Try this question in your kitchen tonight as you’re pulling out the pots and pans: “Hey everyone, how about a nice big bowl of fish soup?” I predict a raised eyebrow from the spousal unit and a chorus of “Eww, yuck,” from the young ’uns. Somehow fish soup does not engender enthusiasm in the hungry hordes, much like boiled dinner, that Maritimes classic of chicken and vegetables simmered in a big pot. Boiled dinner? Do we have to?
But then try this: “Hey, what about a big bowl of bouillabaisse? Or zarzuela? Or cacciuco, ukha, sanengseon, jjigae, moqueca, cioppino, or caldo di mariscos?” Now you’ve got their attention. Of course, these melodic and evocative names mean essentially the same thing in French or Spanish or Russian or Korean: fish soup. Like boiled dinner, which cooked properly is a total treat, these soups (and stews) started out as simple, homey meals. They were often created on the spot by fishermen who threw whatever bits and pieces of fish they couldn’t sell into the pot, added a vegetable or two, simmered it on the stove, and dug in then and there. The tastiness depended on the freshness of the ingredients and the characteristic flavour of the sea at their feet; hence, the argument that you can’t recreate a bouillabaisse in Seoul, an ukha on the Catalonian coast, or a zarzuela on the White Sea. You can only fake it.
You can see where I’m headed with this. What ingredients would go into an authentic Yukon fish soup? What combination of fish, vegetables, and seasonings? Homegrown sockeye or king salmon, inconnu, pike, or trout? Wild plantain, lamb’s quarters, juniper berries, or artemisia frigada? Rhubarb for the citrusy element? Yarrow? Mint? So many possibilities suggest themselves. And I, coward that I am, have not yet dared to go there. I’m sorry to say that I have faked it.
Sometimes anxiety overtakes the cook, and that is what happened to me as I experimented with fish soups last October, beating against a deadline. I wanted to magic myself back into my kitchen in Greece in the ’80s, when fish soup was a weekly event and I had the confidence to throw a whack of whole, fatty fish into the pot; add potatoes, carrots, onions, lemon, olive oil, and a sprig of celery leaf; boil it up for 15 minutes; and serve. We used to place the cooked fish and vegetables on a platter and slurp the broth separately. Sometimes my partner, Nikos, made a crude and delicious rouille with potatoes, garlic, lemon, and olive oil, which we’d spread on bites of fish. It was all so easy.
But back to the future in my Yukon kitchen, I did not know if my northern audience would take to a fish soup that was not the familiar chowder. No, let honesty prevail: I did not know if I could create a fish soup that was both authentically northern and delicious. I did not want to hear the dreaded “Eww, yuck.” And so, cravenly, I looked south, to the flavour combinations I knew would work.
The fish in these two soups are northern: wild sockeye and lake trout, both smoked and fresh. The carrots and onions were Yukon-grown; the potatoes harvested from a neighbour’s garden. But the fennel, leek, citrus, saffron, sweet potatoes, and chilies are all inspired by the sunny shores of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. Forgive me.
Think of the sweet potato soup as a weeknight affair, but reserve the other one for a dinner party--it’s that kind of dish. And keep your eye out. I’m determined that one day soon I’ll produce an authentic Yukon fish soup that will invoke the hallelujah chorus and set the northern lights shimmering.
Cooks, I’ll need your help here with names for these recipes. Send your suggestions to email@example.com, or become a fan of the "Boreal Gourmet" and Yukon, North of Ordinary on Facebook and leave your ideas there. The authors of the best entries will receive bragging rights, a copy of my first cookbook, The Boreal Gourmet: Adventures in Northern Cooking, a one-year subscription to Yukon, North of Ordinary, and a sweet treat from my kitchen.
Spicy Sweet Potato Soup with Smoked Salmon
The trick is to make the soup thick enough to support the mounds of smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and roasted peppers.
2 tbsp. (30 ml) olive oil1 tbsp. (15 ml) butter
2 cups (500 ml) chopped onion
1 cup (250 ml) chopped celery
1 cup (250 ml) chopped carrot
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 lbs. (1 kg) peeled, chopped sweet potato
1/2 chipotle pepper in adobe sauce (the kind readily available in grocery stores)
6 cups (1.5 L) light salmon or chicken stock
2 oz. (50 g) smoked salmon
A few sprigs of parsley or fennel
Crème fraîche or sour cream
Chopped roasted peppers
Melt the oil and butter in a 3 qt. (3 L) saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic; reduce heat to medium low and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the sweet potato. Stir well so that every piece is coated in oil and butter, and then add the stock and the chipotle pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 25–30 minutes or until the sweet potato is completely soft. Blend the soup in a food processor with an immersion blender or press through a strainer.
