2 do-ahead fish soup bases make for easy dinner parties

  • JeanMarie Brownson
  • Chicago Tribune
12:00 a.m. Tuesday, March 6, 2018 Food
The nicoise-style soup has a base of sauteed vegetables and tomatoes. Those ingredients are pureed, then the soup is finished with cod. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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, stews and slow-cooker meals for the same reasons.

I like to prepare a couple of fish soup bases 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 nicoise, 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 and 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 day of the week.

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 are 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. Seafood stock from Kitchen Basics proves reliable, nicely flavored and moderately salted.

Most soups start with sauteed vegetables to build flavor. For the nicoise-style soup, fresh fennel, leek and crisp, white onions are sauteed in good French olive oil. Then, canned tomato puree 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 puree is used to season the tomato base before the fish is added. The rest is served at the table.

“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 chowder 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, Louisiana-style red-pepper hot sauce adds kick.

The creamy soup base is so good, 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. Better than anything sold at the soup bars at the local grocery stores.

Tomato and Saffron Fish Soup a la Nice

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

1 small fennel bulb, about 4 ounces, ends trimmed, diced

1 small leek, halved, rinsed, chopped

1 large white onion, about 6 ounces, diced

8 small cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree

1 quart (32 ounces) seafood stock (or light chicken broth)

2 tablespoons vermouth or dry white wine, optional

Generous pinch ground saffron or 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon crushed espelette pepper or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Rouille, recipe follows

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds line-caught wild cod fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces

1. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat. Add fennel, leek and onion. Cook and stir on medium-low until softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook a couple minutes. Do not brown the vegetables.

2. Add the tomato puree, seafood stock, vermouth, 1/4 cup water, saffron and espelette pepper. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to low, and simmer uncovered, stirring often, about 20 minutes. Puree smooth with immersion blender or in a blender, working carefully in small batches. (The base can be made several days in advance; refrigerate covered.)

3. Reheat the base, and adjust with up to 1 cup water if the soup is thicker than heavy cream. Stir in 1/2 cup of the rouille. Season with salt (about 1 teaspoon) and a generous 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the fish. Simmer until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 10 minutes. Use a fork to break up the fish. Season again with more salt and pepper as needed.

4. Serve with remaining rouille and toasted bread.


Prep: 10 minutes

Makes: 1 1/2 cups

3 or 4 slices 1/2-inch thick French baguette or 2 thick slices ciabatta bread

1/3 cup olive oil

1 jar (12 ounces) roasted red bell peppers, drained, rinsed

1/4 teaspoon ground espelette pepper or 1 small serrano pepper, stemmed, halved, seeded

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch ground saffron, optional

1. Soak the bread in 2 tablespoons very hot water and the oil in a small bowl until softened.

2. Transfer to a blender; add remaining ingredients. Process until a smooth puree.

Nutrition information per serving: calories, g fat, g saturated fat, mg cholesterol, g carbohydrates, g sugar, g protein, mg sodium, g fiber

Creamy Fish Chowder with Bacon, Corn and Spinach

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 45 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

You can use 1 or 2 cans (14.75 ounces each) wild-caught Alaskan red salmon and some canned crab here in place of the fresh fish for a speedy soup. Pick through the canned salmon to remove any bones or skin. I like a Louisiana-style hot red-pepper sauce with this soup; Sriracha is too sweet.

1 small (3 ounces) leek, split lengthwise, rinsed

2 thick slices bacon, diced (about 2 ounces)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium (6 ounces total) yellow-skin potatoes, diced

1 small white onion, diced

1 large carrot, peeled, diced

1 small serrano pepper, halved, seeded, minced

1 quart (32 ounces) seafood stock or chicken broth

1 cup frozen corn kernels

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream

Salt, freshly ground pepper

12 ounces salmon fillet, skinned, cut into ¾-inch pieces

1 pound bay scallops, rinsed

1 small bunch fresh spinach, stems trimmed, well rinsed, roughly chopped, about 2 to 3 loosely packed cups

Chopped fresh chives

Hot red-pepper sauce

1. Remove most of the dark green section of the leek and save for other use. Dice the white and light green portion.

2. Put leek, bacon, olive oil, potatoes, onion, carrot and serrano into a large saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Do not brown.

3. Stir in seafood stock or broth, and 1 cup water. Heat to a boil; reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, stirring often, 20 minutes. (Base can be made several days in advance; refrigerate covered.)

4. Reheat the base, and stir in corn and cream. Simmer over low heat, 5 minutes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Stir in salmon and scallops. Simmer, 2 minutes. Stir in spinach. Simmer until salmon almost flakes, about 2 more minutes. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.

5. Garnish with fresh chives. Serve right away with warm bread or oyster crackers. Pass the hot sauce.