As frequent readers may remember, I spent many summers in France in my younger days. Much of this time was in Montpellier, in the south of France. When the weather starts to warm up, as it has recently in Memphis, I tend to think about the food I had there.
Last weekend I had a group of friends over for a dinner party. We did it in a sort of class format, with recipes and cooking demos. I chose Southern French as the cuisine. For the first seated course, we had a fish soup very representative of Provence, on the Mediterranean coast.
Unlike heavier seafood soups, such as gumbos or chowders, this is a light and brothy soup. It makes a great introduction to a summer dinner, or with a salad, it makes a great luncheon on its own.
For the fish, you want a very full flavored whitefish. I used fresh amberjack from the Paradise Seafood truck. It has the perfect flavor and texture, but turbot, pollack or cod would also work. A more delicate fish, such as sole or flounder, would be lost in the lusty seasonings of this soup.
I used canned tomatoes, but when the good summer tomatoes are available from the farmers’ markets, peel, seed and dice them instead.
A traditional addition at the table is a tiny splash of the regional apéritif known as pastis. It is typically served on ice, with a generous splash of water. It has an anise flavor, which some don´t care for as a beverage, but it makes a big difference in the flavor. A couple of the guests were a little doubtful about a “fish soup,” but with this added touch, raved over it.
There are several brands of pastis available here; I use Pernod. As a drink, I’m not crazy about it, but I find lots of other uses for it. The soup will be delicious without it, but if you pick up a bottle to use with this soup, I promise a few other recipes using it over the next several months.
One more note: this soup freezes well. If you want to double it, freeze it in quart containers and you’ll have an easy dinner or lunch when the Memphis heat makes it just too hot to cook.
Provençal Fish Soup
¼ cup olive oil
4 plump cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
¾ cup celery, minced
1 generous pinch each dried thyme, oregano and basil
1 can (15-16 oz.) diced tomatoes
2 quarts fish stock (see note)
1 lb. boneless firm white fish
Pernod or other pastis (optional)
In a large heavy pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir a few times, then add the onion and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally two minutes, then add the herbs. Continue to sauté until the vegetables are translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes with their juices. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to as low as it will go, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Add the fish stock, bring to a boil and add the fish cut into small chunks. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes uncovered. Add salt to taste, cover and simmer 20 minutes.
With a wire whisk, whisk well to break up the chunks of fish and blend the flavors. You may need to use a potato masher to flake the fish into small pieces. It depends on the variety of fish you use. Serve in flat soup bowls with a baguette toast floating on top. Pass the Pernod bottle at the table for each person to add to taste. It just takes a teaspoon or two for each serving. Serves 6 as a main course, or 8 as a first course soup.
NOTES: Fish stock can be made from concentrated fish stock base (available from Penzeys), fish bouillon cubes (available in most Hispanic markets and some supermarkets), or use 2 bottles clam juice and six cups water.