Fish Soup

In her great French Provincial Cooking (1960), Elizabeth David stated that she didn’t think it possible to make fish soup “without all those odd little Mediterranean fish, which are too bony to be used for anything except ‘la soupe.”’ But she changed her mind after tasting my London version a couple of times, deciding that a more than passable facsimile could be made outside of France, as long as there were enough varieties of cheap fish in the soup. “Bony” is the clue here: we are talking the uglier the fish, the better, especially the kind that hide out around or under rocks.

The soup takes two days, and costs a fortune if you include shellfish, but the reward comes when the tureen is brought to the table, and one sees a faded but deep coral-pink liquid, the hue of worn Mexican tiles, and smells the rich aroma of the ocean when the top is lifted off. The taste is as broad a spectrum of flavors and essences as anything I know. If you have ever loved the sea and fish and shellfish, you’ll find their entire mystery in that bowl of simple liquid.

If you forgo the shellfish and use only fish carcasses (of non-oily white-fleshed fish: cod, bass, rock-fish, conger eel, and flatfish), the results, though not sublime, are still really delicious.

The soup is not clear because it has “body” from pureeing the carcasses after they are cooked.

You will need a food mill.

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Ingredients

  • 6 pounds fish carcasses and heads
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 large onions, peeled, thinly sliced
  • 4 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 10 cloves fresh garlic
  • 3 sprigs fennel tops
  • 1 large herb bundle of thyme, bay leaves, leek tops, parsley
  • 1 piece orange zest, 3 inches by 1 inch
  • 2 quarts rich fish stock
  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup red pepper-garlic mayonnaise
  • 8 toasts, ¼-inch thick, 3 inches in diameter
  • Saltand freshly ground black pepper

Method

Remove all innards and gills from the fish heads and carcasses.

Put ¼ cup of the olive oil, the onions, tomatoes, garlic, fennel, herb bundle, orange zest, and ½ cup of the fish stock in a 5-quart pot. Cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add the fish carcasses and heads and the remaining stock. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum from the surface of the stock. Simmer for 20 minutes. Warm the saffron in the white wine. Add the saffron-infused wine to the stock and simmer 25 minutes more.

Take the stock off the heat and put the fish and broth through a food mill fitted with a mediumhole disk or press it through a coarse sieve. Clean the pot and return the broth to it. Correct the seasoning if necessary and serve very hot in large soup plates. Spoon the garlic mayonnaise (rouille) onto the toasts and float them on the soup.

Variations

Double fish soup: If you want truly amazing essence-of-fish soup, repeat this process all over again, using this soup as the fish stock to pour over a new batch of fish bones.

If you want a clear double fish soup, served either hot, or cold as a jellied soup, then do not puree the mass of fish (and shellfish), but rather decant the stock each time from the debris of the cooked fish. If you are near a place where Dungeness or blue crabs are cheap, then use one-third fish and two-thirds crab, the first time fish only, and then the crab just long enough the second time to cook it. That way you get to have hot or cold cracked crab as well as the soup, which I would garnish with tortillas cut in strips and lightly toasted, and a teaspoon of finely chopped serrano chilies.

Or turn this into a “minestrone,” as at Prunier in Paris, by adding cooked white beans, green tagliarini, mussels, and vegetables; or stuff cooked large pasta tubes or squash blossoms with shellfish or mushroom hash, and put them in the soup.

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