Mighty shrimp save the broth

Soup: The shells make a wonderfully flavorful stock for a hearty fish soup.

February 09, 2000|By Russ Parsons | By Russ Parsons,Los Angeles Times

It's shrimp to the rescue.

Recipes for fish soup usually begin by telling you to make a fish stock using bones and scraps you get from your fishmonger. This is good advice; no question about it. The only problem is that finding fish bones and scraps -- heck, even finding a fishmonger -- is getting more and more difficult.

For better or worse, most of us buy our fish at the supermarket. Though we have made great gains in accessibility this way, we have suffered the loss of some niceties.

Fish frames are among them. Finding a fish on the bone today is as rare as, say, finding brussels sprouts on the stalk. It's almost as if the fillet has become the fish's natural state.

But it's one thing to curse the darkness; it's another to make fish soup. Though fish frames are hard to find, there's a more than adequate substitute available.

The best stocks seem to be made from things we usually throw away, and this fish broth, made using shrimp shells, is no different. Particularly if you buy shrimp with the head on (something that, paradoxically, seems to be more and more available, even as fish frames are disappearing), you can turn these scraps into the start of a soup that is quite luxurious.

Shrimp shells, especially the heads, are full of flavorful fat. Simmer them in water for 20 minutes and you've got the start of something good. Simmer them in wine, a good flavoring base of cooked vegetables and mussel and clam broth (fresh, not bottled) and you're on your way to something great.

Incidentally, the same stock can be used to make an incredible sauce with just the addition of some heavy cream. Add a little cubed ham and maybe some smoky paprika and you've got a great topping for fresh pasta.

All you need is a food processor or blender to grind the shells and shake loose some of the extra flavor. You'll never get the shells and vegetables completely pureed, but if you just leave the machine running for five minutes, you'll get the shells ground very fine. Then strain it to get rid of the debris. It helps to use a heavy strainer because you'll want to push hard with the back of a wooden spoon to get as much broth as possible.

Once you've made the stock, this soup comes together in less than 20 minutes, despite what might seem like a long list of ingredients. That makes it ideal for a dinner party when you don't want to spend all your time in the kitchen. Bring the broth to a simmer, add the meaty fish you've already cubed and marinated, then the raw shrimp and, finally, when you're almost ready to serve, the clams and mussels in their shells. When they've heated through, you're ready.

This gives you a wonderful combination of sweet, moist meat in a rusty red, deeply flavored broth. I put some saffron in the broth, because I think its slight bitterness really plays up the sweetness of the fish, and I use smoky Turkish ground red pepper for just a little more complexity, but you can leave out either one, or make adjustments of your own.

Be sure to taste the soup before serving it. Sometimes a little salt is necessary, depending on the saltiness of the shellfish. As with most soups, a final zap of vinegar or lemon juice can bring it to life if it tastes a little flat.

Fish Soup With Shellfish

Serves 6-8

4 stalks celery, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

4 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for drizzling on baguette slices

2 cups white wine

1 cup canned tomatoes, with juice

1 pound small clams, in shells

1 pound mussels, in shells

1 pound head-on shrimp

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1 pound firm, moderately flavored fish, such as swordfish or shark

1 pound white fish, such as cod

salt

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

18 ( 1/2 -inch thick) slices of baguette

Cook celery, carrots, onion and 2 cloves minced garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil in large soup pot over medium-high heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup white wine and cook until reduced by one-third, 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and turn heat to low.

In large covered skillet, cook clams with remaining white wine over high heat 3 minutes. Add mussels and cook, shaking occasionally to keep from scorching, until all shellfish are opened, about 5 more minutes. Remove shellfish from pan, cover tightly and refrigerate. Strain remaining liquid into measuring cup and add enough water to make 4 cups.

Peel shrimp, reserving heads and shells. Place shrimp meat in plastic food bag, seal tightly and refrigerate until needed. Add shrimp shells and cooking liquid-water combination to soup pot and cook over medium heat 25 minutes.

When done, ladle contents of soup pot into food processor and grind 5 minutes. Press through strainer into bowl. This may need to be done in batches. Add saffron to strained broth, cover tightly and refrigerate.

Cut fish in chunks, place in plastic food bag with 1 clove minced garlic, salt to taste, crushed red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Seal tightly and massage through bag to evenly distribute ingredients. Refrigerate.

When almost ready to serve, bring broth to simmer, add fish and cook 5 minutes. Add shrimp and cook until firm all the way through, about 5 minutes more. Add reserved clams and mussels and heat through. Season to taste with salt.

Toast baguette slices and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Arrange baguette slices in wide soup bowls and ladle fish soup over top. Serve immediately.

Active work time: 1 hour 15 minutes; total preparation time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Each of 8 servings: 514 calories; 681 milligrams sodium; 141 milligrams cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 48 grams protein; 1.61 grams fiber

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