Gypsy Kitchens: Soup de Poisson

Soup de poisson is an essential part of the French riviera, as Provençal as sunshine and lavender fields. We talked about making it every day in the region, but never had a kitchen that could handle it. Now, in Monaco, we have the time and the space. Here is our take on a classic - livened up with lots of citrus, made simple and very easy.
The process can take as long as you're willing to give it, with a minimum of about an hour and a half. It's a two-step soup. Step one is the broth making, which can last for a half hour or all afternoon, depending on time investment. The more time the soup simmers, the more fish essence will be dragged out of the bones. The second step focuses on adding a final punch of flavor, where a different fish is cooked and blended into the broth.
The essential flavors are saffron, tomato and fish. It should be noted that this isn't conventional soup de poisson - in fact, locals along the shore would consider it heretical. We like the lightness of the citrus flavors though, and the ease of the cooking process.
Essentially, you buy different types of fish for each step. First, bony, head-on, broth-making fish like red snapper, mackerel, sea bass or trout. Second, boned filets of something a little more delicate and large, like halibut, flounder, dorade or even salmon. It's not necessary to buy expensive cuts; the thing about making this soup is that a lot of fish is going to get boiled and thrown away. Even the filets will get mashed up and incorporated.
Keep the filets in the fridge until later and start with the smaller, bone-in fish. Either buy them cleaned or gut them yourself, then cut them into chunks about two inches long, starting behind the head. Keep the heads, tails and fins.
Because this recipe uses a lot of citrus rind, make sure to scrub your fruit under hot water to get off as much wax and pesticide residue as possible. Grate (don't micro-plane or finely-zest) a few tablespoons of lemon peel and cut one clementine or tangerine into thin slices, including the rind. A small half of an orange can work too. De-seed and chop one very large, ripe tomato (or two smaller tomatoes, obviously). Mince about two tablespoons of ginger and four cloves of garlic, then set it all aside.
The broth begins with the hardier elements. Saute onion, leek, fennel and celery in a large pot with the ginger (preferably a stock pot - we don't travel with one, but they're handy). When everything is nicely softened - maybe even a little browned, but not much - reduce the heat and pour in a generous shot of pastis and all of the bony fish (about pastis: see video and note below), then cover and let simmer for a few minutes. Don't be squeamish about the heads and fins! There's a lot of flavor locked inside and you won't actually be eating them.
Add the tomato, garlic, lemon peel and orange (or clementine/tangerine) to the pot and cook until a little juice has accumulated, then add a cup of white wine, a bay leaf and as much saffron as you can afford (not more than a bare 1/8 tsp.). Cover entirely with cold water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Add as much water as you can cook off. If you plan on leaving the pot to bubble all day, put in a lot. If you only have a half hour, add not much more than a quart. The goal is to reduce the stock to about a quart's worth of liquid, so imagine how much will vaporize over the span of cooking and try to pour accordingly. It's always better to err on the low side, as it's easier to add water than to boil more off.
To the broth, add about a quarter cup of tomato paste and about half that of anchovy or sardine paste. When the stock is as done as you can make it, strain it into another container. Cheese cloth would work great if you have some lying around - we used two stacked colanders, but a sieve is the obvious choice. Just make sure not to let any bones or fisheyes get through. Extrude as much broth from the solids as possible, pressing on the leftover mash with a spoon before discarding it.
Next - and we don't have a picture of this - saute your fish filets in the stockpot (or whatever you have that will fit everything. Use a lot of olive oil, some onion, a few delicate herbs if you'd like. Just make sure to cook it hot and to let it break down. It's nice to overcook it slightly, so that it falls apart easier. When it's done, mash it up with a spatula or fork, juice one lemon into it and pour in the broth. If you have an immersion blender, you can make it quite silken, as is generally the Provençal style. If not, don't worry too much about it. It will either be chunky or smooth, but it won't matter too much in the bowl. Heat up the soup to a bare simmer, then let cool for five minutes or so before serving.
Soup de Poisson is typically served with a little grated cheese, a few toasted baguette rounds and a "rouille," which is essentially a spiced mayonnaise. Feel free to use mayo if you'd like. It's delicious.
We used, instead, a mixture of sheep yogurt, tomato paste, lemon juice and garlic. It's easier than cooking egg yolks, it's healthier and the flavor is brighter. Do it the traditional way: spread the rouille on the crouton and float it in the soup until it's absorbed some broth and softened, then scoop it up and eat it.

Here's the recipe:
Soup de Poisson
1 pound whole, head-on, smallish fish (red snapper, mackerel, sea bass or trout, to name a few possibilities)
1 pound boned and filleted larger fish (halibut, flounder, dorade or salmon, for example)
2 medium leeks, washed, tops discarded and chopped
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 fennel root, chopped, top discarded
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 large tomato, de-seeded and chopped
1 lemon, scrubbed vigorously under hot water and coarsely zested enough to yield 1-2 tablespoons
1 clementine or tangerine, given the bath and scrub, cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds
2 tablespoons diced ginger
4 cloves minced garlic
1 pinch saffron
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/8 cup anchovy or sardine paste
1 glass white wine
1 shot pastis
Olive oil
Salt to taste
Water to boil

- After chopping and preparing everything, saute ginger, onion, leek, fennel and celery in a large pot. Cook over high heat until more than slightly softened. Pour in a shot of pastis and throw in the cut-up whole fish. Cover and let sit for three minutes or so.
- Add the garlic, tomato, orange, saffron and lemon zest. Let cook until juicy, then pour in one cup of wine and the bay leaf.
- Cover with enough cold water and bring to a boil before reducing to a hard simmer. Cook for 1/2 to 4 or 5 hours, adding water if necessary.
- Strain the broth from the solids, being careful not to let fish bones escape into the stock. Discard the solids.
- In the cooking pot, sear the fish fillets over high heat in olive oil and some onion until they are done, then mash with a fork or spatula until mostly broken up. Juice the lemon into the pot, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and let mellow for a few minutes before serving.
A note about pastis: if you've been to the south of France, you've seen old men drinking cloudy glasses of pastis at sunny cafe tables. It's widely considered a morning/early afternoon beverage, despite being a full ninety proof. The spirit is distilled using green anise, and has a bitter licorice flavor, like a more interesting sambuca. By itself it's brownish and clear, but mixed with water - the way it's normally served - it acquires a milky, yellowish haze.
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