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I’ve been in deep, gooey love with soup since, well, as long as I can remember.  Back in the day as a kid my Mom served up good ol’ Campbell’s canned soup for lunch quite a bit – chicken noodle, tomato, split pea – and I braved those awful MSG-laden headaches in the aftermath every time.

And I have wonderful memories of digging razor clams with my family at our summer house on the Long Beach peninsula (in Ocean Park, WA).  Mom and Grandma would make clam chowder from scratch…and those clams couldn’t have been any fresher!  I remember putting buckets and buckets of clams down in the beach house basement, covered in cold salt water.  The clams would “clean” themselves (meaning, get rid of a lot of the sand and debris on their own), saving a little time when it came to make the chowder.  I devoured bowls of it I’m sure.  I can still taste it as I write today.  [Side note:  a sign of a great clam chowder is one that’s heavy on the clams, not the ‘filler’ stuff like potatoes.]

Every once in awhile Mom would whip up a huge pot of Cioppino or Bouillabaisse.  I’d come home to those heavenly scents of seafoods and spices simmering joyously in the kitchen…such a luxurious treat! 

Today, cooking soup from scratch is one of my passions.  Save for a few very heavy stew-like soups, I love making hot soup year ’round.  Sure, a nice, cool gazpacho (with a tiny touch of hot sauce) is a perfect, light dinner in warm weather, but hot, spicy soup – interestingly enough – helps me cool down when the temperatures climb.  We don’t have to worry too much about super hot weather in the Seattle area actually.  And I guess what you consider to be “hot weather” is all relative.

It was time to blow the dust off a cookbook I have not used in quite some time, and as I stared at the row of cookbooks on my kitchen counter, this one jumped right out in a ‘pick me, pick me’ fashion:  The South American Table, by Maria Baez Kijac.  This is much, much more than a cookbook.  It’s pretty much a short history of the continent – its mind-blowing diversity of climate and cultures.  And if you’re a geography buff like I am, the introductory chapters of this book will sing to you.

The continent is far larger and more diverse than many of us might imagine.  As Kijac explains, “…it is also farther east than most think – the west coast of South America actually lies almost due south of the U.S. East Coast.  Chile’s Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth, with some parts going as long as 20 years without rain.  On the other hand, Choco, in western Colombia, has some of the world’s wettest weather.  Patagonia, in southern Argentina, has glaciers and snowy, wind-swept peaks, while the Amazon region is famous for its lush, tropical rain forest.  The Andes, one of the planet’s great mountain ranges, are mostly volcanic.”

From the northern regions on the Caribbean sea, to the far south along the icy waters surrounding Antarctica, the diversity of this continent is astonishing!  And this has tremendous impact upon plants, animals, civilizations and cuisine in every region. 

As you might imagine, it was hard to pick just one new recipe to try.  There are 26 recipes in just the soup section alone!  I hit the jackpot with this one…Caldillo de Congrio a la Neruda (Neruda’s Fish soup).

Serves 6 to 8 (requires some pre-preparation and marinating)

  • 2 pounds Chilean congrio filets (1 1/2 – 2″ thick) or other firm white-fleshed fish such as Chilean sea bass, red snapper or halibut
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 medium-sized onions, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 3 cloves garlic, mashed into a paste with 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 small carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 4 oz jar pimento strips, drained
  • 1 T chicken bouillon granules
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram
  • 1/4 tsp hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
  • 1 16 oz can pear-shaped tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 1 C dry white wine or dry sherry
  • 3 C water
  • 1 C milk
  • 6 medium-sized all-purpose potatoes, peeled, quartered and cooked in water to cover until tender, and drained
  • 1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 C whipping cream (optional)
  • 1/4 C minced fresh parsley leaves for garnish
  • 1/4 C finely chopped scallions (white part and 1″ of green) for garnish

Cut the fish filets into 2 to 3″ pieces.  Sprinkle with the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. 

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or large casserole over low heat.  Add the onions and paprika, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes.  Do not let brown.  Stir in the garlic paste, carrots, pimentos, bouillon, bay leaf, sugar, marjoram and hot pepper sauce and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes.  Add the tomatoes, wine and water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.  The soup base can be made ahead up to this point.  Let cool, cover and refrigerate until needed.

To finish, bring the soup to a boil over medium heat and add the milk, fish and potatoes.  Cover and simmer until the fish is cooked through, about 8 minutes.  Just before serving, add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink and begin to uncurl, about 1 minute.  Add cream, if using, and heat through.  Taste for salt, pepper and sugar.

Serve in soup plates, sprinkled with parsley and scallions.

Fivenineteen notes:  There is a fair amount of prep work with chopping and peeling.  Please don’t be discouraged by this; the flavors in this soup are mind-blowing.  I opted to first cut up the fish and put it in a large, glass Pyrex bowl to marinate while I prepped the rest of the ingredients.  I quartered a lemon, squeezed each onto the fish pieces, sprinkled a little salt and pepper on them and covered and placed in the fridge.

Congrio is an indigenous fish from the coast of Chile.  Sadly it is not available in the States, but a Chilean sea bass, red snapper or halibut are good substitutes.  At the grocery store, the halibut was $17/lb…and the cod filets were $9/lb.  Given I needed 2 lbs, I opted for the cod and it turned out great.

As I often post in here about spices, it’s extremely important your dried spices are pungent.  Do the smell test prior to adding to your cooking – actually before you go grocery shopping.  If they’re not pungent, throw them out and get replacements.  I cannot emphasize this enough!  Don’t sabotage the true essence of all of your recipe’s flavors by thwarting it with old, wimpy spices!

Tomatoes:  I used a 14.5 oz can of pre-chopped tomatoes instead of purchasing canned pear tomatoes and chopping them myself.  Given there was a lot of other chopping and peeling with this recipe it was a nice timesaver.  Be sure to drain the tomatoes in a small strainer to remove excess liquid (same with the pimentoes too).  Shake the strainer several times to make sure you squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

Potatoes:  the recipe calls for 6; I opted to go with 3 medium to large size.  I cut them into smaller pieces (rather than just quartering) before putting in water to cook slightly.  If you are truly making this to serve 6 to 8 I would probably stick with the full amount of 6 potatoes.

Adding whipping cream:  this is a completely optional step.  I chose to do so to give the broth more of a chowder-y feel, a bit richer than the fish broth on its own.  Either way, the flavors are incredible.

The author always includes a couple of introductory paragraphs describing each recipe – personal memories, or interesting facts about the region each dish comes from.   I am so impressed with this cookbook – you can tell the author has poured her heart and soul into every single page.  Fantastic!

She explains:  “This famous Chilean soup was immortalized by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, well-known for his love of good food and a ‘happy table.’  In his poem ‘Oda al Caldillo de Congrio’ (Ode to Congrio Soup), he sings the praises of this delicious soup.  The just-married flavors of the earth and sea come to the table so that some lucky people can be introduced to heaven…”

Yep, that’s how good it is.  Enjoy!