International Maritime Stews

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Quick Links to article contents:
Saffron: A Basic Guide
The Recipes

Chefs have been attempting to capture the sounds and smells of the seaside in a bowl or on a plate for centuries. You may have heard about some of the more successful dishes: saffron-scented bouillabaisse, chorizo (a dry Spanish sausage)-flavored paella, bourride with monkfish, and chaudiere (also known as "chowder") with lobster and clams.

But, you say, how's a vegan to enjoy these Spanish, French, and Italian dishes? Their main ingredients are fish and seafood! We'll let you in on a little secret - what stands out is not the fish, but rather the seasonings and the cooking style.

The seafood in these dishes is usually mild in flavor; it adds a little character to the taste but not that much. What it does add is texture. There are many vegan ingredients that can be used in its place. Tofu, seitan, tempeh, potatoes, summer squash, and vegan sausage can lend their texture to seaside stews.

The cooking liquid is essential to develop the flavor of a non-fish stew. For example, a court bouillon is used for poaching mild fish to add flavor and moisture. Visit any classical kitchen and you'll find a court bouillon simmering on the stove. Court bouillon is a combination of water, lemon juice, onions, carrots, celery, crushed peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley that is allowed to cook until it takes on a perfume of its own. You can use court bouillon to poach extra firm tofu, plain or flavored seitan, plain or flavored tempeh, zucchini or summer squash, boiling potatoes, or mild-flavored vegan meats, such as Tofurky or Field Roast. We've included a recipe for a saffron broth. You can use this fragrant liquid to add seaside flavor to vegetables and rice.

Provençale-style stews are French peasant-style stews with Italian and Spanish influences. To make anything Provençale, you need olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, black pepper, and olives. Combine these ingredients and allow them to simmer. The combined flavors will give you the essence of a Provençale fish stew without the fish. Add chunked eggplant, yellow squash or potato, or extra firm tofu or seitan pieces. Allow to cook until they have incorporated the taste of the Provençale vegetables, herbs, and spices.

Technique is important for developing flavor as well. For example, meuniere is a classic fish preparation using lemon juice, parsley, butter, and lemon as a garnish. The fish is coated in flour and cooked. It is seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper, then served with a meuniere garnish. You can prepare a non-seafood meuniere with slices of extra firm tofu, seitan "steak," thin slices of portobello mushrooms, or thinly sliced Russet potatoes. Of course, you would use vegan margarine instead of butter.

A Sauce Portugaise is a traditional seafood sauce. A French-style tomato sauce is made from tomato paste, onions, carrots, celery, parsley, peppercorns, and thyme and is allowed to simmer until thick. This sauce is combined with more tomatoes, onions, garlic, and parsley to make the Sauce Portugaise. The sauce is used to make fish stews and to serve over fish steaks. You can do the same with a summer squash and potato stew or with seitan "steaks."

Oreganata is a classic way to prepare clams. Olive oil, onions, garlic, lemon juice, breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, oregano, white pepper, and paprika are used to make a thick paste. Clams are added, and the whole thing is fried to make a hot appetizer. Instead of clams, you can use small cubes of cooked potatoes, mild vegan meats, or cubes of extra firm tofu. The ingredients and the spices overpower the flavor and texture of the clams. No one will ever know or care that the Clams Oreganata is clam-less.

Much of the traditional flavor of seafood stews is from traditional herb blends used to make savory broths. Carrots, onions and celery, known collectively as "mirepoix," are combined and used as a standard ingredient, as are bouquet garni (sachets) of parsley stems, whole black peppercorns, ground thyme, and a small amount of garlic. Olive oil, leeks, and mushrooms, as well as white wine and lemon, complete the ingredients for a seaside flavor.

Let's discuss the two main seasonings in the most famous seaside stews, paella and bouillabaisse. Without bay leaf and saffron, these two dishes would never have developed.