Return the soup to the pot and add salt to taste. Keep warm. Dice the smoked salmon into 1/2-in (2-cm) pieces (or crumble, if home smoked). When you’re ready to serve, pour soup into bowls and pile a small mound of smoked salmon in the centre of each bowl. If you’re using crème fraîche and/or peppers, make a triangle of mounds and arrange the parsley or fennel over top. Instruct the family to try a spoonful of soup with a bit of salmon, another with a bit of salmon and peppers, another with salmon and crème fraîche, etcetera. But don’t be surprised if they pick up their spoons and swirl the whole yummy lot together.
Sun-Tanned Sockeye Salmon and Lake Trout Soup
There are a few stages, so take a deep breath.
6 plum or vine-ripened tomatoes, cored and halved
6 cloves garlic
Place cored, halved tomatoes in a baking dish, tuck the garlic cloves amongst them, sprinkle with salt, and douse with olive oil. Bake in a 325° F (160° C) oven for about 2 1/2 hours until the tomatoes are collapsed and caramelized.
Tip: When filleting fish, freeze the leftover bones and bits of flesh--they make great stock. If you use fish heads, remove the gills first. They make stock bitter and cloudy-- same with fins. If you don’t have fish scraps, make the stock without--it is then a court bouillon. The fish you poach in the stock in the soup-making stage will lend the necessary flavour.
2 tbsp. (30 ml) olive oil
1 tsp. (5 ml) fennel seeds
2 cups (500 ml) sliced leek greens (reserve the white part forthe soup)
2 cups (500 ml) chopped fennel, stems and fronds (reserve the bulb for the soup)
1 cup (250 ml) chopped celery
1 cup (250 ml) chopped carrots
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1 1/2 lbs. (750 g) salmon or trout bones and scraps
1 strip each of lemon, orange, and lime zest, peeled from the
fruit with a vegetable peeler
2 bay leaves
4 cups (1 L) water
Heat oil in a 2 qt. (2 L) saucepan over medium-low heat and sauté the fennel seeds until they are aromatic--about 3–5 minutes. Add the vegetables and sauté until softened, but not browned--7 or 8 minutes. Add the fish scraps. Add the wine and cook for a minute or two. Add zest, bay leaves, and stock; bring to the boil; reduce heat; and simmer on low heat for 30
minutes. Strain, cool, and reserve.
Tip: Wait until your guests are assembled before you finish the soup, and recruit one of them to make the rouille.
Broth, recipe above plus 1 cup (250 ml) white wine
4 medium-sized peeled potatoes, quartered (for the rouille)
An additional 1/2 lb. (250 g) fingerling potatoes, whole and unpeeled
1/2 a fennel bulb, core intact, sliced
1 cup (250 ml) sliced leeks
1/3 each of a red and a yellow pepper, thinly sliced
Peel and juice of 1/2 an orange
1/2 lb. (250 g) sockeye salmon filet, cut into chunks
1/2 lb. (250 g) lake trout filet, cut into chunks
1 tsp. (5 ml) hot sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium potatoes, cooked in stock, above
1/4 cup (50 ml) stock
1/4 cup (50 ml) olive oil
1 tbsp. (15 ml) lemon or orange juice
1/2 tsp. (5 ml) coarse sea salt
For the bowls:
1/2 lb. (250 g) home-smoked lake trout, in 12 chunks, at room
12 quarters of roasted tomato
Fennel or dill leaves; grated orange peel
Turn the oven to 200° F (90° C) and warm six shallow soup plates. Bring the stock and white wine to a boil over medium-high heat, add potatoes, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Keep the heat at medium while you cook the vegetables in stages.
Cook the 4 medium, quartered potatoes until soft--about 15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, and put your guest to work making the rouille. Add fingerling potatoes, cook for 6 minutes, and then add fennel. Cook for 2 minutes and add leeks. After 1 minute, add peppers. Cook another 1 minute. Check
fingerling potatoes for doneness. When the fork easily pierces the skin and flesh, they’re ready.
Add the orange peel and juice. Turn heat to low so stock is barely simmering. Add the sockeye salmon and lake trout. Simmer the fish for 2 minutes maximum and turn off heat. The fish will continue cooking while you prepare the bowls.
Call everyone to the table. Get your trusty helper to place two chunks of smoked trout and two quarters of roasted tomato in each warmed soup bowl.
With a slotted spoon, extract fish and vegetables from the soup pot and divide evenly between the bowls. Then pour the broth over each one. The broth will probably not cover the fish and veg--don’t worry.
Place a sprig of fennel and some grated orange over top of each bowl. Instruct guests to spread rouille liberally on chunks of fish or pieces of vegetable before popping them into their mouths.
Serve with a green salad and crusty bread. Serves six.