fantastic stock for a mesmerising fish stew…..
Fish stews have a bad rap. Overly romanticised and complicated – good old Elizabeth David goes as far as saying there’s no point even making a bouillabaisse outside of the mediterranean. Well, maybe back in the 50s, that was the case, but I think that you can be a little less risk averse these days. Boullaibaise is, of course, the show off in the room, but the principles of a good fish stew are the same (whatever you call it): get the stock right, give it time, choose the ingredients carefully, and get the best and freshest fish that you can. In Italian, Fumetto is the stock that is the base of your fish stew. It also means a comic book, I’ve no idea why the word has two such disparate meanings – if you can enlighten me, you’d make me a happy man.
A good fish stew is improved by variety If your choice of fish is limited to farmed seabass and salmon, prevacupacked in a warehouse-slash-distribution centre, then you’re going to be a tad stuck. But if you’ve access to a decent fishmonger, or better still, a fish market – then you’re in luck. Ideally, you want a mix of white, oily and fatty fish – and as a rough rule of thumb, a different variety for each person you’re cooking for – so six people, six types of fish (but don’t get too hung up on this). The Bullring, in my hometown of Birmingham, has fantastic fish stalls, so I can usually take my pick from red and grey mullet, cod, bass, Conger eel, monkfish, mackerel, and a whole range of fish from less familiar seas. The rule is though – check that your fish has been caught sustainably. Have a look at the Marine Conservation Society’s website if you’re not sure
So, to the Fumetto
First tip – if you eat shellfish, particularly prawns or langoustines, then save the shells and heads and freeze them for the next time you’re making a stock.
Whatever fish you decide on, ask for the heads when the fishmonger cleans them for you. Equally, any trimmings should be retained. Gruesome I know, but it’s all about the flavour.
And now you’re ready to begin…
Sweat some standard veg in a decent sized (anything over 5 litres) pot – chopped onions, celery, carrot in your oil of preference (if you’re going Mediterranean, then good extra virgin olive is the default). Don’t have the temperature too high (you don’t want the veg to colour), and keep a tight lid on things when you’re not stirring, the steam from the veg helps to soften and cook them. After five or ten minutes of sweating, add your fish heads and prawn shells (if you have then). Throw in a slug of booze – white wine or pastis are both good. Ramp up the heat for a couple of minutes and add water – enough to fill the pot to within 5cm of the top and then leave to simmer as gently as possible, for as long as possible. If the Sicilian is around, he’ll inevitably fish out the heads and strip them clean – they are, apparently, delicious. I have yet to discover the verve to test this opinion!
I try to make this stock the day before, so as soon as you get back from the shops with the fish, get it on the go and stick your fish in the fridge. Alternatively, you can have a premade stock in the freezer, and then replace it with a fresh batch made from this load of fish heads for the next time.
From fumetto to stew
When you’re ready to start the stew, get your Fumetto on the hob – a nice gentle boil and add a good pinch of saffron. Now you can add any vegetables you choose – potatoes, sliced fennel, anything that won’t break down into a mush, and leave to simmer until they’re almost cooked. There will be somewhere written down what vegetables must and must never be used, but, as ever, go with what you like, not with what you’re told.
Meanwhile, prepare your fish. Remove any scales that are still clinging on, clean and bone as required and then separate your fish according to their cooking time – oily and cartilaginous fish will take slightly longer to cook than white fish, such as cod. Add the first fish, and then five minutes later add the white fish and any shellfish you’re including, as these will need to least cooking time. At the last minute, throw in some chopped parsley and serve.
I’m a big fan of serving this with a rouille, which is a French way. A rouille is a garlic mayonnaise spiced with paprika, the garlicky heat goes brilliantly with the delicate richness of the soup. It’s easy if you’ve got a mixer, start with two egg yolks and then drizzle in olive oil on a high speed, add crushed garlic (it’s your call here as to how much) and half a teaspoon of paprika, salt and pepper. You can dollop straight into the stew/soup or be more dainty and spread into over bread. Again, the choice is yours.