A fish soup without peer

Seven years ago I published a recipe for balik çorbasi – a Turkish fish soup that is bright, creamy, tangy and unlike any other soup you’ll ever eat. A general recipe was taught to me years ago by a Turkish grandmother, and it has become one of those dishes I’ve felt the need to revisit every couple of years.

The recipe I suggested several years ago was fine, not great, quickly hobbled together to illustrate a story about a memorable time I made it. This one is better.

Let me describe the process, which will send a few of you out immediately in search of a fish and the rest of you to the next story in this fine newspaper.

Get a fish, scaled and gutted but otherwise left whole. You need a big, fresh one with clear eyes, a nice smell and a firm resistance when you bend its backbone. I found a four-pound Caribbean snapper, orange-pink and shiny.

Cover this fish with a gallon or so of water and some aromatics like bay leaf, onion, leek and black peppercorn. Having learned to make fish stock from a French chef, I can’t resist adding a glug of dry white wine to the pot. Simmer it for just half an hour or so until your house smells like it’s been blessed by sea gods and your fish flakes easily.

Fish the fish out and place it on a big sheet pan. With your fingers, pick out every piece of nice, white flesh you can find, leaving behind the bones, skin head and bloodline. If you have a tiny shred of obsessive compulsiveness in your soul, you will love this satisfying task. Place the fish in a snap-shut container. Drain the broth into another container and place both in the fridge overnight.

Here’s where this recipe takes a left turn, away from every other fish soup you’ve ever considered. The next day, as the soup is lightly boiling, you stir in a slurry of egg yolks, lemon juice and a bit of starch. It thickens instantaneously – creamy without cream — and turns lemon yellow. The color seems even more gorgeous after you finish the soup with handfuls of fresh parsley and dill, bright bits of carrot and all that fish you had so diligently picked. If bouillabaisse tastes like summer and clam chowder like winter, this tastes like spring. Go get you a fish.

Turkish Fish Soup (Balik Çorbasi)

8-10 servings

Hands on: 45 minutes

Total time: 2 hours (or overnight)

  • 1 4-pound snapper or sea bass, gutted and scaled
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 large leek, chopped and rinsed well
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne or red pepper flakes
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Wash the fish well to remove any of the dark blood in the head cavity. Curl it to fit inside a large pot or, if necessary, cut it into 2 pieces near the tail end. Cover fish with water (about one gallon) and wine. Add bay leaves, peppercorns, leek and onion. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer; cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until fish separates easily from the bone.

Carefully remove the fish to a metal tray or platter and let it cool. Strain the fish stock into a clean container; wipe pot clean and put strained stock back into it if using soon. Otherwise refrigerate overnight. When fish is cool enough to handle, separate chunks with your fingers and place in a container with a snap-shut lid. Leave at room temperature if using soon, otherwise refrigerate.

When ready to serve, dice the carrots and add to stock. Bring to an active simmer, and season soup to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper. Cook 3 minutes, or until carrot bits are crisp-tender. Whisk the eggs and lemon juice together in a small bowl with the cornstarch. Add a large ladleful of the hot soup and whisk in; pour this mixture into the soup, which will turn a creamy yellow color. Turn down flame. Add reserved fish to heat. Add herbs and adjust seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Serve at once.

Leftovers keep for several days.

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