Monday, August 30, 2010

About Fish Soups: the Tricks to Make a Super Soup!

Fish, fish soupImage via Wikipedia Here are some thoughts on how fish soup is made in European cuisine.

Sounds boring?

No, believe me, it's a fascinating subject. Fish soup is immensely varied across the continent, using as it necessarily does, local ingredients.

Btw, I am excluding here any mention of fish soups made elsewhere around the globe: that would deserve another post.

But consider Europe for a moment. The Russians will make fish soup with cabbage and beetroot, the Belgians with leeks and celery, the Italians with tomato and any number of Mediterranean herbs. Everybody of course makes fish soup with onions and...fish. Plus any seafood available, if they happen to be near the sea.

Don't be discouraged by this tremendous variety. First it's fun! And then, there is some definite aggregation of the data around a few basic models. You have essentially a Northern fish soup and a Southern one - plus possibly an Eastern one. When you need to decide on a recipe to follow, it's useful to keep in mind the differences, so that you don't make a mess of whatever fish soup you're doing.

Because these models don't mix. No tomatoes or olive oil should ever go into a "Northern Soup", and no leeks and cream into a "Southern Soup". The Eastern model is less rigorously defined, but certain mixtures are not allowed even here: for example, never mix butter and olive oil in the same recipe, you either go for the one or the other - that is, if you want to be true to the spirit of that cuisine. If not, feel free to sprinkle chocolate everywhere!

The ingredients going into any of these soups have to do with what is available locally all year round, and especially in the "off-season" (i.e. winter). I suspect that is what historically makes any given recipe different from all others: for centuries, people have been making food with the ingredients they found easily around them, and therefore those particular recipes, so often repeated through the years, became, as it were, the "standard".

Take the Northern Soup: the Belgian fish Waterzoie is an excellent example, based as it is on local produce - leeks, onions, celery and potatoes. Likewise the Southern Soup, whether it is the French Provençal Bouillabaisse or the Italian zuppa di pesce. Both have onion, garlic, tomatoes and no potatoes - which is of course not surprising. Potatoes are a quintessentially northern staple.

So what makes a fish soup really good, whether it is Northern, Southern or Eastern ? Any recipe book worth its name will give you the ingredients and a method to follow. You don't need me for that. Go look for whatever you want on Internet or buy a cookbook in a store. But in order to decide whether to follow a recipe and to be sure the results are going to be good, you need some evaluation criteria. This is where I come in and I wanted to share my experience with you. I follow some general rules in preparing fish soup that I have found over time to give the best results both in terms of flavour and health.

Yes, that's right: health. What's good for your health is important too! A recipe that calls for wallops of cream and glasses of olive oil is to be avoided like the plague: it's guaranteed to make you bloat up! It is a matter of common sense. You can follow the recipe but CUT DOWN on the amount of fat suggested: if it says two tablespoons, use one. And to avoid burning ingredients you don't need all that fat. An easy solution is to use teflon-coated pans, but you know that already, I'm sure.

Something else is useful to cut the amount of fats in fish soup: whenever a recipe suggests you start off by frying chopped onions or grated garlic in oil or butter and then throw the fish pieces in to cook them, DON'T DO IT! This business about starting with fried onions (or whatever mixture of vegetables, such as a mirepoix) is for the birds (and most certainly not for fish!) - and that's also true of vegetable minestrone, by the way. I have found that it is absolutely unnecessary from the standpoint of taste. On the contrary, unless you go very, very light on the amount of onions you use and ensure it only turns translucent and never burns, you risk inflicting a strong, unwelcome taste to your soup: it won't taste fresh! And I would take a step further: too much butter or oil in any recipe, especially if it is fried, coats the ingredients with its own taste, preventing the basic flavour of whatever you're cooking to come through, whether fish, vegetable or meat.

For me, that's a GOLDEN RULE: use as little fat as you can to cook and if possible, add it only at the end, after the cooking is done. A spoonful of fresh, uncooked olive oil goes much further to give taste to you soup if you put it in at the end of the cooking process than if you use a whole glassful at the beginning! Ditto for butter.

So how do I prepare my fish soup? Simple, no frying, just cover with water. Not plain water. You need to add salt and pepper, or better , use fish broth instead of water. Fish broth is easy: nowadays you don't need to make it anymore, it comes in cubes (for example Knorr's) ready to be dissolved in water. And I mean COVER your ingredients - just so. Do not exceed with liquid but make sure your soup doesn't dry out! To do this, there are two ways: either a slow fire and a lid on your pot, or a strong flame and no lid. In the latter case, you have to stick around to make sure nothing burns. That's what I do because it cooks faster, and I don't like to waste time in the kitchen. Plus I can control the degree of doneness of the ingredients.

The degree of doneness? That's crucial to make a good fish soup. Much depends on how fresh your ingredients are and obviously your soup will only be as good as whatever you put in it. The fresher, the better but I'm not telling you anything you don't know. What is important, and not so obvious, is the SEQUENCE in which ingredients are dropped into the boiling pot. Start with the vegetables and make sure they are only HALF-COOKED BEFORE throwing in the fish. That's the key, because fish - even crustaceans, clams, shrimps, calamars and the like - cook very, very fast. If you cook these marine little things too long they curl up and dry on you, they become hard to chew and lose their flavour. Overcooking is the death of any good fish soup (or for that matter of any fish preparation). In my experience, the fish in a fish soup cooks UNDER FIVE MINUTES.

Basically making a fish soup is very easy. You first cook the vegetables that give flavour to your soup in a minimum of salted water, or better still fish broth. When the vegetables are half-way there, you throw in the fish. You bring it all back to boiling and then, after one minute or less, turn it off. Put a lid on it for another five minutes max.

Serve hot with croutons or toasted bread rubbed with garlic if it's a Southern Soup. Or swirl in it half-a-glass of cream with the juice of a half-lemon and one egg yolk beaten into it if it's a Northern Soup. I have no special advice for Estearn Soup except to add at the last minute either Paprika or fennel seed - to taste.

The results of following this procedure? Superlative! Ok, I know I sound like I'm bragging but I'm not. Just ask my family and friends. I've had people who hate fish soup (my own mother is one) literally dig into mine. And a very satisfying result this is for the cook!
If you have cooking tips regarding fish,as I'm sure you do, I would love to hear them, and do let me know if my tips have helped you!

Because, bottom line, I believe the secret of good food is less in the inventiveness of a recipe's ingredients than in following a correct procedure that preserves the original taste of every ingredient. It's more a matter of HOW you do it than of WHAT's in it!
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1 comment:

Francesco Landolina said...

Sono felicemente impressionato e spero di poter provare questa meravigliosa zuppa di pesce.
Forse ci metterei dei capperi per renderla più mediterranea o del finocchio selvatico.