If you’re an assiduous reader of this blog, you might remember my first recipe for ukha, the traditional Russian fish soup: a yellow perch ukha with perch fritters and perch roe croutons. Freshwater fish soup is a fisherman’s classic, often prepared on the spot with the day’s catch over an open fire, and inseparable from the smell of woodsmoke. Since most Russians live inland (often very far from the sea), it makes sense that lakes and rivers would provide so much of the fish that locals eat. Yet, as we saw in my recent post on the Russian Far North, the Pomors, on the shores of the White Sea, are avid cod eaters. So it follows that Pomor ukha, made with seawater fish, is one of the most famous dishes in Northern Russian cuisine.
In fact, leafing through L.A. Cheryomukhina’s Severnaya Kukhnya (Northern Cuisine), one finds many recipes for northern ukha. Like everywhere else in Russia, these soups generally start with a fish broth, made either with whole small fish or the bones, fins, and heads of large fish, boiled with onion and parsley for about an hour, then strained. The “Arkhangelsk” ukha calls for a fish broth made of cod fins and bones, then chunks of cod, onion, finely chopped cod liver, scallions, dill, black pepper, and bay leaf. The so-called “Pomor” ukha consists of just boiling water into which are added sliced potatoes, peppercorns, chopped onion, and cod chunks, finished with hot milk, diced butter, and chopped herbs. These names aren’t mutually exclusive, though – you could be a Pomor and live in Arkhangelsk. Several variations simply mix and match from the above two recipes. Others throw their own curveballs: freshwater fish from the waters of Northern Russia, fish pelmeni instead of chunks of fish, breadcrumbs, lemon juice… One particularly interesting recipe from the Onezhsky District uses marinated saffron milk caps and dried small fish, and suggests serving the soup with a piece of coulibiac or other rybnik (fish pie). But what makes a northern fish soup specifically “Pomor” is the use of seawater fish, cod in particular.
You’ll find many of the aforementioned elements in my ukha: the cod fillet and cod liver, the potatoes and scallions, lots of herbs (Russians love their herbs), the milk, even a bit of the smokiness. Then there are my own touches:
- While the fish broth is typically started with water and fish bones, I’m using chicken stock. Unbeknownst to many (sorry, pescatarians), the use of chicken stock in fish dishes is fairly common in high-end restaurants.
- I borrowed from Darra Goldstein’s new cookbook Beyond the North Wind the idea of adding a pinch of saffron, to “turn the broth golden and reflect the influence of trade to Arkhangelsk from points east and west.”
- I don’t like my fish overcooked or broken down into a dozen pieces in the soup bowl. For this reason, I’m cooking it very gently in a sous-vide pouch. As all the solid ingredients are assembled in the bowls before the liquid is added, you can pour the soup tableside for a more dramatic presentation.
- I’m serving with a piece of French baguette toasted in butter, because a soup without toasted bread and butter, Pomor or not, isn’t worth eating!
Yields 2 servings
100 g peeled onion, large dice
65 g carrot, large dice
340 g fish bones and heads (e.g., from salmon)
15 g olive oil
600 g chicken stock
1/2 bay leaf
- In a large pot over high heat, sauté the onion, carrot, and fish bones in the olive oil until lightly browned.
- Season with salt and add the chicken stock, peppercorns, clove, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.
- Pass the broth through a chinois and reserve. The broth can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated. In that case, remove and discard the fat that solidifies at the top of the container.
Yields 2 servings
300 g cod fillet
30 g butter
- Cut the cod into pieces of 75 g each and season with salt on all sides.
- Transfer each piece to a sous-vide pouch with a piece of butter. Vacuum-seal, and cook in a 41 C / 106 F water bath for 30 minutes. Reserve in the water bath until ready to serve.
Yields 2 servings
1 small pinch saffron
150 g peeled Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 4 pieces
200 g milk
4 whole (20-25 g total) peeled scallion whites
- Pour the broth into a pot, add the saffron, then bring to a simmer over medium heat and reduce to about 380 g.
- Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a pot of salted water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and reserve (at this point, the potatoes won’t be completely cooked).
- To the pot containing the fish broth, add the milk, potatoes, and scallion whites. Simmer over medium heat for 5-10 more minutes, until the vegetables are all cooked through.
- Rectify the seasoning with smoked salt. Optionally, pass through a chinois, then return both the liquid and the vegetables to a clean pot. Proceed with assembly immediately.
Yields 2 servings
2 pieces of French baguette, each 5-6 cm long, cut lengthwise
20 g butter
7 g scallion greens, thinly sliced
4 g parsley, finely chopped
2 g dill, finely chopped
60 g cod liver
- In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, toast the bread pieces in the butter until golden brown. Reserve.
- Combine the scallion greens, parsley, and dill in a bowl.
- Reheat the ukha if needed. Take out and reserve the potatoes and scallion whites. Stir half of the herb mix into the soup.
- Pat dry the cod liver with paper towels (it’s usually stored in oil but here you want to get rid of that).
- Using a fish spatula, carefully take the cod out of the sous-vide pouches.
- In each soup bowl, arrange two pieces of cod, large chunks of cod liver, two pieces of potato, and two scallion whites. Pour the ukha, sprinkle with the remaining herbs, and serve.