Sooo, cooking French food has always seemed very intimidating to us. We’re not fancy people and French cuisine has this aura of sophistication that is almost mythical. The techniques, the classic flavour combinations, the made-from-scratch stocks—it all adds up to one big, fat, disaster-in-the-waiting kitchen event in our minds. We’ve been avoiding cooking French for a long time and then we went to an awesome, unpretentious, truly authentic French restaurant. Apparently those exist! Who could have thunk? We ate some amazing French food and now we’re hooked. We are so hooked, that we are venturing into that landmine-laden gastronomical area. Lucky for us it’s an area that runs the gamut from simple and hearty to insanely complex, and as beginners, we’ll be starting, well, at the beginning—with something uncomplicated, but yummy. This delicious fennel and absinthe fish soup with rouille is surprisingly easy to prepare—what makes it heavenly though, is not the technique, but the ingredients. They are not many, but a couple of them are very unusual or luxurious—saffron; rosewater; Absinthe. You won’t need much of either, just enough to be transported to a Mediterranean feast of the senses.
Here goes nothing, people! 😉
You’ll need some leeks, a large onion and the largest fennel bulb you can find. Chop all that up, in big chunks, and sauté it for 5-6 minutes in your largest pot. Once that’s done, add fish stock, a kilo of tomatoes, a can of tomatoes, about a kilo of your favourite fish (we used cod, but you can use a different kind), your bouquet garni (which is just a fancy-pancy way of saying bay leaf, thyme and parsley, tied together with a string*), chilli, saffron, orange peel or zest**, and your flower water (we used rosewater, but orange flower water will work too). Now cover the pot and let the soup simmer for 45 minutes. In case the fish stock isn’t enough, pour in some water. It’s a soup, not a stew 😉
While everything is simmering I have a couple of things to say about the last magic ingredient of this soup. I’m talking about the Absinthe, of course 😉 It’s added at the end of cooking and enhances the flavour in a unique way. Absinthe is produced from different herbs, among which green anise and sweet fennel are strongly represented, as well as other medicinal and culinary herbs, so this soup marries all those flavours in the best possible way! I’m actually surprised that there aren’t many more recipes around that call for this interesting alcohol. And there’s also the beyond-mythical reputation of Absinthe, the green fairy ethos and bohemian lifestyle it’s always associated with. Yep, it’s magic all right—my swooning over such things often brings out Simeon’s best eye rolls. As if I care!
If you’ve never drank it, you should definitely give it a shot (literally), and please do it the right way. This useful video explains the proper way of drinking Absinthe. It’s a great refresher in the summer!
Now back to our soup—if you don’t have Absinthe at home, you can definitely substitute. Use Pernod or Pastis, which are both anise-flavoured liqueurs. However, if you don’t have any of these three at home, or are simply not that jazzed by the strong taste of anise, then it’s good ol’ white wine to the rescue Put a generous splash in your soup—and by generous, I mean empty at least half a bottle in there! You’ll thank me later 😉 You’ll need far less Absinthe—don’t forget it’s highly alcoholic.
After you’ve added the alcohol, turn off the stove but leave the pot on for the next 10 minutes. Then it’s time to purée it. Taste the soup to figure out if it needs some additional splashes of Absinthe, flower water, or seasoning; I stirred in some more rosewater and chili. Keep adding until you’re satisfied with the flavour and aroma.
Our soup turned out so good that I considered not bothering with the rouille, however, since my sister was assisting, i. e., bossing us around, we were kind of uh, persuaded to make it (she wanted it served traditionally and wouldn’t budge). So, here is a quick explanation of what rouille is and how to make it in 10 minutes.
Rouille is a traditional Provencal mayonnaise that’s served chilled with fish soups. I was a bit surprised by what’s in there—I’d never heard of putting bread in a mayo, but you live, you learn. There are different variations of the rouille, for example, there’s a rouille de Nice, rouille de Marseille and so on. You can experiment with what you like best. Should you add a bit of mustard? Or two egg yolks instead of one? It’s all in your own taste buds. We used around one handful of bread (baguette with the crust cut off ) soaked in fish stock, one egg yolk, some saffron, some cayenne pepper and lots and lots of garlic, which you can first crush in a mortar with a little bit of salt. Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse. When you have a rich, creamy, thick paste, start adding olive oil. You’ll need around one cup of olive oil, and the best way to know when to stop adding oil is to taste after each pour-and-pulse.
Finally, I have to give my sister credit here, she was right to insist, because this mayo is freaking incredible. The taste is so concentrated that the jar lasted longer than the soup. Rouille makes a great bread spread as well. It disappeared before we had the chance to cook another batch of soup, but I think you can keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for at least 10 days and find other uses for it meanwhile. Like eating it straight out of the jar 😉
And now it’s finally time to put this gorgeous soup together. Wait, I think I’m forgetting something…
Oh, yeah, the baguette slices! This one is very important—slice a baguette and heat up some olive oil and crushed garlic in a pan. Take a brush and spread the olive oil-garlicky goodness on both sides of each slice and set them aside on a plate for 5 minutes. Then throw them in the same frying pan and scorch them slightly. Now, we’re finally ready to go.
Plate your soup, add two baguette slices, top them with a spoonful of rouille and finish it with grated Gruyère. Gruyère is a hard yellow Swiss cheese that is often used in cooking and baking, due to its delicate flavour. It’s not overpowering and complements the other ingredients in a dish nicely. If you can’t find this exact cheese at your local supermarket or cheese shop, just go for a nice domestic one with similar texture and taste.
Mix everything together and attack!
The only sound afterwards will be the clinking of the spoon and the slurping. Seriously, this soup is that good.
* Do not tie your bouquet garni with a colored string, unless you want to find yourself in a Bridget-Jones-type situation, i.e. slurping blue, or just unusually coloured soup 😉
** If you use orange peel, don’t forget to fish it out before puréeing the soup.
Fennel And Absinthe Fish Soup With Rouille
For the soup
- 1 large fennel bulb
- 1 large onion
- 2 large leeks
- 1 litre fish stock
- 1 kg fresh tomatoes
- 1 can of tomatoes or 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 kg fish filets (cod, sardines, or whatever you have in the fridge/freezer)
- a pinch of saffron
- bouquet garni (bay leaf, parsley & thyme)
- rosewater or orange flower water
- orange peel or zest
- chilli flakes or cayenne pepper
- salt & pepper
- 30ml Absinthe or Pastis or Pernod or 250ml white wine
For the rouille
- 1/4 of a baguette, crust cut off
- some fish stock or water
- 1 egg yolk
- a pinch of saffron
- 1 clove garlic
- salt & cayenne pepper
- 1 cup olive oil
- Chop the onion, fennel and leeks and sauté them in a large pot for 5-6 minutes.
- Add the fish stock, tomatoes, fish, seasoning, saffron, flower water, bouquet garni and orange zest. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 45 minutes.
- Add the Absinthe, turn off the stove and leave the pot on for another 10 minutes.
- Purée the soup using a blender and season to taste. Add more flower water or Absinthe if needed.
- Crush the garlic in a mortar with some salt.
- Soak the bread in fish stock or water.
- Put the crushed garlic, the soaked bread(after squeezing all liquid out), the egg yolk, the saffron, salt and cayenne pepper in a food processor. Pulse until smooth.
- Start adding olive oil little by little. Taste often.