Bay leaf, the deep green leaf of the sweet bay laurel, originated in the Mediterranean region. Ancient Greeks awarded bay laurel wreaths to outstanding scholars, renowned artists, and triumphant athletes. The word "baccalaureate" even means "laurel berry." The bay leaf was thought to have magical properties. Ancient Romans thought that bay leaves would protect them from the plague. In the Middle Ages, bay leaf was thought to bring good luck.

The bay leaf is a powerful herb. It likes to simmer and marinate, developing slowly over time. Use bay leaf sparingly, as it can become very, very strong. It is easier to use dried bay leaf, rather than fresh bay laurel leaves. The fresh can have a very harsh flavor. Store dried bay leaves in a cold, dry place in an airtight container. And purchase enough to make yourself a laurel wreath for perfecting the art of vegan "seafood" stews.

Called the "herb of the sun," saffron has been valued as a medicinal herb, a flavoring, a perfume, and a dye for cloth. Saffron has been cultivated for a long time, probably originating in Asia or Greece. We know it was a hot item for Phoenician traders and other international vendors of the time. Murals in the palace of Knossos on Crete depict saffron harvesters, and saffron is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. Ancient Greeks and Romans used saffron to flavor food, as a perfume, and to dye cloth. They were lucky, as the plant saffron comes from grew wild in Italy at that time. The Middle East, Turkey, India, and their neighbors are modern saffron growers. Today's political climate puts saffron in the middle of international intrigue.

According to some, saffron has been said to have several medicinal properties. In humans, saffron is thought to help digestion, soothe stomachs, work as an antibacterial agent, and serve as a stimulant for the nervous system. The yellow color in saffron is a substance called "picrocrocin." It is bitter and considered an aromatic essential oil. This may be the source of saffron's medicinal powers.

What makes saffron so expensive? Saffron is the dried stigmas (the short, pollen-covered threads) on the inside of the crocus flower. The crocus has a short, three-week blooming season once a year, in the autumn. Each crocus bulb produces only two to five flowers per harvest. The flowers have to be plucked from each flower by hand at the height of their bloom. Crocus flowers will yield for two years. After that time, the bulbs must be replaced. It takes 2-1/2 acres of land to produce 110 pounds of saffron crocus flowers, and it takes 100,000 flowers to produce 11 pounds of fresh stigma, which dry to 2-1/4 pounds of dried saffron. To put it in another way, you need 300,000 to 400,000 stigmas, about 75,000 to 85,000 flowers, to get about 1 pound of saffron.

Don't worry! You need very little saffron to flavor a menu item. One thread (one dried stigma), or as the scientists like to put it, 1/547th of a pound, is enough to flavor a large pot of rice. Of course, if you've got more money, you can use more than one saffron thread for a pot of rice!

If you were in Istanbul, you would go to the Spice Market and haggle with the merchants over various grades of saffron. If you can't get to Istanbul, you can purchase saffron in large grocery stores with gourmet sections, as well as cookware/import stores like Pier One, Williams Sonoma, Bristol Farms, and the gourmet department of some department stores. You can also find saffron in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Pakistani stores, as well as stores with a Moroccan, Israeli, Northern Chinese, and/or North African clientele. If all else fails, you can also buy saffron online.

Always purchase saffron threads, not powder. The threads release more flavor and color, and you can see the quality of what you are getting. Saffron powders can be of mixed quality and may have lost some of their coloring and flavoring ability. Sometimes saffron containers have coloring strength listed. If the listed strength is less than 190 degrees of coloring strength, you might want to pass. Once you've selected your saffron, store it away from light and heat. Saffron easily absorbs other flavors, so segregate it and keep it in an airtight container.

Because saffron is both expensive and delicate in flavor, you should spend some time prior to cooking to extract every bit of color and flavor. Allow yourself time to work with saffron. We're speaking about only an extra 15 minutes to put romance and mystique into your dishes.

