broth, or add a tablespoon of fish sauce.

2) Keep in mind that like with all soups and stews, you should feel free to improvise. Scour your pantry and refrigerator for possible ingredients, perhaps mushrooms, asparagus tips, stewed tomatoes, garbanzos, a bay leaf, or even okra, for a touch of Louisiana. The stew would also be good over rice or a pasta such as linguini.