Fish head soup with fennel

With a power failure without end at my sister-in-law’s Drakensberg timeshare, we had to take a meal with us from Durban that could be easily reheated over a camping stove. The answer, which was a long time coming, was fish head soup. And the result was truly a moveable feast.

To make a fish head soup for six lucky mountaineers, you will need:

  • 2,5kg fish bones, skin and of course, heads
  • 1kg fish pieces bone-free
  • 3 onions
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 peeled tomatoes
  • 2 leeks
  • 1 large fennel bulb
  • 4 trimmed stalks celery
  • A pinch saffron
  • A couple of sprigs each of origanum and parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil on demand
  • Freshly ground black pepper 
  • Salt

This meal, also known as ‘bouillabaisse’, is a potent addition to the beginner cook’s repertoire. I located the fish from our local fishmonger who had a suitable collection of descaled fish heads and related parts to choose from. For the little fillets I chose rock cod which added their own special magic to the mix. This is a two part process: first the stock, then the little bits of fillet.

To begin, crush, peel and mince the garlic. Peel and thinly slice the onions. Clean and thinly slice the leeks. Dice the celery sticks. Select a heavy-based large saucepan and pour in 80ml of extra virgin olive oil. Raise the plate temperature to medium and add half the minced garlic, half the onion and all of the chopped leeks and celery. Stirring from time to time allow these ingredients to fry until translucent.

At this point add the fish heads, skin and bones and pour in just enough water to cover the contents of the pan. A little salt and coarsely ground black pepper is added and the entire mass allowed to boil uncovered for 20-25 minutes. Strain the contents through a large diameter cone strainer or a colander. Press down on the solids with the back of an egg lifter or potato masher to squeeze out every last usable drop of fish stock. Chuck the used solids in the bin, preferably tightly wrapped in a plastic bag.

Remember the fennel? Now’s the time to chop the bulb and retain some of the feathery bits for a final garnish. Select a large stock pot or saucepan, pour in 20-30ml of extra virgin olive oil and lightly fry the remaining garlic, onion and the entire chopped fennel bulb. Add the peeled tomatoes, sprigs of parsley and origanum, a pinch of saffron (expensive but essential) and the strained fish stock. Bring this to a rolling boil for a few minutes, stirring all the time.

Lower the heat and add the fillets of bone-free fish. Let these simmer with the contents of the pot for as much time as it takes for the fish to cook right through, say six to eight minutes. Check to be sure.When ready, serve at once with a delicate frond of fragrant fennel as a garnish. A crisp white wine gives this meal an additional nudge in the right direction.

Contact David Basckin at [email protected] Please state ‘Real cooking’ in the subject line of your email.