A few years ago, I came across the recipe for Nigel Slater's Fish pie and I fell in love. Cream, potatoes, smoked haddock, it seemed perfect. It was perfect. It was my star piece when we had dinner guests. It was my comfort and joy on a cold winter's night. I pooh-poohed bouillabaise and any variation with all those tomatoes and shellfish. How could it compare to the ultimate comfort food? In vain, my brother tried to convince me that Nigel's French-ish Fish soup (a bouillabaise variation) was better than the creamy pie. He even made it for me and I thought it was good, but not as good as the pie. I don't know why the tomato version left me a bit cold but it did. Until now. Now that I've made it myself and increased the garlic quotient (and incidentally forgot the saffron - must try it with next time) I'm converted. I think it must be a case of all the cosmic elements conspiring to put me right in the mood at exactly the right time. It's the end of the summer and the tomatoes on my terrace are plump and full of flavour. But it's starting to be cool in the evenings and so a hot soup sounds just right. Fall seems like a good season for fish too - you don't have to worry about it sitting out all day in a pool of melted ice.
I think I've read about a million recipes for a soup similar to this so I didn't even bother to crack open a cookbook when I started making it. Thus the forgotten saffron, but it was extraordinarily tasty without it anyway. In fact, though I generally agree completely with Nigel Slater's attitude of "play with my recipes, make them your own" I'm almost tempted to just reproduce this one next time around exactly as it is. Perfect.
Meg's Frenchified Fish Soup (enough for a big pot, 6-8 servings)
450 g shrimp (I bought them cooked but it'll be even nicer if you can get fresh)
300 g halibut
300 g red mullet
2 Roscoff onions
4-6 large juicy cloves of garlic
5 small dried red bird's eye peppers
200 g potatoes (4-5 small ones)
5 small tomatoes
1 glass of dry white wine
1 Tbs chopped fresh thyme
1/2 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary
Freshly ground pepper
Peel the the shrimp (fresh or cooked) and toss the heads, tails and shell bits in a large stock pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a soft barely rolling boil and cook for 20 minutes or so. I dare you to try to peel that many shrimp without giving one or two to the kitty. Mine would bite my kneecaps if I tried.
In the meantime, slice the onions in thin wedges. Clean the potatoes and cut into small cubes. Wash and chop your herbs. Cut the fish in bite-sized chunks. To skin the tomatoes I invented a new trick I'm rather proud of: I used the electric kettle to boil some water and simply poured it over the tomatoes. After about five minutes, the skins were loose and I could peel and chop them. I'm usually too lazy to peel tomatoes and pretend I'm leaving the skins on for the sake of roughage but this is no work at all!
When the kitchen smells lovely and shrimp-like (your cat may come back in sniffing hopefully at this point - mine did), remove it from the fire. Place a colandar in a large bown and pour the shrimp and water into it. Put a little butter in the bottom of the now empty pot and add the onions, roughly chopped garlic and herbs. Cook them to a soft buttery stage and add the chopped tomatoes. Stir for a bit and then add the glass of wine to deglaze. Scrape up any glazed onion-y bits and bring to a boil. Add the strained shrimp stock. Add the potatoes and dried peppers. Cook for ten to fifteen minutes until the potatoes are tender and almost done.
Now you can add the shrimp and fish chunks. If the shrimp are raw, bring to a full boil first and let them cook for a few minutes before adding the fish. You want to make sure they are cooked through, but not over-cook the fish.
Serve with garlic croutons spread with rouille sauce. This adds the perfect, final touch to the dish: garlicky and a little peppery and - though it sounds unappetising - a little oily. I think this might actually be the perfect touch that pushed the soup over the edge for me, from "nice soup" to "amazing soup".
A note on the garnish: I used store-bought rouille and store-bought croutons. In a perfect world where my only responsibility would be to cook and shop I would make these from scratch. But luckily (since I have work and blogging and baby food to make) I live in France where good croutons and rouille can be found. If you want to make your own, toss bread cubes in butter and pressed garlic and bake in a low oven for 10-15 minutes. Then make an aioli (home-made mayonnaise mixed with raw pressed garlic) and add roasted peppers and a few pepper flakes. Process to a smooth paste. Taste for salt and pepper.