A Tasty Fish Soup
Friday, 28th January, 2005 - David Farmer
I have made this soup many times. Each one is a little different and the change of taste comes from the variety of fish available to throw in the pot plus what herbs are around. This recipe has been modified from ‘Fish Soup from the Moulin de Mougins’ as published in Cuisine of the Sun by Roger Verge.
I have been fortunate to visit his famous restaurant and it altered my approach to cooking and how to present food. Coming across this recipe I instantly knew it would work as an interest in fishing and fish cooking had been developing for a long time. The bit that friends find hard to understand as they watch preparation of the soup is that the wide assortment of fish, crabs and shellfish that make the soup are not washed, gutted, scaled or beheaded. The whole lot goes in as is.
To make the soup you will need:
A wide assortment of small fish that have not been cleaned. If you visit the Sydney fish markets you will find tubs full of small fish of various types that are not worth sorting and cleaning. Buy these as they are cheap and are exactly what you want. Add in some small whiting, the smallest bream, small garfish, an eel or two as these are sold live, other fish that are small and interesting, the heads of some large fish that are sold for stock, crabs if around and then a few mussels and cockles. A wide variety is the key.
300-400 gm of brown onions
A whole head of garlic
6-8 ripe tomatoes and you must buy the vine ripened type although even better would by home grown heritage tomatoes. This is a crucial ingredient and cheap unripe tomatoes add to much acid to the dish and you do not get that intense, rich, ripe end flavour.
Dried fennel branches although these are hard to come by so I use two small fennel bulbs and at a pinch use dried fennel powder. Add to your taste but a fair bit is needed. Fennel provides some of the magic in this dish.
Sprigs of thyme and I often add flat parsley and marjoram although these are not in the original recipe.
A bay leaf
A bottle of white wine
150 ml of good olive oil. Again this is a vital ingredient and any old olive oil from the supermarket will add flat, acidic tastes. Buy something better.
A quarter to half a teaspoon of saffron. Another vital ingredient and the good stuff is expensive and will not be found at the local supermarket. I like the saffron from Iran.
Salt and pepper but do not add till late in the cooking process.
Making the Soup
Finely slice the peeled onions and cook slowly in the olive oil. After they go transparent the onions will turn yellow and then they are ready. This process can not be rushed and getting the onion flavour just right is very important.
Cut the garlic head in half, horizontally so you halve each segment and add to the pot. Cut the tomatoes into pieces and add to the pot with the fennel and herbs but not the saffron. Stir all this and turn the heat up. Now add all the fish, crabs and what else you may have gathered and sweat for 10 minutes.
Pour in 2-3 litres of water, more if you have a lot of ingredients. I also add a bottle of white wine though the original recipe does not.
Turn the heat up and bring to the boil and keep it going to break up the fish. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for an hour.
At this stage the original recipe adds salt, pepper and saffron but I like to add salt after straining and now follow the American chef Richard Olney, who incidentally spent much of his life in Provence, in his belief that pepper is best added just before serving. Saffron is vital to the dish and I’m certain gives better color and flavour when added after straining.
Fish out the herbs that you can see and pass the liquid, fish bones, and fish pieces but not shells if you added mussels etc through a coarse mouli mix blade as suggested by the original recipe or as is more practical through a food processor. Do not though blend into fine slurry. A few quick pulses is all you need. Now strain all this through a conical sieve. At least 50% of the initial quantity will be left behind. Squeeze as much soup out of this as you can. I use my hands to squeeze this fish and bone pulp into balls which I freeze and use later as burley to catch yet more fish.
Again I deviate from the initial recipe as I now return the thick liquid to the stove and add the saffron and salt to taste. Briefly bring to the boil and then let simmer to extract all the colour and flavour from the saffron. Now line a sieve with muslin and let the liquid slowly drip through. Again squeeze the residue to extract as much soup as possible.
The soup is now ready for serving. It will be a fairly thick, light brown, ‘country’ style soup with strong flavours. Warm and add freshly ground pepper, white pepper works well, and just before serving I like to lift the flavours with the addition of a tiny amount of lemon. A sprinkling of parsely also works.
If you have made a lot of soup then you can make a fabulous fish consommé by fining the left over with egg whites. Add four or five egg whites, and let simmer then briefly lift the temperature and return to simmer. Strain through muslin. The result is fantastic and should be completely clear. It will be a vivid, clear, orange-light brown colour. If its not do it again with more egg whites. Serve with a great dry sherry.