Any country with even a little bit of a shoreline has got their own kind of seafood soup, or fisherman’s stew. In France, there’s the classic bouillabaisse, in Italy there are several regional versions of zuppa di pesce and cacciucco, Greece has got its kakavia (κακαβία), there’s the slightly spicy Maeun-tang from Korea and there are several types of Creole seafood gumbo and American chowders that could be considered to be in the same category. My version of fish and seafood soup is largely based on those soups from the Mediterranean region that are known for using generous portions of delicate pieces of fresh fish, big juicy prawns and briny clams. If you are planning on serving a meal that will definitely impress your dinner guests (and yourself, most importantly), this soup is a real treat!
Honestly, this soup may take a bit of time to prepare, especially if you are not adept at gutting and filleting fish, but I promise you, it’s well worth the extra effort! A good, flavorful fish stock is the key ingredient in this fish soup and what do you need to make a good stock? Yep. It’s fish heads and bones. For this recipe, I take the time to carefully fillet the fish myself, so that I can use the bones (and shells and heads from the shrimp) to make a quick (40 minute) fish stock. After the fish-bone stock is finished, the fish and seafood are only shortly poached in the flavorful liquid before being served so that the meat remains soft and juicy. Yes, it takes a bit more time and fussing, but surely you want to get the fullest flavor in the soup without overcooking your beautiful fresh fish to death.
The eventual flavour and success of the soup itself also depends slightly on the types of fish and seafood you will use, so…
What kind of fish and seafood to use?
As a general rule of measurement, to serve 6 people, you’ll need about 1.5kg of whole fish (about 3 relatively small fish in total), which seems like a lot, but the eventual weight of the edible meat will, of course, be less after taking out the guts, and filleting. Additionally, you will need about a dozen of large shrimp and about two-dozen clams in total. Of course, the amount you will eventually use depends largely on the actual size of the shells and shrimp. Be smart when picking your ingredients: can only find small (smaller than 7cm) shrimp? Add a couple more. Can only find gigantic clams, or mussels? Reduce the amount slightly… and vice versa.
So, about the actual fish, the ones listed in the recipe below are my personal favorites – as much for their flavor as for them being locally caught – but most recipes for fish soup are quite flexible since they were usually made with whatever was the catch of the day, so you can swap whatever fish is listed with any similar type of fish that is local to your area and is freshest at the market.
You can use any firm,white fish for this soup, as long as you make sure the fish is not too thin, or too soft and flakey (it shouldn’t fall apart in the soup). A very popular fish to use in soups and stews here in Greece and all over the Mediterranean is scorpionfish (σκορπινά). If fresh scorpionfish is available to you, I would highly suggest you pick this ugly critter as one of your choices. While scorpionfish is great on its own, and could definitely even be the only fish used in this soup, I always like to combine it with a small monkfish (πεσκαντρίτσα) and a little gurnard. I suppose all of these fish were once considered to be almost unsellable (they definitely wouldn’t win a beauty pageant), which explains why they are so frequently used in these types of fish soups, or “fishermen’s stews”. However, these uglies were not just considered to be leftovers: while the monkfish and scorpionfish aren’t the prettiest, they’re actually perfect for these soups as their flesh is nice and firm and – you wouldn’t guess it from what they look like – very tasty!
Can’t find scorpionfish and monkfish? Use other firm, white fish such as red mullet, snapper, sea bream, John Dory, or some pieces of cod, pollock, hake, or seabass, to name a few. Avoid using flat fish such as dab, or flounder as they easily fall apart in a soup. Still not quite sure what to use? Ask your fishmonger!
Crustaceans such a shrimp and prawns are an indispensable ingredient for easily adding a deep, intense, umami flavor to the stock – well, at least their heads and shells are! When possible, I opt for some large (read: HUGE) shrimp, or prawns, with some big heads full of flavor. When picking the type and amount of shrimp, just remember: the more heads and shells are left over after peeling your shrimp, the deeper the flavor of your broth – more is more! Of course, if you are feeling real fancy, you could go all out and add some small crabs chopped in half, or even lobster claws and shells instead of shrimp if you like… but I am not that fancy.
