Thanksgiving Seafood Stew

with Colonial Pumpkin Pie

Words by Kayla & Justin Butts of Four String Farm Photos by Rachel Benvidez

A Fresh Take on Tradition from the First Thanksgiving

Believe it or not, turkey was not the main course at the First Thanksgiving. For the Pilgrims and Pokanoket Indians on the beach in Cape Cod Bay, the centerpiece of the feast was seafood stew.

Turkey was featured, of course, along with duck, goose, swan, and venison. In addition, the Pilgrims served corn, beans, squash, and peas from the garden along with wild raspberries, grapes, and plums. However, the premiere dish at the First Thanksgiving was seafood, fish stew, cooked in cast iron cauldrons over open fires on the beach. Seafood stew, by all rights, should be the main course of our modern Thanksgiving.

Turkeyreplaced seafood stewat the height of the Civil War, thanks to one woman. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the then-popular magazine Godey’s Lady Book, convinced Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday as a way of unifying the war-torn nation. To celebrate, Hale published a series of holiday recipes for her readers across the country.

She feared that a New England seafood stew recipe, authentic as it was, would be rejected by Southerners. Turkey, however, was popular in both the North and South. Hale’s roasted turkey recipe has proved a lasting legacy for one of our nation’s most cherished holidays. This Thanksgiving, celebrate the seafood stew tradition of the Pilgrims, the perfect way to showcase the harvest of the sea.

For our seafood stew recipe, we recreated the Pilgrim dish using local and updated ingredients. Instead of the sea bass, bluefish, and lobsters of Cape Cod, we used black drum and shrimp from the Gulf. Instead of the mussels and clams Pilgrims harvested by hand, we used oysters and blue crab.

Only use live crab for your stew. Remove the apron and innards and toss the entire crab into the pot for a rustic feel. November is a great month for oysters, so use as many as your taste and budget allow. The saffron gives this dish a robust depth of flavor.    

The secret to excellent seafood stew is the fish stock. The unattractive leavings of your fishmonger—the fish heads, bones, and shrimp peels—are must-haves for an amazing stock. 

Another interesting part for the first Thanksgiving was their pumpkin ‘pie.’ They did not serve pumpkin pie as we know it. The Pilgrims made pie by hollowing out a whole pumpkin, filling it with apples, raisins, and spices, and roasting the stuffed pumpkin next to a fire. For an updated take on this tradition, you can use any medium-sized pumpkin, or a large acorn or buttercup squash from the local farmers’ market.

First Thanksgiving Seafood Stew

Yields: 8 entrée servings or 12 appetizer servings
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours

For Fish Stock:
3 lbs fish heads and bones, shrimp heads and peels
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk fennel, chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed with skin
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp dry or ½ cup fresh tarragon

For Stew:
2 tbsp butter
2 leeks, diced
1 stalk fennel, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups fish stock
Juice of two lemons
2 pinches saffron
½ tsp red pepper
2 whole live blue crabs, with apron and innards removed
2 lbs drum filets, coarsely chopped (optional: may substitute or add flounder or game fish)
2 lbs shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pint oysters, shucked (or more, to taste)
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup fresh tarragon, chopped

For stock: Place all fish stock ingredients in a 6-quart pot and cover with 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer stock for at least one hour, then remove from heat. Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Stock will keep in the refrigerator for three days, or in the freezer for three months.

For stew: Melt the butter in a 6-quart pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and fennel and sauté for 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté an additional minute, stirring frequently. Deglaze the pot with the white wine, taking care to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom. Simmer until wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.

Add stock, lemon juice, saffron and red pepper to pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add fresh seafood to stock and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add cream and tarragon, and serve.

Colonial Pumpkin Pie

Serves: 8-10
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours, 5 minutes

10-12 lb pumpkin with top, seeds and pulp removed
2 apples, diced (recommend pink lady, granny smith, or Fuji varieties)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup raisins
1 cup pecans, chopped
8 tbsp butter, cubed

For Vanilla Bean Sauce:
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup granulated sugar
4 tbsp butter
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
Optional: 2 tbsp rum or brandy

Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine spices and brown sugar in a small bowl. Place pumpkin on a rimmed, aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet. Place half of the apples in the bottom of the pumpkin and top with 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup pecans, and half of the butter. Top fruit and nut mixture with half of the sugar-spice mixture.

Using the remaining ingredients, repeat the process forming a second layer inside the pumpkin. Cover pumpkin with aluminum foil and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for three hours, or until pumpkin flesh is fork tender and filling is bubbling. Serve with Vanilla Bean Sauce.

Vanilla Bean Sauce:
In a medium saucepan, combine cream, sugar, salt, (optional liquor), and butter over medium-low heat. Using a paring knife, cut down the length of the vanilla bean and scrape its contents into the cream mixture. Whisk sauce until bubbling and a creamy consistency is reached. Serve warm by spooning sauce over each serving of pumpkin pie.

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