Saturday, August 25, 2007

Provencal Fish Soup or Don't Call it Bouillabaisse

I stay away from the bouillabaisse wars by simply not calling my Provencal-accented fish soup by that hallowed name. That way I avoid all the food fights about the fisherman's dish that has been elevated to an obsession.

If you are uninitiated in the bouillabaisse wars, let me sum it up for you. Do you serve the fish in the soup or on the side? How many types of fish do you need to make it an "official" bouillabaisse? What are acceptable substitutes outside of the Mediterranean for the traditional fish? Can it be considered bouillabaisse outside of the area where one can get the traditional fish?

I say forget all that or save it for fancy company (and save some money and effort) and make this instead. It makes up a big, bright-tasting bowlful of soup, which I enjoy accented with croutons topped with hot pepper paste. Choose the juiciest, freshest, thickest piece of white fish (ling cod, cod, halibut, monkfish or sea bass, for example) you can find and enjoy. The fennel and anisette liqueur or Penrod add a fresh, sharp taste that keeps down the fishiness. If you dislike the licorice-like notes they add, skip the fennel, add more celery and marinate the fish in white wine instead.

This dish is just as good for a homey dinner as it for entertaining. Just don't call it bouillabaisse.

Provencal Fish Soup

Serves 6
(Please note all quantities are approximate, I apologize I make this slightly different each time and didn't write down notes.)

1 pound steak or thick fillet of fresh, white fish (see above for suggestions), any bones removed and fish cut into even size and thickness chunks of about 1-1/2 inches
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup anisette liqueur or Penrod
Good pinch (maybe 1/4 tsp.) of saffron threads
grated, chopped zest of one half lemon
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Small onion, chopped
2 - 4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 stalks of celery, trimmed and chopped
2 large carrots, sliced into 1/8" thick rounds
1/2 small fennel, bulb only, chopped
1 Tbsp. ground French Herbes de Provence seasoning (usually sold in whole in a mix or make your own with a combination of dried fennel, lavender, thyme, basil, rosemary and marjoram.)
3 quarts (more or less depending on how soupy or stewy you want the finished dish) of fish stock, preferably homemade from white fish bones OR homemade light vegetable stock OR water
1-28-to-32 ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes with juices (I prefer San Marzano tomatoes from Italy)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
12 small yellow finn or creamer potatoes, scrubbed and cut into halves or quarters depending on size
salt and pepper to taste


Chopped Italian (flat leaf) parsley
Chopped basil
Grated and chopped zest of one half lemon
Slices of baguette toasted
Ajvar, red pepper spread (available in some supermarkets or gourmet stores, or make your own by pureeing peeled, roasted red peppers with a drizzle of olive oil and red pepper flakes to taste until smooth) OR garlic aoili

To make the soup: Put the fish in a glass or other non reactive bowl with saffron, lemon zest and liqueur. Set aside and stir occasionally. Heat oil in a large soup pot, add onions, saute until beginning to wilt. Add garlic, saute until slightly golden, add celery, carrots and fennel. Saute until beginning to soften. Add Provencal seasoning. Stir well. Roughly chop tomatoes and add into the pot with their juices and the tomato paste. Stir well to combine and then add stock and potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally. When potatoes are almost soft, taste and add salt and pepper. Add in fish with liqueur, saffron and lemon zest. Stir gently to mix and check often. Fish should be almost cooked through and still plump and slightly soft. Fish will continue to cook in hot broth so be careful not to overcook.

To prepare the garnishes: Combine the chopped herbs with the lemon zest and sprinkle on top of each bowl of soup. Spread a teaspoon of the red pepper paste on top of a crouton and serve on the top or side of each bowl, as desired.

Leftovers are just as good, even cold. Need directions for making fish stock? See comments below for my technique.
About the photo: No that isn't a lavender field in Provence, it's just my front yard.


FJKramer said...

Need to know how to make fish stock?

Here's a general outline of what I do:

In a large stock pot, add 4-6 quarts of water, maybe a pound of fish bones, rinsed and any bloody bits picked off, (stay away from salmon unless that's the fish you'll be using in your main dish. Ask at the counter, the fish monger will give or sell you the bones cheap), a quarted onion, two carrots roughly cut into chunks, two celery stalks cut the same, a small handful (maybe a quarter cup or less) of fresh herbs (parsley at the min, but you can add others that will add to your finished dish)

Heat until simmering (I don't like it too boil, but if it happens, it still works) and simmer for about an hour. Taste and add salt and pepper, but go easy, this is the base for whatever you are making not the finished product unless, of course, you are making fish broth.

Strain and discard solids. Freeze any you don't need for the recipe for future use.

FJKramer said...

I forgot something which is what happens when I do these things off the top of my head

Add in a cup of white wine when the stock comes first comes to a simmer