About two dozen of clams, cockles, or other types of small bivalves, will be a great addition to this seafood soup; there’s just something about the flavor of the shells in particular that can’t be left out in any good seafood dish. Try not to use clams that are too tiny, or too large: a shell-size somewhere between 3 – 4cm should be alright. Littleneck clams, Manila clams, Venus clams and cockles are easily available at the market here in Greece and they are perfect for dishes such as these. If these bivalves are not easily available to you, just add some mussels, which I believe are more common in many countries and they sure are delicious as well. Since mussels generally are larger, I would use about half of the number of mussels as I would use clams, though there are no real rules.
Having said all that, perhaps you don’t like clams and mussels at all and instead of dealing with scrubbing dirt off of shells, you’d prefer to add some squid (cut into thick rings) to the soup instead. Great. You do you. Just remember that whatever you choose, mollusks (shells and squid alike) are always added last as they only need a couple of minutes to be ready and only a couple of minutes more to become almost indelibly rubbery.
Well, I suppose that’s all you need to know in order to make a great fish and seafood soup at home!
Tip #1: Don’t want to deal with filleting the fish yourself? Buy some fish fillets and ask your fishmonger if he’s selling some fish heads and bones for stock separately. You don’t have to do the dirty job of gutting and filleting the fish yourself, but you should never skimp on making a good fish stock for this soup!
Fish and Seafood Soup
- 1 small (around 500g) whole scorpion fish
- 1 small (around 500g) whole monkfish
- 1 small (around 500g) whole red gurnard
- 12 whole large shrimp, or prawns, (shells and heads on)
- 24 Littleneck-, or Venus clams (or replace with 12 large mussels)
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 small fennel bulb, core removed and thinly sliced
- 2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
- Small bunch of fresh parsley (10g), roughly chopped
- Zest of half an orange, or lemon
- Pinch of saffron threads (optional)
- 150ml dry white wine
- Salt to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- French baguette, or other type of crusty bread, to serve (optional)
- Clean the fish and seafood: Vigorously scrub the mussels, or clams with a brush and de-grit them by placing them in a bowl of salted water if necessary. Next, clean and descale your whole fish. Cut open the bellies and take out the guts (if they are still there). If you are using scorpionfish, carefully snip off the pointy (venomous) spiny fins with kitchen scissors. If you are using monkfish, take off as much of the thick skin as you can (the other fish don’t need to be skinned). Fillet all of the fish, but reserve the heads and bones. Cut the fish fillets into large chunks. Lastly, peel the shrimp and reserve heads and shells. Cover peeled shrimp and fish fillets and keep cool in the fridge until later use.
- Making fish stock: Sauté the chopped onion and the chopped garlic with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat until fragrant. Add the reserved fish heads, bones and the shrimp heads and shells to the pot and sauté until fragrant for 5 minutes. Add 1.6l of water to the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 40 minutes. Pour stock into another container using a strainer to remove all bones and shells. Set stock aside. If you like, pluck some of the leftover fish-meat of off the heads (such as the cheeks) and bones and add them back to the soup during step 4 of this recipe.
- Starting the soup: Clean the pot and place it back onto medium-high heat. Add the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil, chopped tomatoes, sliced fennel, chopped parsley, saffron (if using) and zest of half an orange, or lemon. Sauté for 10 minutes, or until the fennel is tender. Deglaze the pan with the dry white wine and let the alcohol evaporate slightly.
- Adding the fish and seafood: Add the fish stock to the pot with the vegetables and bring to a soft boil. In quick succession add the fish and seafood: start with the largest pieces of fish and then the softer, or thinner pieces and finish by adding the shrimp and bivalves of your choice. Simmer all for 3 - 5 minutes until the fish is cooked (turned opaque) and the shells have opened (discard any that seem dodgy).