You must coax saffron so that it will not lose its color and flavor. If you are using whole threads, they should be soaked for at least 15 minutes. They can soak up to 4 hours. The longer saffron soaks, the more the flavor develops. Some chefs soak and simmer saffron in milk (soymilk is okay) and then add it to the liquids in the recipes. Or you can take some of the liquid from the recipe, bring it to a boil and stir saffron threads in. Remove this from the heat and allow it to soak to bring out its flavor and color.

If you find you prefer to work with powdered saffron, you still should purchase threads and make your own powder. This guarantees you'll have high quality saffron. Toast saffron threads in a heated dry pan for about one minute to remove any moisture. You'll know you've toasted the saffron enough when the threads begin to give off a perfume. Cool and crush the threads finely and store in an airtight container.

You have to develop a taste for how much saffron to use. The general rule of thumb is about 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads per portion for soaked saffron. The recipes included in this article assume you are using soaked saffron threads.

Now you're getting into the aromatic ambiance necessary to prepare seaside stews without the seafood. Once you get the pots cooking, you'll think you've been transported to the South of France or the Mediterranean coast of Spain. In addition to the recipes listed below, here are some more ideas:

  1. Prepare a court bouillon. To 2 quarts of water, add 1 cup of white wine (or 1/4 cup vinegar), 1 cup chopped carrots, 1/4 cup chopped onions, 1/2 cup chopped celery, 1/2 cup chopped fresh mushrooms (optional), and a sachet (you can use cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter to tie up the sachet) of 2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, and 1 teaspoon of thyme. Squeeze in a whole lemon if you have one. Let this simmer until it is very flavorful. Use this as a poaching liquid for extra firm tofu, seitan, portobellos, mild vegan fake meats, or slices of zucchini or summer squash. Poach until soft and serve with a thick tomato sauce and steamed potatoes. Extra court bouillon can be frozen or refrigerated until needed.
  2. Cut carrots, potatoes, sweet onions, and zucchini into stew-size chunks. Poach in court bouillon and serve over saffron rice.
  3. Fry tofu or seitan à la meuniere and serve with a saffron mayonnaise (see recipe).
  4. Marinate a combination of vegetables and vegan meats in a court bouillon with an added bay leaf for at least 3 hours. Roast until veggies are tender and serve with a parslied risotto.
  5. If you'd like your soups and stews to taste a bit more "oceany," purchase fresh or dried seaweed. You can usually find sheets of dried seaweed in the specialty section of a large grocery store. Or you can cruise the Asian markets for fresh or dried seaweed. Nori, the seaweed used as a wrapper for sushi, is a popular variety of seaweed. Add a very small amount to cooking liquid or court bouillon to give a briny, fresh taste to non-seafood dishes. The seaweed will add flavor and some color. Go easy with it until you find the balance of flavor you like. If you are using fresh seaweed, you will want to add it with enough time to cook and soften. You also may want to prepare some of the fresh seaweed as a side salad to serve with your seaside dishes. Cook and chill fresh seaweed and toss it with a small amount of vinegar and red pepper flakes. Serve cold.
  6. If you don't have time to hassle with saffron or prepare a special broth, here's an idea for a fast seaside stew. In a medium pot, combine 2 cans (about 8 ounces each) of chopped tomatoes. Finely chop 1 large carrot (about 1/2 cup) and 1/4 cup each celery and onions. Add a bay leaf, cover, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or microwave on HIGH for 5 minutes. You now have the makings of a Provençale stew. Add 1/4 cup sliced black olives, 1 teaspoon dried dill, and a sprinkle of garlic powder. Spoon this over steamed potatoes or tofu for an aromatic entrée.

Saffron: A Basic Guide

A small amount of saffron goes a long way, so be sure to follow amounts listed in recipes. Here is a general rule of thumb guide:

  1. If using mostly for color, such as in sauce, 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads soaked in 2 Tablespoons of hot water will be sufficient for a recipe using up to 5-6 cups of flour.
  2. If using for flavoring, 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads soaked in 2 Tablespoons of hot water or white wine will flavor 6-8 servings of soup, rice, pasta, or dessert.

