The Heart of New England
Mediterranean Fish Soup
by Charlie Burke

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Each Mediterranean country has its own version of fish soup, featuring local fish,
herbs, vegetables and wine or liqueur. In Spain saffron is almost always used,
while in France a garlic flavored mayonnaise, called aioli, is frequently added
along with an anise flavored liqueur such as Pernod. Portugal, Greece, the
Middle East and North Africa all have unique preparations. The recipes vary
from region to region within each country, and each village believes its own is
the best or most authentic. My version is closest to those we’ve had in Italy.

Years ago Joanne and I spent several days in Cinque Terre: the five fishing ports
clinging to steep mountainsides in Liguria had been accessible only by sea or
donkey path before railroad tunnels linked them. In each town we were assured
that theirs was the only authentic fish soup of the region, despite the fact that the
towns were little more than a mile apart! Each version was delicious, and I saw
an opportunity to develop a basic recipe with unlimited variations depending
on what is at its best during the season.

The mix of fish and shellfish will result in subtle variations, as will the herbs,
spices and wines used. Always keep an open mind at the fish store and select
whatever is most fresh from our local waters.

Although New England species are quite different from those found in Spain or
Italy, they lend themselves perfectly to this approach. Most recipes call for
adding the fish at intervals, starting with those with the longest cooking time,
but I prefer to cook them individually in the finished soup broth so that I can
closely control the cooking. Once the shellfish are done, fish, shrimp, scallops
and squid cook very quickly, enabling you to remove them when they are
perfectly done. I usually finish the soup while friends sit drinking wine at our
kitchen island awaiting the informal meal.

Mussels or clams produce their own broth, and shrimp shells boiled for a few
minutes in a couple cups of water will also produce enough broth to make this
recipe. You can also use purchased fish stock, bottled clam juice or lobster stock
(see our archives under lobster corn chowder, omitting corn cobs and corn).
Many times I’ve used only the broth rendered by the clams or mussels. It is hard
to go wrong as long as you avoid overcooking the fish; use this as a guide and
soon you’ll have your own favorite preparation. It can be made with only fish,
but I prefer to have some form of shellfish in the mix.

Four Main Course Servings:

16 – 20 little neck clams or a bag of local mussels
4 – 6 shrimp or scallops per person
1 pound squid rings, fresh if available (frozen are nearly as good). Omit squid if
you wish
1 ½ - 2 pounds fish such as halibut, Pollock, cod, monkfish or swordfish, skinned
and cut into 1 ½ or 2 inch pieces
3 cups fresh or canned tomatoes, chopped and drained
1 cup dry white wine
2 -3 cups fish or lobster stock (or a mix of 2/3 bottled clam juice and 1/3 water)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped, or 1 tbspn dry
4 cloves garlic, sliced
Generous pinch saffron (optional)
2 teaspoons pepper flakes (optional)
2 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Scrub clams or mussels, removing beards from mussels. If using clams, soak in
salted water for 30 minutes, drain and rinse. In a heavy non reactive pot, heat
garlic, olive oil and oregano over medium heat until garlic is soft but not
browned. Add wine and mussels or clams, turn heat to high, cover and cook
until just opened. Remove them promptly as they open, leaving liquid in the
pan. Have a large bowl next to the stove for cooked fish and shellfish; it will also
serve to collect shells at the table.

Once clams or mussels are done, add stock, tomatoes and fennel, along with the
saffron and pepper flakes. Cover and boil for 5-10 minutes, then season with salt
and pepper to taste. Add squid, shrimp or scallops separately; they will cook
very quickly (2-3 minutes for the squid and shrimp, slightly longer for large
scallops). Remove them with a slotted spoon and place onto bowl with shellfish.
Add fish chunks and cook until just opaque. Check seasoning and return
everything to the pan until reheated. Place fish and clams into heated bowls and
pour broth into each bowl. Serve with salad and crusty bread for the broth. The
bread can also be toasted, lightly brushed with olive oil and served in the bowls
with the soup. Serve a dry white wine and enjoy a brief escape to the coast of

About the author:
An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice president of
the New Hampshire Farmer’s Market Association ( and helps
run the Sanbornton Farmers' Market. Along with his wife, Joanne, he grows
certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather Hill Farm in Sanbornton,
NH.  His column & recipes appear weekly in The Heart of New England's
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