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A Hotelier’s Spicy Fish Stew

By Nick Marino

The finished product should have a rusty red colour, a spike of acid and a touch of heat.
 
Matthew Johnson
The finished product should have a rusty red colour, a spike of acid and a touch of heat.

In a former life, the Austin, Texas, hotelier Liz Lambert served as a trial lawyer in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. By the end of each gruelling week, she’d be passed out on the couch and her brother Lou, who was then training at the Culinary Institute of America, would stop by her apartment and cook. “He’d be trying out some sauces,” Lambert says, “or ravioli and broth, or a roast chicken, and he’d wake me up — it was amazing.”

Lambert eventually left legal practice, and in 2006, back in her home state, founded Bunkhouse, the influential hospitality micro-chain that included the Hotel San José and the Austin Motel in the state capital and the chilled-out compound El Cosmico in Marfa. In 2015, however, she sold a majority stake to the Standard hotel group, then in 2017, Standard itself sold a large stake to a Thai real-estate developer, and on her birthday last September, after becoming what she half-jokingly calls “an unmanageable employee,” Lambert departed the company.

Now, at 56, she’s out on her own again, which isn’t so bad. She has a house in Los Angeles and another in Baja California, near the seaside Hotel San Cristóbal, which she once ran. She’s currently sheltering in place at her home in Austin with her wife, the makeup artist Erin Lee Smith, and their toddler, Lyndon. The hotelier, whose past two decades have revolved around work and travel, is suddenly, like many of us, a homebody with plenty of time to cook.

Matthew JohnsonLiz Lambert in Los Angeles, photographed before she hunkered down for quarantine in Austin, Texas.
Liz Lambert in Los Angeles, photographed before she hunkered down for quarantine in Austin, Texas.

She gets a weekly bushel of farm-fresh produce delivered to her door and tries to use everything in it. She also grows her own herbs and strawberries. And when she’s not sure how or what to prepare, she knows just who to ask: “I’ll call my brother and talk to him about any number of things about cooking — how I should finish something, how long something will hold.” One of Lambert’s current favourite dishes is a sibling collaboration she and Lou call Baja Bouillabaisse, essentially a Tex-Mex twist on the San Francisco fisherman’s stew known as cioppino.

Beyond the quarantine kitchen, she’s figuring out her third act. “We’re working on restaurants,” Lambert says. “I keep thinking about other things to do, but I really like the whole placemaking [element] of hotels.” She already has plans to open a 74-room hotel next year in New Orleans — Saint Vincent’s Guest House, inside a former orphanage — and to finish work on “The Last Days of the San José,” a documentary she began shooting in the 1990s. Back then, the hotel (which now rents suites for more than $400 a night), was a $30-a-night flophouse home to a community of down-and-out lodgers. “One of the characters is watching a western on TV,” Lambert says, recalling a particular scene, “and I’m asking ‘What’s going on? What’s it about?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, a big cattleman is trying to run a little cattleman out. So I’m going with the little cattleman.’” Reflecting on this moment today, she can’t help but feel things have come full circle: “I have become the little cattleman again.”

Matthew JohnsonTake the time to seek out the dried Mexican chillies, which, Lambert says, “are what make this different from a regular seafood stew or cioppino.”
Take the time to seek out the dried Mexican chillies, which, Lambert says, “are what make this different from a regular seafood stew or cioppino.”

Serves 6

For the chilli purée

  • 1 stemmed, seeded and torn ancho chilli

  • 1 stemmed, seeded and torn guajillo chilli

  • 1 stemmed and roughly chopped Roma tomato

  • 1 cup white wine

For the stew

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 large diced onion

  • 2 stalks diced celery

  • 4 large diced shallots

  • 1 small minced serrano pepper

  • 5 cloves minced garlic

  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

  • 1 bay leaf

  • ¼ cup tomato paste

  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice

  • 6 cups fish stock, homemade or from a fishmonger

  • ¼ cup loosely packed and julienned fresh basil

  • 2 sprigs stripped and roughly chopped fresh oregano

  • 4 thinly sliced green onions

  • ¼ cup loosely packed and roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley

  • ¼ cup loosely packed and roughly chopped cilantro

  • 1 tablespoon orange zest

  • Juice of 1 small orange

  • 1 pound fresh clams

  • 1 pound scrubbed and de-bearded mussels

  • 1 pound peeled and deveined medium shrimp

  • 1 ½ pounds firm white fish, cut into 3-inch chunks

1. To make the chilli purée, heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the chillies to the dry pan. Allow the peppers to blister on each side, about 1 to 2 minutes per side, until aromatic. Transfer chillies to a small sauce pan and add the tomato and wine. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Stir the chillies, then cover the pot with a lid. Turn off the heat and allow the chillies to steep for 15 minutes. Transfer to a blender cup and purée until smooth. Reserve chilli purée.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large clay pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, shallots and serrano pepper. Sauté until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and bay leaf and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring to keep garlic from sticking.

3. Add the tomato paste to the pot and cook for 2 minutes while stirring. Stir in the chilly purée, cooking for another minute. Add the diced tomatoes with their juice, the fish stock, half the basil, oregano and green onions. Bring the pot to a simmer, then cover and transfer the pot to the preheated 350-degree oven on the middle shelf. Allow the broth to cook until all the flavors come together, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning, adding salt if necessary.

4. Stir the remaining basil, oregano, green onion, parsley, cilantro, orange zest and juice into the broth. Add the clams and mussels to the simmering liquid. Cover and cook in the oven until they begin to open, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and add the shrimp and fish, covering with the liquid and gently simmering until they’re just cooked through, about 5 minutes.

5. Ladle the soup into six bowls. Garnish with basil and parsley. Serve with crusty bread or jasmine rice.