Soupe de Poisson
This is how they make fish soup at one of my favourite London restaurants – Poule au Pot in Pimlico. Now that I no longer live in London, I miss it, especially at this time of year, when that city is cosying into the shorter days, actively consoling itself with red wine (served in 1.5 litre bottles at Poule!), and bracing heavily for the soon-to-be unavoidable Christmas mayhem. In my new desert home on the other hand, (still 30 degrees outside and likely to pretty much stay that way), I play at pretend autumn, putting on the baking gloves, pickling anything I can get my hands on, and re-visiting my seasonal favourites from elsewhere… Which is probably for the best really, as it is much easier to romanticise the cold when you are feeling nice and warm!
Unlike a typical Brittany fish soup, which is tomato-based and Pastis-spiked (and which I do also love – see my recipe here), this soup is clear, ideally, (but I’ll get to that), and has a little bit of white rice cooked into it. The rice, perhaps inexplicably, is almost my favourite thing about it, a little surprise to be found, hidden beneath the poached fish, prawns and shells.
You can use any mix of fish and seafood that you like, but it is important to buy whole fish. Even if you get the fish monger to do the filleting for you, don’t forget to take home the off-cuts – head, bones everything, as it’s these that are simmered down to flavour the stock. The filets themselves are only briefly poached into the soup at the end.
So... clarity, it’s important (all the better to see the gorgeous little rice grains with), and relies on the stock ingredients being cut into large chunks, and left to simmer undisturbed. So no wooden-spoon-mixing or soup swirling! It can sometimes be hard to get right – but other things, like thoroughly rinsing the starch from the rice also help, and a fine sieve, or even a muslin, to strain the broth is a life-saver.
- 1 carrot – coarsely chopped
- 1 stick of celery – coarsely chopped
- 1 medium shallot – chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic – gently smashed with a large, flat-bladed knife
- ½ large fennel bulb – roughly chopped
- 1 medium Plaice – skinned and filleted, but head, bones, skin and other off cuts retained
- 1 Bream – again skinned and filleted, but retaining off-cuts
- 8 prawns – shelled and de-veined, tails left on
- Handful of mussels and/or clams or cockles – scrubbed clean, any with open shells discarded
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons of curry powder
- Small bunch of parsley – leaves and stalks coarsely chopped + some chopped finely to garnish
- 2 bay leaves
- A few fresh thyme sprigs
- Pinch of saffron
- 2 litres of water
- 25g of white, medium grain rice
- ¼ lemon – juice only
- Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
The first step is to create a stock using the fish off-cuts, vegetables, and aromats…
To do this, begin by heating two tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan or stockpot over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, fry the fish trimmings (plaice & bream, head, tail, skin and bones) for a few minutes or until the skin has begun to brown and crisp.
Remove the fish from the pot, and place aside momentarily. Add a further two tablespoons of olive oil to the pot, and introduce the coarsely chopped veg (carrot, celery, shallot, and fennel), along with the whole cloves of smashed garlic. Gently soften everything over a medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes, before adding the curry powder, chopped parsley, bay leaves, and thyme. Season generously with salt, and pepper.
Next, re-introduce the fish to the pot, and pour over 2 litres of water. Sprinkle the saffron threads on top, and then turn up the heat, bringing the stock briefly to a boil. Once boiling, immediately reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, without stirring, for 35 minutes.
Drain the stock through a finely meshed, or muslin-lined, sieve, discarding the vegetables and fish trimmings. Then, pour into to a wide casserole, or a large frying pan with high sides, and a snug-fitting lid.
Rinse the rice thoroughly under cold running water, in order to remove excess starch. When the water running through the rice is no longer cloudy, add the drained rice to the pot containing the stock, cover with a lid, and place over a medium heat.
When the stock begins to boil, reduce the heat slightly, and cook the rice for about ten minutes.
After this time, check on the progress of the rice by scooping some out and giving it a quick taste. We’ll be adding the fish and shellfish next, and poaching everything together for a further five minutes in total, so the rice should still have some bite, but be well on its way to being cooked. ‘Very ‘al dente,’ but nearing edibility,’ is the best way I can think to describe what we are looking for at this stage!
Next, cut the fish fillets into generous chunks before carefully lowering into the soup using a slotted spoon. The broth should be steadily simmering, but not bubbling too violently. Add the prawns and shellfish to the pot as well, arranging these around the fish.
Cover once again, and poach everything gently together for five minutes, or until the fish has cooked through and shells have steamed open.
Check the seasoning once again prior to serving, discard any un-opened shells, and squeeze over a little lemon juice.
To serve, place a mixture of fish, prawns, and shellfish in the bottom of each bowl, before spooning the soup carefully over the top. Scoop the rice from the bottom of the pan using a large spoon, and deposit a little of this in each dish, just underneath and to the side of the seafood.
Scatter over some chopped parsley for extra colour if you’d like, and serve with as large a bottle of wine as you can find… white works best, I suppose, but if you wish to follow the Poule a Pot tradition, break with taste on this point, and drink red regardless! After months of white wine drinking, some inappropriate red wine enthusiasm is excusable, surely?