There are two basic ways that saffron is prepared before being added as an ingredient; if possible, saffron threads should be used whole, avoiding any crushing:

  1. For every teaspoon of saffron threads used, add 3 teaspoons of water. Soak threads thoroughly. Add the saffron and soaking water to 2 ounces of water and allow to stand for at least one hour. Add this to your saffron recipes.
  2. If you must use saffron in a hurry, here is a fast but less desirable way to prepare saffron: For every teaspoon of saffron, add 5 teaspoons of water. Soak the threads and press them firmly to the bottom of the container with the back of a spoon. This will form a pasty liquid. Add this to your saffron recipes.

The Recipes

Paella Sans Pescado
Saffron Broth with Tomato
Orzo Pilaf
BouillabaisseVegan or Non-Fisherman's Stew
Saffron Mayonnaise

Paella Sans Pescado

(Saffron Rice and Vegetable Stew Without Seafood)

(Serves 8-10)

A Paella pan is as wide and thick as a Dutch oven but has low sides. If you don't have a Paella pan, use a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Paella is a classic rice stew and a meal in itself.

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup seeded and thinly-cut green bell pepper
  • 1 cup seeded and thinly-cut red bell pepper
  • 4 cups short-grain rice
  • 1 quart vegetable stock or broth
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads soaked in 1 cup boiling water
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 cups drained and cubed extra firm tofu
  • 2 cups cubed smoked seitan or Tofurky
  • 2 cups sliced Soyrizo or vegan sausage
  • 2 cups cubed fresh zucchini
  • 2 cups thawed frozen green peas

Place oil in large paella or sauté pan and heat. Add onions and peppers, and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add rice and stir until grains are coated and transparent and the oil is absorbed. Add stock, saffron, and garlic, and stir. Add, placing in layers, the tofu, seitan, Soyrizo, zucchini, and peas. Bring to a fast boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Total calories per serving: 695 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 102 grams Protein: 36 grams
Sodium: 655 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Saffron Broth With Tomato

(Makes five 8-ounce servings)

This is a delicate dish that showcases saffron's color and flavor. Prepare it as close to serving time as possible. This dish is very reminiscent of seaside cafés on the Mediterranean.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ cup chopped carrots
  • ¼ cup chopped celery
  • ¼ cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms
  • ¼ cup chopped leeks
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup dry white wine (see note)*
  • 1 cup chopped plum (roma) tomatoes
  • 2 pinches saffron threads
  • 5 cups mushroom stock or broth
  • 10 or 12 small boiling potatoes, cooked

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan. Add carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, leeks, and garlic. Sauté for 3 minutes, until vegetables begin to sweat. Add wine, tomatoes, and saffron threads. Sauté, stirring, for 2 more minutes. Add stock and bring to a quick boil. Reduce heat and allow dish to simmer for 3 minutes. Strain the broth.

To serve, place 2-3 potatoes in each of 5 soup plates or bowls. Pour broth over potatoes and serve immediately. (Holding diminishes the flavor of the saffron.)

Total calories per serving: 236 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 487 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Orzo Pilaf

(Makes eight 4-ounce servings)

This can be served as an entrée, paired with a lettuce, grape, and walnut salad.

  • ¼ cups thinly-sliced sun-dried tomatoes
  • 8 ounces orzo (rice-shaped pasta), divided
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 ounces minced red onion
  • ½ cup dry white wine or vegetable stock
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2 ounces shredded fresh basil

Place tomatoes in a small bowl and cover with water. Set aside.

Bring 2 cups of water to boil.

