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The Politics of Fish Soup

October 14, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

Someone once explained that faculty politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. The same could be said for fish soup.

How else do you explain the controversy over how to make something as elemental as bouillabaisse? The experts will tell you exactly which fish must be in the mix. According to "Larousse Gastronomique," they're rascasse, chapon, saint-pierre, conger eel, loup, red mullet, rouquier, whiting, sea-perch, spiny lobster, crabs and other shellfish. (Of course, in Southern California you'll be able to find only lotte [monkfish], saint-pierre [John Dory], spiny lobster and crabs, so this is all academic.)

The truly hard core will come to blows over whether you should include a piece of orange peel. A bit of orange peel!

You might expect that kind of thing from the French, but we are not free from fish soup controversy in this country. I recently came across some old copies of the Bohemian Life newsletter (named for the now-defunct Southern California liquor distributorship, not the lifestyle). In the March 1941 number, editor Savarin St. Sure (really Phil Townsend Hanna), waxes enthusiastic about cioppino and includes a fairly innocuous, very 1940s-type cioppino recipe.

Big mistake. A couple of issues later, he was called to task by Vincent Quartararo, a longtime fisherman, who insisted (with "a snort of derision") that for a true cioppino, you must put the crab in first, creating a kind of steaming rack for the rest of the fish. Any idiot knows that. (Come to think of it, that sounds like an interesting technique; I'll have to try it.)

When it comes to food, though, I'm much more interested in flavor than in precisely authentic formulas. And as it turns out, that attitude seems to be the key to making a good fish soup.

I am not alone. Despite all of the debate about bouillabaisse among the gourmet pretenders, in his definitive work on Provencal cooking "The Wonderful Food of Provence" (Houghton Mifflin, 1968), Jean-Noel Escudier, who has an entire chapter on bouillabaisse, notes:

"Each brings to his own version his special touch. To say that there is no specific recipe for preparing bouillabaisse is nonsense. The truth is that there are many variants to be found all up and down the coast, each claiming to be the sole authentic version."

Hear, hear. After half a dozen or so fish soup experiments over the last couple of months, I'm convinced that the only way to make a bad one is to stick to a specific recipe. Southern California seafood markets are so erratic that no shopping list of fish will all be available in dependably good condition at the same time. You're much better off grouping the fish into a couple of loose categories and making do with what you find.

I made soup with fish that came from farmers' markets, fish stores, Asian groceries and regular supermarkets. No two places carried the same assortment of fish, yet each soup turned out well. The subtle variations in flavor only made it more interesting.

As far as I'm concerned, the only real necessity to making a good fish soup is to begin with a good fish broth. (Mai^tre Escudier approves: "With this method, the flavor of the broth is intensified.") The secret to that is finding good, small, bony rock cod, sold whole. This is not just a matter of flavor, but above all of texture: The bonier the fish, the thicker the broth. Make sure the fish is very fresh. With rock cod, look for clear, bulging eyes and firm flesh.

If you can find sculpin (which is very close to rascasse), so much the better, but it's not necessary. Once I could find only a big old 5-pound monster rock cod. I hacked it up to fit it in the pot, and I don't think anyone felt cheated.

The rock cod is the only ingredient that may be hard to find in your local supermarket. Check out a decent Asian market; these days there seems to be one at least fairly close to wherever you live. If anyone tries to tell you salmon frames (skeletons) will work just as well, don't ever take cooking advice from that person again. Salmon is very oily and its flavor is too distinctive for a background broth.

Simmer that whole fish for 45 minutes or so with the usual vegetables in a mixture of white wine and water and you will end up with a rich, flavorful broth. In fact, if you make it the day before and refrigerate it, you'll probably find you've created a sort of nice, soft fish Jell-O.

Be sure that when you're straining the broth, you press hard to get all the liquid. Once I even ran the fish and vegetable debris through a food mill, adding broth to keep it workable. The result was actually a little over-extracted for me. There was a slight harsh calcium flavor from the bones when the broth was tasted by itself, though a little extra onion in the second cooking smoothed it out nicely.

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