Thursday, 8 September 2011

French brasserie-style fish chowder

I don't often make soup because I always seem to end up with a giant panful that would feed 8 or 10 people, when there's only me. I keep a couple of tins of lentil soup in the cupboard for those occasions when I'm ill or it's late and I'm tired and I want the easy option.

But there is one soup recipe I always go back to because it's foolproof and it's possible to make it in a quantity that produces two or three generous helpings (you can freeze it if you defrost with care and reheat it slowly).

My inspiration came from a Nigel Slater recipe called "A French(ish) fish broth", which I found in his 1997 book, Real Cooking. The original version is for 4 people and contains leeks, celery, chilli flakes, tomatoes and tarragon - none of these appear in my adaptation. I'm not keen on tomato in fish soup even though it's a standard ingredient of bouillabaisse and I steered away from the chilli because Slater also uses pastis in the broth - I felt it would overpower the delicate aniseed flavours of the pastis and the fennel he includes. As I adore both fennel and pastis (both hangovers from when I lived in Paris), my version sticks with the aniseed tones and incorporates fresh dill too. My added vegetables, apart from the fennel, are carrot and pepper and the end result is a wonderfully aromatic, brightly coloured chowder that I think would not be out of place on a brasserie menu.

What you need: 
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
Olive oil
A generous glug of pastis
About a pint/half a litre of vegetable stock (I use Marigold bouillon)
A generous pinch of saffron
I medium carrot, diced
I small red pepper, deseeded and sliced into thin strips
I fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4-5 small new potatoes, cut into 1cm chunks
A pack of fish pie mix (from the supermarket or fishmonger and usually containing a mix of cod, salmon and smoked haddock chunks)
Fresh dill

What to do:
Sauté the onion in a little olive oil on a low heat until it turns translucent, add the crushed garlic, stir through and cook for a couple more minutes then pour in the pastis, let it sizzle briefly, and then the stock and the saffron. Add the carrot, fennel, potato and red pepper, turn up the heat then let it simmer for around 20 minutes with a lid on until the vegetables are tender. Add the fish, bring it back to a simmer and cook for a further 5 minutes until the fish is just starting to flake. Turn off the heat, season to taste and stir in a tablespoon of roughly chopped dill. Then dish up.

Cook's tips:
If you don't have any Pernod, Ricard or other type of pastis, any other aniseed drink such as ouzo or raki will do.

Do add more water to the pan if it looks too dry -you don't want a very watery soup, rather it should be like a stew just held together with the broth.

If your fennel bulb has the fronds on it, keep them back and add to the soup with the dill, or instead of if you can't get fresh dill.

I often add a small bag of frozen cooked jumbo prawns a couple of minutes before I chuck the fish in, or a handful of frozen mixed seafood (usually mussels, squid and prawns). I don't bother to defrost first - they are already cooked and will thaw and heat up quickly in the hot broth.