Recipes for fish soup usually begin by telling you to make a fish stock using bones and scraps you get from your fishmonger. This is good advice; no question about it. The only problem is that finding fish bones and scraps--heck, even finding a fishmonger--is getting more and more difficult. They might as well tell us “first you catch your hare.”
For better or worse, most of us buy our fish at the supermarket. Though we have made great gains in accessibility this way, we have suffered the loss of some niceties.
Fish frames are among them. Finding a fish on the bone today (a prerequisite for finding the bone off the fish) is as rare as, say, finding Brussels sprouts on the stalk. It’s almost as if the filet has become the fish’s natural state.
Where have all the bones gone? I don’t know. You can sometimes find whole fish at Asian markets, but most rock cod aren’t very flavorful. And you can sometimes find the odd salmon pieces sold for stock. Don’t bite. Salmon has a very definite flavor, and stock made from it should be used only in salmon chowder or something like that.
But it’s one thing to curse the darkness; it’s another to make fish soup. Though fish frames are hard to find, there’s a more than adequate substitute available.
Sure, you’ve heard that one before. Cookbooks from the ‘50s and ‘60s sometimes called for adding bottled clam juice. Have you tasted bottled clam juice? (Oh, well, they also called for using gin if you didn’t have white wine. Just think about the implications of that!)
The best stocks seem to be made from things we usually throw away, and this fish broth, made using shrimp shells, is no different. Particularly if you buy shrimp with the head on (something that, paradoxically, seems to be more and more available, even as fish frames are disappearing ), you can turn these scraps into the start of a soup that is quite luxurious.
Shrimp shells, especially the heads, are full of flavorful fat. Simmer them in some water for even 20 minutes and you’ve got the start of something good. Simmer them with wine, a good flavoring base of cooked vegetables and some added mussel and clam broth (fresh, not bottled) and you’re on your way to something great.
Incidentally, the same stock can be used to make an incredible sauce with just the addition of some heavy cream. Add a little cubed ham and maybe some smoky paprika and you’ve got a great topping for fresh pasta.
All you need is a food processor or blender to grind the shells and shake loose some of the extra flavor. You’ll never get the shells and vegetables completely pureed, but if you just leave the machine running for five minutes, you’ll get the shells ground very fine. Then strain it to get rid of the debris. It helps to use a heavy strainer because you’ll want to push hard with the back of a wooden spoon to get as much broth as possible.
Once you’ve made the stock, this soup comes together in less than 20 minutes, despite what might seem like a long list of ingredients. That makes it ideal for a dinner party when you don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen. Bring the broth to a simmer, add the meaty fish you’ve already cubed and marinated, then the raw shrimp and, finally, when you’re almost ready to serve, the clams and mussels in their shells. When they’ve heated through, you’re ready.
This gives you a wonderful combination of sweet, moist meat in a rusty red, deeply flavored broth. I put some saffron in the broth, because I think its slight bitterness really plays up the sweetness of the fish, and I use smoky Turkish ground red pepper for just a little more complexity, but you can leave out either one, or make some adjustments of your own.
Be sure to taste the soup before serving it. Sometimes a little salt is necessary, depending on the saltiness of the shellfish. As with most soups, a final zap of vinegar or lemon juice can bring it to life if it tastes a little flat.
What’s next? A substitute for wild hare?