Fish soup base makes for easy dinner parties

Fish soup base makes for easy dinner parties

Restaurants have go-to recipes — ones the cook enjoys making and the guests order over and over again. At home, I turn to one-pot soups for the same reasons.

I have a couple of fish soup bases that I like to have on hand, whether for the family meal or to make dinner parties easier. When the guests arrive, I can simply reheat the base, add some fresh fish and serve with great bread and a tossed salad.

Both recipes are inspired by my travels — my favorite way to keep vacation memories alive. When winter feels gray and cold, I recall the sunny beaches of Nice and the quaint fish market just outside our rented apartment window. Soupe de poisson Niçoise, a hearty tomato, garlic and saffron-flavored fish soup, is on nearly every restaurant menu.

No wonder. It’s restorative and redolent with the aromas of the sea. Crusty bread and a small crock of rouille, a garlicky red-pepper condiment, accompany the bowl.

When selecting fish for soup, look for mild-tasting, non-oily fish, such as cod, tilapia or halibut. Always pay attention to how the fish was sourced; a good fish market will be able to tell you about its provenance. Shellfish makes great soup, so I stock a bag or two of frozen raw shrimp in the freezer for quick additions. Likewise, canned fish, such as salmon or lump crab, can make a delicious chowder any time.

Traditional recipes instruct the cook to boil the fish with its bones until the stock is flavorful and the fish falls into fine shreds. Then there is straining, pureeing and more simmering. I save time by using skinless fish fillets and prepared seafood stock — either from the freezer case at the local fish market or from the grocery store shelves.

Most soups start with sautéed vegetables to build flavor. For the Niçoise-style soup, fresh fennel, leek and crisp, white onions are sautéed in good French olive oil. Then, canned tomato purée and a bit of dry vermouth are added along with the fish stock. Pinches of ground saffron, or more readily available saffron threads, add a musty undertone typical of the classic versions in France.

To finish the soup, I make a fast blender-friendly version of rouille. Some of the garlicky purée is used to season the tomato base before the fish is added. The rest is served on the side.

“Chowder” just might be one of the best food words ever. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a bowl of a well prepared version, you can conjure the memory just by saying the word. My favorite is always creamy and studded with bacon. Sweet corn doesn’t hurt. This version calls for fresh salmon and bay scallops. I add some lump crab when I want to impress. Sharp, tangy hot sauce adds kick.

The creamy soup base is so good that you could skip the fish and turn it into vegetable chowder simply by doubling the corn and adding some roasted diced red and poblano peppers. For a speedy weeknight chowder, I use canned salmon in place of fresh fish. It’s better than anything sold at the soup bars at the local grocery stores.

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