By Karen Mersereau, as told to Michele Sponagle
As executive chef and co-owner of the Hotel Paulin, Karen Mersereau likes to get a little wild. Located in Caraquet, in the heart of New Brunswick’s Acadian coast, the inn dates back to 1891 and is one of the oldest family-run properties in Canada. With the Bay of Chaleur to the front, and forest and rivers behind it, the view is spectacular.
Since making Caraquet her home 12 years ago, Mersereau has developed a passion for local wild ingredients. She shares her discoveries with hotel guests during foraging expeditions that end in the kitchen. Once there, she does what she loves best: cooking and showing off the goodness of what’s found outside her door. And her signature seafood fricot—a well-known Acadian stew prepared mostly in winter—is a prime example. She explains that what makes fricot different from chowder is that it’s made using potato, rather than flour, as a thickener.
I love the natural diversity of New Brunswick. Just 10 minutes away from the hotel, I can pick wild chanterelle mushrooms. Or I can go down to the shore at low tide to dig clams and gather sea asparagus (also called samphire greens) and goose tongue greens, which look like long pieces of grass. They’re salty and delicious, and I use them to garnish my fricot.
My mother was raised in New Brunswick, and she used to make clam fricot for us. It was very good, but pretty basic: potatoes, onions, celery, clams and clam juice. I wanted to create a more refined fricot that incorporates some of the wonderful local wild things available to me; I wanted it to reflect the area.
Local Caraquet oysters give my fricot great flavour. I also include wild mushrooms and local bar clams, which give the broth a unique character. I work with whatever good white fish I can get that week: haddock, halibut, turbot, cod or sometimes scallops. For colour, I add rainbow carrots.
My fricot is gluten-free, which many people want these days. Instead of flour to give the soup body, I stir in a bit of mashed potato to thicken it and give it creaminess.
I perfected this recipe when I was invited to participate in a provincial seafood chowder competition—which I won. I set out to make a signature chowder using ingredients I knew no one else would be using.
After 18 years as a professional recipe developer and food stylist in Toronto, I can quickly determine whether a recipe I have researched will work or, if not, how I can adapt it. It took just three cooking trials before I was ready for the competition.
My seafood fricot isn’t always on the menu at Hotel Paulin during the hottest days of summer, but it’s available from late summer through winter and spring. Our guests really love it. They know it’s different than other chowders, but they aren’t quite sure why. I suspect it’s the wild mushrooms and the Caraquet oysters that stimulate their palates—you can’t see them, but you can taste them.
Fricot is comfort food; it’s so satisfying. And if you love seafood, you’re going to really enjoy it.
Karen Mersereau’s Seafood Fricot, Courtesy of executive chef Karen Mersereau, Hotel Paulin, Caraquet, N.B.
The secret flavour in this recipe comes from the wild local ingredients such as Caraquet oysters and delicious salty sea greens, picked along the shores at low tide.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 1 ½ hours
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
½ cup (125 mL) mixed dried wild mushrooms (about 14 g)
2½ cups (625 mL) 18% cream
2 tbsp (30 mL) butter
1 leek (white parts only), chopped, or Spanish onion (about 2 cups/500 mL)
2 green onions, chopped (white and green parts separated)
1 cup (250 mL) white wine
4 to 5 medium potatoes, chopped (about 1¾ lb/790g)
2 ribs celery, chopped
¾ cup (175 mL) chopped fennel root (reserve tops)
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, thyme, chervil and tarragon tied together with a string)
3½ cups (875 mL) fish stock or water (approx)
1½ lb (675 g) mixed seafood (such as fresh or frozen cod, haddock, turbot, halibut, scallops, bar clams, shrimp and lobster)
12 freshly shucked Acadian Peninsula oysters (such as Caraquet, Mallet or BeauSoleil) and their juices
1. Place mushrooms and cream in microwaveable bowl. Cover and microwave on high for 7 to 10 minutes, until boiling. Stir twice. (Or simmer on stove for 10 minutes.) Let cool completely; refrigerate until ready to use. (If you prefer softer mushrooms, let soak for 2 hours or refrigerate overnight. Drain mushrooms well, reserving cream mixture. Finely chop mushrooms; set aside.
2. In large saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Sauté leek, white parts of green onions and reserved mushrooms for about 5 minutes. Stir in wine; cook until reduced by half.
3. Stir in potatoes, celery, fennel, carrots, bouquet garni and enough fish stock to almost cover vegetables. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer until potatoes are done, about 15 minutes. (For creamier texture, remove one-third of potato mixture and purée in food processor or mash in a flat-bottomed bowl with potato masher. Return to pot.) Pour in reserved cream mixture. Stir in seafood, oysters and juices. Cook for 5 minutes or until seafood is just cooked through. Stir in green parts of green onions. Divide among serving bowls and garnish with chopped fennel tops, lobster butter or wild sea greens (if you can find them). Serve hot.
Tip: You can make your own lobster butter, which adds a colourful drizzle on top. Boil leftover lobster shells slowly in butter for about 20 minutes. Strain and freeze butter in ice cube trays for easy long-term storage. Use this colourful butter in any seafood recipes.