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Fish Soup - Ukha

Saturday, November 26, 2011

When you buy fish at a fish market they usually ask if you need it to be trimmed, beheaded, scaled, skinned, and filleted. Well, if you need just pieces of flesh for a main course - yes, but not when you intend to make a fish soup. Ukha (Russian fish soup) is made out of a whole fish, it only needs to be scaled, and the insides must be cleaned out. Fish bones is what makes a perfect fish broth, and a good broth is the key to a good ukha. So, heads and fins go in there! I remember very well the surprise on the face of that guy at a  Florida fish market, when I asked to take all bony fish parts with me. He just didn't get it. The woman is crazy, he probably thought. To me, it was surprising that people who lived at the ocean couldn't get a proper use of all the goodness they had access to.

There are many recipes of ukha, and every fisherman in Russia has his own recipe (unlike American amateur fishermen, Russian guys eat what they catch :). Recipes are created on the fly on a river bank or a sea shore, where everything is cooked in an open fire. Today's recipe is the simplest one we used in my family, the one I remember from my childhood. This recipe calls for just three main ingredients and a few spices, but the result is a hearty soup with a mouthwatering aroma.

This year is remarkable because I caught my biggest fish ever. I was thrilled when this toothy beast snapped on the hook of my fishing rod! Holy mackerel! It was heavy and strong, but I managed to make a shot with one hand, and then pull it out! It was a huge pickerel. What a catch. I was proud of myself. It is a double-pleasure to share this recipe since the soup was cooked from this very fish. :)
The bigger one is my catch. :)
The soup is simple, just have enough bony fish...

What you need:
2 lb fish with bones (cut in portions)
2-3 medium potatoes, cubed
1 yellow onion, whole, peeled (or unpeeled for color)
Filtered water, to cover fish and potatoes
Black pepper corns
1 bay leaf
Salt to taste
2-3 tbsp chopped red onion
Black pepper, freshly ground
Chopped dill

Cover potatoes with water (about 2.5 qts), bring to a rolling boil, submerge fish pieces under water (add more boiling water if needed to cover fish), bring to a boil again, reduce heat to low. Remove all grime and foam, then add whole onion, pepper corns, and salt. Boil fish minimum for 20 minutes or a little more if you have big pieces. In this recipe, if you over boil fish, it will fall apart, and all bones will be in your soup. At the end of twenty minutes add a bay leaf, boil one minute, taste potatoes for readiness and add salt if needed. Set aside when potatoes are completely done. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Carefully remove fish from the soup. Discard the head, fins and other bones, and reserve the fleshy parts for the soup. Ladle soup into the bowls, add pieces of fish, chopped red onion, dill and freshly ground pepper. Also, a gulp of chilled vodka would be an excellent preamble, and bread and butter a nice accompaniment to your meal.

This recipe is the easiest and fastest way to make ukha. If you are afraid of occasional fish bones in your soup, it takes a little more effort. First, boil fish with salt, onion, and pepper corns, you can boil it up to an hour, until the fish falls apart. Then pour this through a fine sieve - you will have a nice fish broth. Then add potatoes, more onion, and a bay leaf to complete the soup.

If you have plenty of fish, you can make what we would call double- and triple-ukha. In other words, boil fish in batches in the same water to make doubly- and triply-strong fish broth. This soup will become a jelly when refrigerated.

The best ukha is made of fresh fish, this time we made an exception: we wanted Masha to try it with us, so we had to freeze it. If you have frozen fish, unfreeze it very slowly in the warmer compartment of your fridge, not at room temperature and only cook it when fully defrozen.

Locally, the best fish for ukha might be whole mackerel, whole salmon, whatever you can catch in lakes and streams (sunfish, perch, trout, pickerel). There is an opinion that fresh water fish is better, but I remember that we made a great ukha from salt water fish at the Black Sea, long time ago in the jolly days of my childhood. In the evening we had hot fish soup, and in the morning we drank the chilled broth instead of water. That was something!

Maybe it's cultural, but this specific fish aroma makes me feel hungry as a wolf in winter. The meal is light and low-calorie, but leaves you mellow and satisfied.

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