Add orzo and cook until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Spray a small sauté pan with oil. Add garlic and onions and sauté for 2 minutes. Combine wine, oil, and saffron in a small pot and bring to a quick boil. Remove from heat and set aside. A little at a time, add a third of the orzo to the garlic and onions, stir and continue to heat. Add tomatoes and stir. Add another third of the orzo and half the saffron liquid. Stir. Add remaining orzo and saffron liquid and stir until heated thoroughly and most of the liquid is absorbed. Garnish with basil.

Total calories per serving: 151 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 28 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 152 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams


(Serves 6)

A vegetable and mock "fish" (we've used tofu) stew thickened with potatoes. Bourride takes several steps to make, but it's worth the effort.

  • 2 large baking potatoes (about 2 pounds)
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup julienned onions
  • ½ cup julienned carrots
  • ¼ cup julienned leeks
  • 1-½ cups thawed frozen peas
  • 1 cup white wine (see note)*
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 2-½ pounds (4-¼ cups) extra firm tofu, cut into "steaks" (thick slices)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bake potatoes until very tender. Carefully peel potatoes while hot and place them in a food processor or blender. Process until puréed. Add garlic and olive oil and mix to combine. The mixture will resemble a thick mayonnaise. Set aside.

Spray a large frying pan with oil and heat. Sauté onions, carrots, and leeks until tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

If necessary, cook peas to thaw. Drain and set aside.

Place wine and stock in a deep soup pot. Cook over high heat until half the liquid is evaporated. Place tofu in the liquid and heat gently for 5 minutes. Remove tofu and set aside.

Allow the remaining liquid to cook until it is evaporated by half. Stir in the potatoes and allow to cook until hot, about 5 minutes.

To serve, place potatoes on bottom of serving dish. Arrange tofu, vegetable mixture, and peas on top of the potatoes and serve.

Total calories per serving: 404 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 47 grams Protein: 20 grams
Sodium: 327 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Bouillabaisse Vegan or Non-fisherman's Stew

(Serves 8-10)

Everyone will want to take a walk along a beach after this meal.

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onions
  • 1 cup julienned leeks
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1-½ cups chopped canned tomatoes, drained
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • ½ cup white wine (see note)*
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1-½ pounds (3-½ cups) extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
  • 1 pound (2-¼ cups) smoked vegan meat, such as seitan, Field Roast, or Tofurky
  • 1 pound (2-½ cups) zucchini or yellow summer squash, cubed
  • 1 pound (2-½ cups) fresh button mushroom caps

Place oil in a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Heat and add onions, leeks, garlic, and fennel. Allow to cook, stirring, until softened, about 4 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients and bring to a fast boil. Reduce heat, cover, and allow dish to simmer until the squash is tender, about 15 minutes. Serve hot, with rice or couscous.

Total calories per serving: 331 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 16 grams Protein: 30 grams
Sodium: 296 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Saffron Mayonnaise

(Makes five 8-ounce servings)

Serve this cold sauce with grilled or roasted vegetables to conjure a seaside meal.

  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads
  • 5 button mushrooms, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon minced onions or shallots
  • 1 Tablespoon dry vermouth (see note)*
  • ¼ cup water
  • 3 ounces prepared vegan mayonnaise

Place all the ingredients, except mayonnaise, in a small sauté pan. Reduce liquid to 1 Tablespoon over high heat. Strain, discard solids and allow to cool. Stir in mayonnaise and refrigerate until ready to use.

Total calories per serving: 89 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 0 grams
Sodium: 61 milligrams Fiber: 0 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Passover Recipes.

* Traditionally, these dishes obtained some of their flavor from wine or vermouth. If you would prefer to cook without alcohol, we offer the following alternatives:

  1. Use 1/2 apple cider vinegar and 1/2 apple juice for the total amount of alcohol (i.e., 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar and 1/2 cup apple juice instead of 1 cup wine).
  2. Use 1/2 apple cider vinegar and 1/2 vegetable stock for total amount of alcohol.