Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Soupe de Poisson

In my kitchen, at least, not everything is better when it's homemade. Even with tasty olives and anchovies, I can't produce tapenade like that sold by Britain's largest grocery chain. The same goes for jam; there's a reason why Bonne Maman does such good business. And then there are the items which I take pleasure in making--bread for instance--that may vie with easily available options (at least outside France), but don't really reflect a mastery of the craft.

I do think, however, that given time, several large pots and a good marketing plan, people might just pay money for my soup.

I'm still working on expanding my repertoire, but this Provencal-inspired fish soup, a riff on a Nigel Slater recipe, has proven to be a bit of a sleeper hit. In contrast to many (good quality) commercial French offerings, where the fish is pureed and the finished product topped with Gruyere toasts, the flavours here seem brighter, cleaner, fishy in the right sort of way. And it's as flexible as the famously belaboured bouillabaisse is not. For instance, while fish stock adds depth to the final product, I've made it successfully without. I also tend to limit myself to one firm, flavourful white fish (usually mullet or bream), simply for practicality. Fresh fennel goes in when I have it, some fennel seeds when I don't. The thyme sprigs could, if necessary, be swapped for a pinch of herb de provence. And anything dry, acidic and white--sauvignon blanc, muscat, a vermentino or verdejo--will work both in the pot and in a glass alongside.

This soup is plenty good without any filips, though I'm prone to adding a dollop of decidedly not homemade rouille (a rich, mildly spicy, red pepper mayo) or aioli to my bowl. I let you know if I can improve upon--or even match--this.

Soupe de Poisson
Enough for 2; can double easily
Total time: 45 minutes
Active time: 20 minutes

olive oil, enough to film the pot
1 medium onion
1/2 small bulb fennel or 1 tsp fennel seeds
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
1 can crushed plum tomatoes
1 strip of orange peel
a few sprigs of thyme
pinch of saffron
1 glass white wine (or vermouth)
1 cup homemade or other good fish stock (optional, substitute a mixture of tomato liquid and water)
500 grams filleted white fish (off the skin is prettier, but the fish will break down faster)
chopped parsley (optional)
rouille or aioli (optional)

Serve with a baguette and chilled white wine

Warm the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, chop the onions and fennel and add, along with a pinch of salt and some pepper, stirring occasionally. Chop the garlic and strip the thyme from its branches. Once the vegetables have fully softened--between 10 and 15 minutes, add the garlic, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds and thyme and toss. Add the tinned tomatoes, holding back about half of the juice. While this cooks down on a low medium heat, infuse the saffron in a few tablespoons of hot water. Warm the fish stock. In 15 minutes, or when the tomato mixture is looked reduced and amalgamated, add the wine. Raise the heat for several minutes to cook off the alcohol, then add the fish stock or watered-down tomato liquid, along with a bit of water if you'd like a looser texture. Let this cook for a few minutes while you chop the fish into bite-size pieces. If you are ready to eat, add the fish and let it cook through on a gentle heat, no more than 5 minutes. Check the seasoning, top with parsley and serve, adding either rouille or aioli to the baguette or the bowl.

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