Monday, December 19, 2016

Fish stock like Maman used to make

Among one of the many talents of my beautiful late mother Gisele was an extraordinary gift for cooking. Born in Biarritz, France, of a Portuguese-born father and a French-born mother of Basque and Spanish origin, she had a love and understanding of fish and seafood dishes which seemed innate, not surprisingly perhaps given her background. And the backbone of a lot of those dishes was an absolutely superb fish/seafood stock which she made from the heads and tails and bones/shells of both fish and seafood, usually prawns. Deep red, aromatic and pungent, it filled the house with memories of the sea and was the base for her brilliant fish soups, stews, and paellas.

I've tried to reproduce that amazing taste, smell and colour many times but until very recently didn't quite manage it--when Maman was cooking in our childhood, she was like a whirlwind, putting in this, that and the other, experimenting and innovating as she went, not following any recipe particularly but following her nose and her instinct. It's only very recently that I've manage to capture those flavours and colours and now it seems to work every time! Mind you there is a magic ingredient, and that's a half-teaspoon of that wonderful Basque spice, piment d'Espelette (Espelette pepper), which really can't be substituted properly--you could try paprika or mild chilli powder, but it won't be the same. Real piment d'Espelette powder has a unique flavour, both warmly spicy and piquantly sweet and fruity, which is the reason why this traditional Basque spice has its own AOC(appellation d'origine controlee)in France. Its gorgeous colour also imparts that beautiful dark red to the stock. In Australia, you can buy it from good grocers and easily online at places like the Essential Ingredient. 

So here's the basic recipe(this one makes the basis for a soup or stew for 2-3 people)
Shells, heads and tails of eight uncooked(green) prawns
Head, bones and tail of a fish(in the photo above, it's rainbow trout, but can be anything you want)
Olive oil
Three cloves garlic, crushed
Chopped onion
A small splash white wine
Salt, pepper
Half teaspoon piment d'Espelette

In a pan heat some olive oil. Add the chopped onion, then prawn and fish heads/bones/shells etc. Stir vigorously. Add the crushed garlic, and salt and pepper. Stir. Add the piment d'Espelette and stir vigorously. Add a small splash of white wine, stir, let cook for a few seconds, then add water to cover the fish/seafood. Once it has come to boiling point, turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes, then turn it off and let it sit for a few hours to develop its flavours (with heads and tails etc still in it).
Finally, strain the stock and use it for other dishes, or freeze it to use later.

I've used the stock as a base for an excellently hearty fish soup(below) which included a mix of mussels, small prawns and squid(stir-fried separately in olive oil then added to the stock once you've brought it back to heat) and poached barramundi--also added at last minute to the hot fish stock. With crusty bread on the side, it makes the absolutely perfect meal!


  1. It looks wonderful! Pity I can't eat seafood such as prawns and shellfish, but it sounds delicious. My Mum always used to say, "Oh, I don't know, a pinch of this and a dash of that. Stop breathing down my neck!" But I wrote down her best recipes anyway, including honey cake. I think the best cooks do the "pinch and dash" thing, but no help to the rest of us! ;-)

  2. Thanks, Sue! Pity you can't eat the seafood but I'm sure you could make it just with fish heads and bones too..just remember the piment d'Espelette! Funny, what your mum said sounds familiar :-) Mam would shoo us away if we hovered too much(quite understandable, given there were 7 kids to buzz around!)