Monday, January 10, 2011

Tomato and bread soup with fennel and fish: a recipe

Mark Bittman's tomato and bread soup with fish and fennel...
and apparently a big piece of basil
You must believe me when I say that this soup tastes so much better than it looks.

(You will also be happy to know that I have signed up for a food photography and styling workshop later this month, so perhaps I can dish up some slightly more appetizing photos in the future!)

The soup -- really, more of a stew -- comes from Mark Bittman's new Food Matters Cookbook. In a nutshell, Bittman's philosophy is that we can improve our health and help save the planet by changing the way we eat: focus on eating more plants and fewer animal products and processed foods. (Bittman is, first and foremost, a journalist, so if you want to learn all about the facts and figures behind this argument, I'd urge you to check out his book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating -- it makes a whole lot of sense to me).

For me, this philosophy fits in very nicely with not only Detox January but also my efforts to eat locally and sustainably.

Additionally, I like that Bittman does not advocate complete vegetarianism nor does he expect you to become a rabid organic-only food shopper that will never again eat another cheeseburger, even when on the road and faced with no other options; he just wants you to think about what you're putting in your mouth and how it relates to the world as a whole.

Enter the stew.

Bittman calls this a cross between "two classic Mediterranean soups -- bouillabaisse and pappa al pomodoro". (That sounds so worldly and cosmopolitan, doesn't it? ) I have to admit, as I started cooking it, I was skeptical because it looks ... well ... like a big ol' mess, quite frankly.

But it's delicious, I promise! A couple of tips:
  • Use a very sturdy bread that is more than slightly stale; I used a softer bread, which broke down and added to the messy look and gave it a weird texture.
  • I've modified the recipe below to use a bit less fennel than Bittman calls for, as I felt it was way too fennel-heavy. I like fennel, but good lord!
  • I used cod but feel free to substitute any firm white fish (halibut, haddock, etc.).

Tomato and Bread Soup with Fennel and Fish (adapted from Mark Bittman's Food Matters Cookbook)

3 tablespoons olive oil
8 oz. cod fillets (may use any other firm white fish)
1 large onion, halved and sliced
1 1/2 fennel bulbs, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
salt and pepper
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes (drain but reserve juice)
2 cups vegetable stock, plus reserved tomato juice
1/2 loaf day-old, crusty rustic bread, cubed
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the fish and cook for 1-3 minutes per side, until seared on the outside but not cooked through. Remove from pot.

Add onion, fennel and garlic to the pot, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and cook until onion and fennel are soft and golden (about 8-10 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Add the tomatoes and cook. stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Cut up the fish and add it to the pot, together with the stock, reserved tomato juice and bread. Bring to a gentle boil, cook for 1 additional minute and remove the pot from the heat. Cover and let sit for about 10 minutes, to let the bread soak up some of the liquid.

Stir in basil and add additional salt and pepper to taste, if necessary.

Serves four


  1. Wow, that looks good... I wonder if it would work with Bokchoy-- I'm not a huge fennel fan. What do you think?

  2. I think it would be great with bok choy, Ted. You'd definitely have to cook the onion alone for a while first and then add the bok choy, since it wouldn't need as long to get tender as the fennel.

    If you try it, let me know what you think, as I love bok choy as well!

  3. Made it! My thoughts: not a huge fan of fennel (I wish I was! And I have tried!) so used only 1/2, added lemon zest and juice (no reason except I had it handy and it seems to go with fish), and WSM was out of basil and it had started snowing pretty hard so I headed home and used dried Italian seasoning. My husband and I both tasted it before the addition of the bread and both agreed it was better without the bread! I don't think "sturdier" was all that helpful. I used sourdough and toasted it in the oven until it was quite firm and it still turned to mush. Without the bread, it was a two thumb's up!! Oh yeah, I used talapia because I found it on sale. No complaints about the fish selection.