Provençal Fish Soup

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Every country with a coastline boasts its own version of fish soup; our Provence-inspired version is not only easy to make, it boasts a richly flavored broth fragrant with fennel, paprika, saffron, and orange zest. Fish soup is often a study in culinary frustration: The broth is bland and flavorless, the fish is flaked into tiny pieces, and, worst of all, the fish is criminally overcooked. We chose thick cuts of hake, wanting a firm fish that would not break apart too easily, and orange and fennel to pair with the delicate seafood. The problem then came in building the soup base. Initial tests with premade fish stock produced soups that overpowered the hake’s own mild flavor. Water-based versions were more delicate in flavor but lacked any real depth or richness. Deglazing the vegetables and spices with wine and bottled clam juice brought out a more balanced flavor, but tasters wanted even more depth. So we browned some pancetta and cooked the vegetables in the rendered fat. This version had a perfect balance of smokiness, richness, and citrus aroma. To cook the fish perfectly, we left it in big slices so that they wouldn’t break apart too much. We tried simmering the fish over low heat, but when we employed direct heat, the fish was overcooked by the time it was served. We decided on a more unconventional method: We placed the fish in the pot, shut off the heat, and let it poach gently. This technique was undeniably successful: The fish was perfectly cooked. Finally we had a hearty, fragrant fish soup with perfect broth and perfect fish. Cod and halibut can be substituted for the hake.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving

6 ounces pancetta, chopped fine

1 fennel bulb, 2 tablespoons fronds minced, stalks discarded, bulb halved, cored, and cut into ½-inch pieces

1 onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, halved lengthwise and cut into ½-inch pieces

Salt and pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon paprika

⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Pinch saffron threads, crumbled

1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth

4 cups water

2 (8-ounce) bottles clam juice

2 bay leaves

2 pounds skinless hake fillets, 1 to 1½ inches thick, sliced crosswise into 6 equal pieces

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

  1. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in fennel pieces, onion, celery, and 1½ teaspoons salt and cook until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 12 to 14 minutes. Stir in garlic, paprika, pepper flakes, and saffron and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in water, clam juice, and bay leaves. Bring to simmer and cook until flavors meld, 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Off heat, discard bay leaves. Nestle hake into cooking liquid, cover, and let sit until fish flakes apart when gently prodded with paring knife and registers 140 degrees, 8 to 10 minutes. Gently stir in parsley, fennel fronds, and orange zest and break fish into large pieces. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, drizzling individual portions with extra oil.

 

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