— At the village market, my friend Pepa buys a couple of small white fish, a handful of clams, a few shrimp. I ask what she's preparing. "Una sopa marinera, de pescado," she replies. A fish soup. Nothing fancy, no complications, just a simple home-style fish soup, ready in minutes.
In Spanish, "marinera" has nothing to do with tomato sauce — it means mariner's style, fishermen's fare. These seafood soups are traditional aboard fishing boats or in fishermen's homes, where the remains of the day's catch find their way into the soup pot. From the village where Pepa and I shop, we look down to the Mediterranean coast, where a fishing port receives fresh seafood daily.
Many fish soups are as simple as the one Pepa was making — fresh fish boiled briefly, strained and flaked, then the broth flavored with olive oil, garlic and pimentón to serve over slices of sturdy bread with the bits of fish. Others get flavor from an unusual ingredient, such as the juice of sour oranges, crushed nuts or a dash of sherry.
Spain is a country with more than 3,000 miles of coastline. From the wild Atlantic coast of Galicia to the craggy shore of the Bay of Biscay of the Basque country; from the bustling ports of Barcelona to the Mediterranean coast of Málaga come superb seafood soups.
In Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain, best-known in the U.S. for its Albariño wines, is Finisterre, the end of the world, nearly the last stop before America. The most typical fisherman's stew of Galicia and neighboring Asturias is caldeirada or caldereta , originally made aboard fishing boats by boiling potatoes in clean seawater with pieces of the day's catch. A simple ajada, a sauce of olive oil, garlic, pimentón and a splash of vinegar, enlivens the boiled fish, potatoes and broth.
The Basque country also has simple home-style soups, such as zurrucutuna, a garlic soup thickened with bread, embellished with salt cod and finished with poached egg. But there are also soups that are more refined. Sopa de pescados y mariscos a la vasca, for example, requires making a fish stock, then sautéeing each fish in olive oil before adding it to the soup, but it's worth the effort.
Following the Mediterranean coast south, you enter the large region known as Andalusia, where olive oil and fish are the starting points for several distinctive soups. Gazpachuelo, with obvious roots in gazpacho, is thickened with an olive oil and egg emulsion. The simple version contains bits of fish and potatoes, but more elaborate versions, sometimes called sopa Viña AB, for a type of dry sherry added to it, contain chunks of fish, shrimp, ham, potatoes and peas.
In Spain, monkfish, a fish with an enormous, ugly head and sweet, bone-free flesh, is much favored for soup. The head goes into the stock pot and the firm flesh goes into the soup. In the U.S., use any white fish — monkfish, halibut, rock cod, pollock, barramundi, croaker, lingcod or white seabass. Squid and cuttlefish add much flavor to a stock and, once cooked, can be added to the soup as well. Shrimp and other crustaceans add to a soup's flavor. Clams are allowed to open right in the soup. They make a little clatter as the soup is ladled into bowls. Even in the best restaurants, you have to get your fingers into the soup to eat them.
That's how to dine à la marinera.
Mendel is the author of five books on Spanish cooking, and she blogs at My Kitchen in Spain.