Friday, January 22, 2016

Lend an Ear

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, our theme for yesterday’s home school lesson was Russia. We made borscht for lunch, and then for supper, I made another traditional Russian dish, a kind of fish and potato soup called ukha. I was informed that the word “ukha” is Russian for “ear,” and for some reason over time it has become a slang word meaning a fortified broth. I promise that no actual ears of any kind were used in making this soup (possibly a potato eye or two snuck in, but definitely no ears).

To my New England brain, making fish soup without a cream base sounds strange. It sounds like it would be flavorless and weak. To be honest, it struck me as stereotypical “peasant food” – like the poor Irish who lived on potatoes and not much else, the poverty-stricken Asians and Africans who subsisted (and still subsist) on strictly rice, and Oliver Twist and his gruel, I expected it to be an essentially flavorless food that imparted little more than calories. Surprisingly, this simple soup turned out to be delicious, easy, and relatively inexpensive to make.

The ingredients were easy enough to gather: a couple of potatoes, an onion, some parsley, and some fish. Although the “real” Russian version of this dish would use freshwater fish, the recipe I found explained that it could be made with any kind of white-fleshed fish (it suggested cod), but noted that it can also be made with salmon, or even a combination of several kinds of fish. I trooped off to my local supermarket and found that both cod and salmon were on sale, so I used both.

First, I put 4 cups of water in a large saucepan on the stove to boil. Be sure to use a large saucepan! Four cups is a lot, and you still need room to add a significant volume of potatoes and fish. While it was chugging along, I chopped up my potatoes. The recipe specified to cube the potatoes, but didn’t mention the size. Since I prefer potatoes in soup to be quite soft, I opted to chop them rather small. 

I was nervous after the fact that they’d get mushy, but they ended up being just the right firmness. (I was always taught that adding salt to the cooking water makes potatoes tender; perhaps since salt isn't added until just before serving, they stay firmer?) Two potatoes didn’t seem like much for a whole pot of soup, but in typical potato fashion, they seemed to magically multiply in size as I chopped them. Next, I chopped up an onion.

My kids are not fond of onions, so I chopped them rather finely, but I think they would have added some nice texture if I sliced them thinly on a mandolin and then chopped them into large but bite-sized pieces. But that might be my New England fish chowder roots talking again. So chop them into whatever size you prefer.

The recipe called for an entire “bunch” of fresh parsley, chopped, which seemed like an awful lot to me. I used probably ¾ of this bunch. Again, adjust according to your own preferences. Soup isn’t chemistry; do it the way you like it and it’ll be just fine.

Once the water was boiling, I added the onion, potatoes, and parsley and left it simmering over low heat for 15 minutes.

I could have used this step as a lesson in density and displacement: the potatoes immediately sunk to the bottom, while the onion and parsley floated nicely on top.

While the veggies were cooking, I cut up the fish. Once again, the recipe didn’t specify the size of the “cubes,” so I went with large but bite-size pieces. The recipe specified 4 ounces of fish, but since 1) that’s difficult to measure, and 2) that didn’t sound like a lot of fish, I used a small filet of cod and half of a medium-sized filet of salmon. It ended up being slightly less volume than the cubed potatoes (probably about 2 to 2-1/2 cups). 

The most difficult part was cutting the skin off the salmon. I cut the filet into strips, then removed the skin, but next time I think I’d do the whole filet at once – once I detached it from the flesh, it pulled away easily and cleanly. Much easier to do in one large piece than a dozen smaller ones. 

Once the initial 15 minutes was up, I tossed in the fish and let it heat for another 10 minutes. 

The outside color of the fish began to change almost instantly when it went in the water. The salmon paled and the cod became less translucent. I was concerned that 10 minutes wouldn’t be enough to fully cook the large chunks of fish I used, but being surrounded by boiling water, it cooked very quickly and evenly. Once the 10 minutes was up and the fish was fully cooked, I added lemon juice (the recipe called for "the juice of one lemon" but I used bottled lemon juice and measured thusly: “Ummm…about thaaaaat much.”). Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust lemon juice as needed. I put in enough that you could barely taste the lemon. I was somewhat generous with the salt (the lemony-salty combination was wonderful!) and a bit light-handed with the pepper, since some members of my family aren’t big fans. Adding extra pepper to individual servings looks pretty and is an easy way to keep everyone happy. If I were serving this to guests, I’d add a sprig of parsley to each bowl as a garnish, but it’s lovely just as is.

Much like yesterdays’ borscht, serving ukha with a side of hearty bread makes a perfectly satisfying and complete meal. (Onions and parsley count as vegetables, right?) I liked the combination of flavors of the two different fish, and the slightly tart, slightly salty broth was a pleasant contrast to the mild flavor of the fish and potatoes, with a slight sweetness layered on top from the onions and just a hint of fresh green from the parsley.

This is a good, basic recipe which could be altered by using different kinds of fish, different herbs, perhaps adding a bit of spice or various seasonings instead of the lemon juice, possibly even using other root vegetables like sweet potatoes or summer squash instead of potatoes.

Mmmm, pass the ears!!

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