I love all kinds of hearty fish and shellfish soups like bouillabaisse and cioppino, but sometimes I don’t have all the ingredients to make a particularly authentic version of one or the other. So I decided to create a versatile and deeply flavored soup “base” that could be used, along with fish stock or broth and any combination of seafood, to make a delicious seafood soup (or “stoup” if you take it a bit more in the direction of a stew). Best of all, the base can be made ahead.

The base features tomatoes and sausage, along with onions, fennel, spices and plenty of garlic. I particularly like to use Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes and D’Artagnan andouille sausage (both available at Cronig’s and Stop ‘n’ Shop). But any sausage – from linguiça and chorizo to fresh Italian sausage – can work. Smoked or cured sausages will lend more flavor. For aromatics, I use onions and fennel, but leeks and carrots would work, too. Just be sure not to skimp on the garlic, spices, or herbs.  

To the base I add fish broth or stock that I pick up at The Net Result in Vineyard Haven and keep in the freezer. Most Island (and many off-Island) seafood stores make and freeze their own fish stock, and this is your best choice for this soup. But if you can’t find it (or fish bouillon), honestly you can use a light non-seafood broth of your choice. Add a dash of fish sauce or a bit of anchovy paste to doctor the broth a bit. Bottled clam juice would be my last choice, but if you do use it, water it down a good bit. (Of course if you have the time and inclination you can always make your own fish stock, but it isn’t necessary for this soup.)

Susie Middleton

The third component of course is a combination of fish and shellfish — your choice. I like to include a firm, flavorful white fish like monkfish or halibut, but cod and other non-oily fish are fine, too. Clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp are options for the shellfish. (Though if you wanted to keep the seafood local, you wouldn't use shrimp.)

These three building blocks give you plenty of ways to customize a hearty seafood soup. You also have the flexibility of using all of the broth or stock for a soupy soup (to serve with crusty bread) or you can add a slightly smaller amount of the broth to the base and serve the slightly thicker “stoup” over rice. Serving over rice wouldn’t be traditional for a seafood soup, but if you start with a smoked sausage in your base and use shrimp as one of your main seafood choices, you’ll be steering the dish to something closer to jambalaya or a seafood and sausage stew. (We did say this was versatile!) Keep in mind that shellfish like clams and mussels will give off some liquid when added to the soup.

Even if you don’t make the soup base a few hours or a day ahead, I recommend stopping when you’ve got it made and making sure the people you are feeding are ready to sit down at the table. Then add your broth and the fish and shellfish, cook just until done, stir in the herbs, and serve right away. Firm fish like monkfish as well as clams need the longest cooking time (littlenecks can take 8 minutes to open) so add them first, followed by mussels, shrimp and quick-cooking fish like cod. Stir in thinly sliced calamari (if using) at the very end. Judging the ideal amount of seafood (if your pot looks exceptionally full, save out some seafood – you can always add it to leftover broth to eat the next day) and the ideal cooking times is not an exact science, so make notes about your own personal preferences and times for future variations.

Serves 4

For the soup base (can be made hours or a couple days ahead):

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 8 ounces sausage (preferably smoked or cured such as andouille, chorizo, or linguica but fresh sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing is fine, too), cut into ½-inch pieces
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 ½ to 2 cups thinly sliced onions or leeks (rinsed)
• 1 ½ cups thinly sliced fennel (from about one/half large bulb, cored and quartered)
• Kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
• 1 tablespoon roughly chopped thyme leaves
• 2 teaspoons ground coriander
• 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
• ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
• ½ cup red wine
• 2 tablespoons tomato paste
• 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, with their liquid
• 1 tablespoon lemon juice 
• 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

To finish the soup:

• 4 cups fish stock or broth (I like The Net Result’s frozen fish stock)  
• 1 ½ pound fish filets (I like a combination of monkfish or halibut and cod), cut into 1-inch pieces
• About 2 pounds shellfish (use a combination of at least two: mussels, clams or shrimp, but don’t use more than 1 pound of one)
• ¾ cup (about 5 to 6 ounces) thinly sliced calamari (bodies or tentacles)(optional)
• ¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (any combination of basil, parsley, tarragon, cilantro or mint)

For serving:

• Crusty bread or cooked rice


For the soup base:

1. Heat the olive oil in a 5- or 6-quart Dutch oven or other wide pot over medium-low heat. Add the sausage and cook, stirring, until nicely browned (about 4 to 6 minutes, depending on the sausage). Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pot.

2. Turn the heat to medium and add the butter, the leeks (or onions), the fennel and 1 teaspoon salt. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks and fennel are softened, about 5 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until the vegetables are shrunken and lightly browned, another 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Add the minced garlic, the thyme, the smoked paprika, the ground coriander, and the red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and stir until well-combined, “toasting” the tomato paste by spreading it across the bottom of the pan and scraping once or twice. Add the wine and simmer, stirring, until the liquid is mostly reduced, a few minutes.

4. Return the sausage to the pot and add the tomatoes (with all their liquid). Stir thoroughly and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook the mixture at a gentle simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the sides of the pan frequently, until the mixture thickens and reduces (much but not all of the visible liquid will be cooked off and the color will be darker). Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and balsamic. (You can pause at this point and cool the base to use later, or you can continue.

To finish the soup:

1. Return the pot to the heat, add 3 or 3 ½ cups of the broth or stock and bring to a simmer, stirring. Add the monkfish (if using) and clams to the pot, cover, and simmer 7 to 8 minutes, until the clams are mostly open. Add the cod and the mussels, cover again, and simmer 2 to 3 minutes until the mussels are open. Uncover, stir in the calamari. Cook, stirring, only for a few seconds (the residual heat will continue to cook the calamari). Stir in the remaining broth if you like.

2. Take the pot off the heat and stir in most of the chopped fresh herbs. Serve right away in wide bowls garnished with the remaining herbs. Serve with crusty bread or over rice if you like.

Susie Middleton