Saffron seasons this fine kettle of rockfish soup

The Whole Dish Podcast: Adapt a traditional recipe to use ingredients on hand

In anticipation of Lent, a special seafood event at Food 4 Less landed us 10 pounds of Alaska rockfish for the freezer.

Before vacuum-sealing and freezing the haul, I buttermilk-battered, panko-breaded and fried a half dozen or so fillets, a preparation enthusiastically received by my husband and sons. But lest we eat too much fried food, I planned to give some of those mild fillets a quick bath in delicately seasoned soup.

Rockfish are among the non-oily white-fleshed fish, such as cod, haddock and halibut, that lend themselves to soup. And if you have boneless, skinless fish and a supply of good, prepackaged or homemade seafood stock, the meal comes together speedily.

That’s why an evening event and late start on dinner didn’t prevent me from making the fish stew several nights later. We already had homemade stock in the fridge and the dish’s remaining ingredients on hand.

Adapting a vegetarian recipe for Mediterranean Saffron Stew from “A Beautiful Bowl of Soup,” by Paulette Mitchell, I built the soup on a base of sliced leeks, diced onion and minced garlic, deglazed with the bottle of rose we planned to drink with dinner.

Waiting for saffron threads to steep in hot water, I peeled and diced sweet, red and Yukon gold potatoes. Those went into the pot with the saffron and liquid, a quart of stock and some diced, home-grown and -canned tomatoes. Once the potatoes were soft, the chunks of fish took less than five minutes to cook.

I skipped the rouille to keep preparation rolling along, but next time would make it in advance. Likewise, I saw no need to puree the soup before adding the fish and even preferred a more rustic texture to contrast with the saffron’s sweet, floral flavor.

Below is the Chicago Tribune’s more refined version of fish soup typical to the south of France. As I mentioned at dinner, fennel is an essential flavor in that region that would have heightened the sweet notes of our soup, too.

Tribune News Service photo

Tomato and Saffron Fish Soup a la Nice

1/4 cup olive oil

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

1 small leek, halved, rinsed and chopped

1 large white onion, about 6 ounces, peeled and diced

8 small cloves garlic, peeled and 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 and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

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

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, heat the oil to medium heat. Add the fennel, leek and onion. Cook and stir on medium-low, without browning, until softened, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Do not brown vegetables.

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, for about 20 minutes. Puree smooth with an immersion blender or in a blender, working carefully in small batches. (Base can be made several days in advance; refrigerate, covered.)

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

Serve with remaining rouille and toasted bread.

Makes 6 servings.

ROUILLE: In a small bowl, soak 3 or 4 slices 1/2-inch-thick French baguette or 2 thick slices ciabatta bread in 1/3 cup olive oil and 2 tablespoons very hot water until bread is softened. Transfer bread-oil mixture to a blender jar and add 3 peeled garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers (drained and rinsed), 1/4 teaspoon ground espelette pepper (or 1 small serrano pepper, stemmed and halved and seeded) and a pinch ground saffron, if desired. Process to a smooth puree. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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