Fish Soup with Quick Aioli

This is my attempt at the kind of fish soup, which is almost more of a stew (and is often described as such) you find in a Swedish bistro – a warming, zingy tomato sauce, with plenty of flakes of fish, waves of strong, salty, refreshing flavour, and a heap of plump pink prawns and a dollop of aioli on top.

It’s also a bit of a reaction to the kind of lingering guilt and disappointment you feel when you buy a bag of frozen prawns in the shell, and then throw half the weight of it in the bin once they’re peeled – in this recipe, you’ll extract a refreshingly quick (unlike in a meat-based soup), flavourful stock from the prawn shells, and then layer up even more flavour by poaching some salmon in that stock.

I realise this sounds like a lot of processes, but this is a two-pan meal that, even at a fairly leisurely pace, you can have cooked in 45 minutes.

This recipe is just a snapshot of an approach to this dinner (it’s maybe my fourth version of it, after various tweaks) and if I had my time again, it’d feature some freshly chopped parsley thrown in at the very end, and perhaps a nip of chilli in with the paprika, but you should do as you like, and adapt to what you have in the fridge, freezer and cupboard at the time. One line I would draw though is to take a fairly Italian attitude to the inclusion of dairy here – no butter, no creme fraiche dressing, no milk in the sauce, no parmesan over the top, etc – from which I think the end product benefits, both in flavour, and general lightness. That’s just me though.

I’ve included a kind of cheat’s aioli here, but you can always buy some in or make yours properly, which is always worth doing if you have the time and inclination.

For four people, you will need –

For the soup –

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 leek – washed and divided into white and green halves – white half finely sliced
  • 1tbsp paprika
  • 50ml sake (or vodka, or something vaguely aniseed-ish) – you could skip this, but it really adds a depth to the flavour
  • 1 tin of tomatoes
  • 500g prawns in their shells
  • 4 skinless salmon fillets of around 100g each
  • A handful of fresh sunflower shoots, or something similar like pea shoots, cress or alfalfa

For the quick aioli –

  • 100ml mayonnaise
  • 1 medium clove of garlic, finely grated
  • the juice of half a lemon

Put a heavy based pan on a low-medium heat, add a little cooking oil, and throw in your onions, garlic and leek whites. Keep an eye that they don’t brown, and sweat them in the oil until they become soft and translucent, about 20-30 minutes.

Peel the prawns, putting the meat in a bowl and all the heads and shells into a deep pan. Roughly chop the green leek tops and add them in with the shells, then cover with 1.5 litres of water, bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, occasionally squeezing what flavourful goodness you can out of the shells with a potato masher or a big wooden spoon.

When the simmering time is up, drain the stock into a big bowl, swish and remnants of shell or greens out of the pan, and pour the stock back in.

Bring to the boil, gently lower in your salmon fillets, and poach gently for around two minutes, or until they just begin to become flaky, before carefully fishing out with a slotted spoon and setting aside on a plate. If you’re worried about undercooking, don’t be – the residual heat of the final soup will finish the job easily, and you really don’t want to overcook this salmon and end up with a wooly-tasting soup. Keep the stock ready at hand on the hob.

Once your onions, leeks and garlic are cooked, add the paprika and cook, stirring frequently for a minute, tip in the sake (or whatever booze you’ve chosen) bubble for a moment, then pour in the tomatoes, break them up with a spoon, bring to the boil, and simmer gently, with a lid half on, for ten minutes.

Whilst your tomatoes simmer, mix together the aioli ingredients in a small bowl.

Once the tomatoes have cooked, add about 500ml of the stock, and take a stick blender (or empty the lot very carefully into a heat-proof for processor) and blend well until totally smooth. If the soup seems too thick, add a little more stock. I personally enjoy a lump-free soup, but if you prefer a more coarse, rustic affair, just skip this step and mash up the tomatoes a bit.

Flake in the salmon, taste, then add a hefty grind of black pepper and a pinch of salt and taste again until the seasoning feels just right.

Slice up some nice crusty bread, then ladle the soup into warm bowls, and top with a small handful of prawns, some sunflower shoots, a generous dollop of aioli and a good drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil.

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