It was the earliest English colonists who introduced muddles (“a mess of fish”), mulls, and other robust seafood soups and stews to the barrier islands that separate North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound from the Atlantic Ocean, and today the tradition continues all along the remote Outer Banks. I’ve had muddles so thick with fish and shellfish you could almost eat them with a fork, but the best I’ve tasted were much more like this amazingly light, herby concoction, which tastes so good on a cold winter’s night with coleslaw and some form of cornbread. I’ve heard that for one style of muddle, eggs are poached in the broth and served on top the soup. Sounds a bit bizarre to me, but I’d still love to try that.
In a large, heavy pot, fry the bacon over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels, crumble, and reserve. Add the onions, celery, bell pepper, and garlic to the pot and cook, stirring, till very soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, clam broth, water, lemon juice, Worcestershire, Tabasco, salt and pepper, thyme, and bay leaf, bring to a low simmer, cover, and cook 1 hour.
Add the grouper, shrimp, and scallops, return to a simmer, and cook till the fish begins to flake, about 8 minutes. Serve the muddle in deep soup bowls with crumbled bacon sprinkled over the top of each portion.
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