Provencal Fish Soup Recipe by Curious
A Dabble in Catering
Last summer I offered to cook a Provencal fish soup for a friend and their 12 friends…I like to make my life difficult…
Fish soup is taken seriously here in Provence. Bouillabaisse is the king of the various types of fish soups. This often takes 2 days to make, is very expensive, and would require filleting various types of different fish at the table. Not something I would be good at!
Bouillabaisse was originally a fish stew made by Marseillaise fishermen using the small, and wide variety of rockfish that were too small to sell. It’s this wide variety of fish that gives the soup its flavour. I watched some fishermen making the traditional version of Bouillabaisse at the market and I couldn’t believe all the different types of fish being thrown into the pot!
These fish were simmered for some time most likely in a well-used pot on the beach or boat. Everyone seems to have their own opinion to which fish should be in a Bouillabaisse but the absolute musts, according to my local fishmonger, are the Rascasse and St Pierre. Otherwise, there can be crab, turbot, monkfish, mullet, conger, hake, shellfish etc. You’ll even see Bouillabaisse royal or sexy Bouillabaisse? with lobster.
Despite its humble origins, Bouillabaisse will always be unique due to the addition of saffron and Mediterranean spices as well as the way in which it is served.
In Marseille, the broth is served first with slices of bread and rouille, then the fish is served separately on a large platter with possibly more broth.
I wanted to make the base of the Bouillabaisse, arguably it’s essence, for my recipe. I researched many different recipes, including the 60-year-old stained notes of my neighbour, to find my version of this delicious soup.
A Labour of Love
Everyone told me, including the fishermen, that I’d be crazy to make the soup base from scratch. Of course, it’s better homemade they agreed- but the work! This meal is special not only because it’s tasty, and expensive to make, but time-consuming.
You’ll Need a Food Mill
There are two ways to grind down the rock fish that are boiled whole in broth. You can either use a heavy duty Chinois bullion strainer, as is done in restaurants. Or, in the way of the Provencal grandma, use a food mill, or moulin à legumes. Because I thought that my elbow grease may be lacking, I chose the traditional food mill.
In my stubbornness not to buy a bigger food mill than what I already had, I was up until midnight the night before grinding down those bones. But, don’t let my stubbornness throw you off. I do tend to like to make my life difficult. I would suggest making the broth the day before serving the soup.
About This Recipe
I created this recipe to be beautiful, tasty (of course) as well as relatively budget-friendly. There are lots of vegetables in the stock and base as I was aiming for an aromatic soup. You can substitute the cod for other fish, but I found it’s fleshy texture the most delicious and practical for my presentation. We did do taste tests! Throughout this recipe, you’ll find suggested shortcuts. Make sure to read it through entirely beforehand.
1 kg rock fish (this is a Mediterranean mix of small fish that live close to the rocks, including many of the same varieties used whole later in the traditional bouillabaisse. You may even get a couple crabs in there!) Poissons de roche en francais.
4 fresh tomatoes
2 banana shallots (large shallots)
2 fennel bulbs
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 small bird’s-eye chilli pepper
5 sprigs of fresh lemon or normal thyme, tough stalks removed.
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sweet paprika
250ml dry white wine
1 tsp dried saffron, or a pinch of the saffron threads (to be added near the end)
8 tiger prawns (you can buy these frozen)
4 square pieces of cod (about 200g each)
200g of fresh mussels, shells cleaned
A sprig of chervil for each bowl.
Rouille on croutons (garlicky mayonnaise from the Mediterranean, available at any fishmongers here in Provence. Otherwise, make it yourself)
3 small waxy potatoes per portion boiled under tender (12 potatoes in total) arranged on the plate
Make the Fish Stock
Separate the shells and heads of the cleaned tiger pawns.
There are many ways to make a wonderful fish stock. My way is a simplification of a friend’s recipe using a whole lobster. For reasons of budget and a lack of lobsters here in the Mediterranean, I used the shells of the large prawns/shrimp to make the stock. If you’d rather present the dish with the shells still on the prawns, or prefer not to use them altogether, ask your fishmonger for some fresh good quality fish stock.
Remove the shells from the prawns, clean them, and re-refrigerate the prawns.
Throw the shells into a hot pan with a glug of olive oil and a small knob of butter. Fry the shells on a medium-high heat until they start to take on some colour. Don’t be shy. When they’re browned, add 1 litre of water and make sure to deglaze the pan by scraping off all the tasty bits on the bottom.
Leave to simmer on a low heat for 1 hour, skimming the surface every so often to remove the impurities.
Strain and set aside to cool.
Make the Soup Base
Chop all the vegetables and place in a bowl ready. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large pan. Add the vegetables and cook on a medium heat until softened. Meanwhile, rinse the rock fish well.
Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scrape the bottom of the pan. Add the rest of the herbs and spices except the saffron. Add the rock fish. Cover to the top of the ingredients with the fish stock. Simmer on a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 hr. Periodically skim the scum off the surface with a spoon.
Take off the heat, allow to cool.
You may be surprised to learn that the fish are pressed in their entirety, bones and all, to create this soup. There are 2 ways this can be done, the traditional way with a food mill, as I did, or the restaurant way, that requires even more effort, to pass vigorously through a chinoise.
The idea is to remove the largest bones. Meanwhile, the smallest will dissolve into the soup, making it thick. A food processor will not achieve this.
Ladle the cooled mixture into your mill with the second to smallest metal strainer. Turn the handle until what remains in the top is quite dry. Remove this and start again with the next batch. Continue until done.
Now you have the base of Bouillabaisse!
*The easiest thing to do next would be to reheat the soup, and poach the fish until just cooked (no longer) in the broth. However, for presentation purposes, I chose to pan-fry my fish in butter separately.
Reheat the soup.
Peel and boil the small potatoes so that they’re ready for serving. We boiled them separately because we found their yellow colour a welcome contrast to the soup. However, you can always throw them in the pot and boil them in the soup.
Pan fry or poach the cod filets (about 10 minutes depending on thickness).
Pan fry or poach the tiger prawns (about 3 minutes). Add the mussels to the soup. Add the saffron to the soup.
At this point, season the soup to taste with salt. The mussels will add some salt, especially if they’re Mediterranean mussels, so wait until they open. Add another chilli if you like to taste the heat.
Add the cod to the bowls. Carefully ladle the soup around the cod, add the tiger prawns and mussels. Place the chervil on the cod.
Serve with rouille on croutons and dry white wine like Cassis.
*If you’ve bought fennel bulbs with some of the fronds still on, reserve them to decorate the dish for serving.
*Can’t find chervil or fennel fronds? Add a sprig of parsley instead.
*If you really don’t want to go through the hassle of making the soup base, that is definitely forgivable…
*you can buy delicious rouille already made at fishmongers in Provence. Otherwise, here is a rouille recipe.
How was the Dinner?