We all have our comfort food vices. When I’m at home alone I enjoy making fish soup. Go figure. No one else in the household appreciates it, so I treat it like a guilty pleasure.
One of my favorite cookbooks is “A Tuscan In The Kitchen.” The author’s recipes don’t have measurements, temperatures or timings. It’s all about getting the right feel and making it your own. In that spirit, here’s how I do it.
Start with a sliced leek, half of a red onion, chopped, and a clove of garlic, chopped. Cook gently in about a half cup of extra virgin olive oil until soft.
Add a good pinch of saffron, some orange peel, some red pepper flakes and a bay leaf. Just take a vegetable peeler, slice of some of the peel of an orange and toss it in. You can also do this to beef stew in the wintertime.
One the vegetables are soft, stir in a spoonful of tomato paste, or a couple of chopped up plum tomatoes.
Here are three of the four liquids you need.
Pour in about a glassful of white wine. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but use real wine. If you paid less than $5 for it it’s not wine. Pour it down the drain and rinse thoroughly. Let it come to a boil.
Pour in a bottle of clam juice (or if you’re in the mood to make fish stock use some of that instead). Pour in about a half a glass of water, bring to a boil, then let simmer for a while.
A Big Choice
Now you’re at a crossroads. You could just proceed with the stock as it is. But for a more refined product you’re going to want to strain out all the vegetable solids so that you get a smooth broth. You could probably run it through the blender and strain it through a wire-mesh sieve. But having one of these is really cool. It’s called a “chinoise” (because of it’s purported resemblance to a chinese hat). It’s a heavyweight perforated aluminum cone, with a heavy wooden plunger. You pour your broth and solids in, and mash them against the side with the wooden plunger to squeeze all the juices out. Ruthlessly efficient. I picked this one up at a flea market for a few dollars and it was a great investment.
A Bigger Big Choice
A good fish soup needs several kinds of fish and shellfish. Avoid really strong-flavored fish like salmon or mackerel. Some clams or mussels are really good. Here I’ve got some mahi-mahi, some cod, some squid rings, shrimp and scallops. Now here is some important shopping intelligence: ideally you’ll go to a fish store, tell the guy you’re making fish soup and he’ll know exactly what you mean. This happens one out of every maybe ten times. You’re trying to get a quarter-pound of this, a small trimming of that, a handful of scallops and so on. With a little patience you can get there. Another way is to buy packs of frozen fish and use it a little at a time.
Now we all love Trader Joe’s around here, but their frozen fish sucks. It’s watery and the texture is bad — especially the aforementioned cod. On the other hand, Costco’s product is really great. Check out their huge scallops, which are a great deal. You’d like fresh ideally, but most stuff in the supermarket fish case is pre-frozen and thawed anyway so you don’t really gain anything. Anyway, you want about 3/4 of a pound per person. Cut the fish into one-inch squares and add it to your strained broth and cook for a few minutes, just to heat it through. Overcooked fish is not good, and overcooked squid rings are worse.
Once it’s nice and hot, stir in about a tablespoon of Pernod (or anisette, or turquoise — any anise-flavored liqueur).
The Best Garlic Bread
Garlic bread is really good. This is better. Slice up some french or italian bread and put it under the broiler for one or two minutes on each side until toasted.
Rub a cut clove or garlic across it. The rough surface of the toasted bread will scrape off bits of raw garlic.
Brush with some extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with some fleur de sel or sea salt. You will be a local legend once you start serving this.
And there you have it. From start to finish, well under an hour. Use up a little more of that white wine, with some more garlic bread on the side, and you’re all set.