red gurnard soup

on paper, i wasn't hugely convinced by this recipe. it's one of the cheffy ones that assumes you will have leftover fish bits AND some fish stock, which most people clearly don't. however, i am clearly the kind of person who does, even if the tub of stock had been hanging around the freezer for exactly a year. (you can, of course, use any veg or chicken stock but fish one really does give it a lot of extra flavour.) we'd eaten the fish fillets for dinner that day, and it just seemed a shame to throw away the ugly, triangular heads and the spiky spines, not least because they still had a fair bit of flesh attached to them.

i was also a bit baffled by the star anise, juniper berries and fennel seeds in a soup. it just seemed like an odd combination - though i have made and blogged about a vegetarian red pepper and fennel soup before. the addition of fish isn't such a huge leap, i guess.

the recipe is from hix's book on seasonal food. i have bastardised it quite a lot, by halving the volume of liquid but keeping the same quantity of vegetables. i also skipped the potato he adds to thicken it - there is just no need.

soup made, i remained unconvinced. it smelt okay, nice even - but it didn't make me want to eat it straight away. it went in the fridge as next day's starter. when we finally got round to eating it, it was a revelation, and i am not exaggerating (much). the spices, especially the fennel and the star anise, give it an almost oriental twist but it's a traditional, recogniseable fish soup through and through, not miles away from the bouillabaisse.

i expect lots of other fish would be amenable to this kind of treatment so i'd urge you to buy sustainably-caught fish from your fishmonger, fillet it yourself or get him to do it but give you the bones.


bones and heads from 2 filleted gurnards
olive oil
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, trimmed, washed and roughly chopped
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
10 black peppercorns
1 star anise
a small pinch of saffron
3 juniper berries
1 bay leaf
2-3 sprigs of thyme
a tin of chopped tomatoes plus some tomato puree
50ml red wine
1 litre of fish stock
salt and pepper

heat a large pan and gently fry the fish heads and bones, the vegetables, garlic, spices, juniper berries and herbs for ten minutes until soft. add the tomatoes and the tomato pure, red wine and fish stock. simmer gently for about 50 minutes.

fish out (ahem) most of the bones out of the soup and then liquidise the rest with a hand-held blender or in a food processor. some leftover bones are fine - the blades can usually cope with them if they're not huge. at this point the soup will resemble nothing more than a pool of sick. but don't be put off - get a sieve and push the thick soup through it into another pan - use the back of a ladle to help it along. you should end up with a brick-red, finely-fragranced soup.

at this point you can add other things if you wish - maybe a few prawns, or some gurnard fillets. i didn't, and i didn't think it needed it.


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