ukha
Perhaps  no dish is more stereotypically Russian than ukha, a delicate soup based on a clear fish broth.  It has ancient origins, in traditions that sprung up around Russia’s great rivers, lakes and estuaries.  Almost any kind of fish can be used, so ukha can be very humble, made from pike or carp, or a truly luxurious affair with sturgeon or sterlets.  Historically, ukha was served in every home, from the poorest peasant huts, all the way up to the imperial table, where several pounds of fish could be used to make just one serving of this amazing soup.  It is deceptively simple, easy to make (if you know what you are doing) and incredibly comforting.

Growing up, I constantly pestered my grandmother to make her special ukha from “karasi“, tiny carps no bigger than goldfish.  These fish were so small and delicate, they needed only to be gutted.  Their bones and fins would turn gelatinous during cooking, so they could be eaten whole; each one fit in a spoonful.  My grandmother made her ukha so peppery, it made my mouth burn — truly welcome on those bitterly cold winter days when I came home from school all shivery and frozen.  I can’t find fish like this in the United States, so I make do with ordinary carp, or my favorite, rainbow trout.
A few side notes:
  • You can use any fish that has white and firm flesh.  Avoid dark-fleshed, oily types of fish, although I do have to put an asterisk on salmon.  Salmon heads and trimmings do make a flavorful broth, but salmon filet is not particularly suitable for soups.  It overcooks too easily, becoming tough and dry, even when simmered in liquid.  There are places in Russia that qualify as salmon country, and people there do make seasonal ukha with salmon filet, but it is far from ideal.  Given a choice, stick with firm-fleshed whites.  Heads and trimmings of dark, oily fishes other than salmon are not suitable for broth either.  Avoid flaky white fishes as well (so, tilapia doesn’t work).
  • There are traditions surrounding ukha, including the making of a “fisherman’s ukha” as part of a fishing trip.  This is typically done outdoors, over an open fire, and produces a more rustic, and notably less clear ukha than you can make at home.  Flavor-wise, it is vastly inferior, to my opinion.  I even asked my father once what the point was of making it this way, and he replied that it’s the ritual that really matters.  Well — this blog is more about cooking and less about ritual, so the recipe below is for an ukha made at home.
  • On making fish broth/stock: there are a couple of things you need to take into account.  First, outside of the male bonding exercise mentioned above, clarity is important.  This is true not only of ukha, but of all clear soups, which is a very prominent category in Russian cuisine.  I know, this is somewhat of a debate among home cooks, whether the benefits of making a clear broth or stock are worth  the effort.  My own strongly held opinion is that yes, it is absolutely worth it, because whatever chemical reaction causes a broth to go cloudy also alters the flavor; because truly clear soups look better; and because keeping your broth clear is actually quite easy.  Avoid cooling the broth too quickly, don’t whip it with spoons, don’t let it come to a boil — that’s literally it.  Follow the directions below, and you will have a beautiful, clear broth.
  • Second:  when you are making meat or poultry stock, you can just put the pot on the stove for about a million hours to extract every atom of flavor from the meat.  You can’t do that with fish.  If subjected to near-boiling temperatures for longer than about 25 minutes (and I always deduct 5 minutes from that limit, just to be safe), fish starts turning the broth bitter (and it’s not a “good” kind of bitter, either).  Once it’s turned, it’s over; there is no fixing it. So the way to make rich, flavorful fish broth or stock is to build it in stages.  You cook one set of fish heads and trimmings (or small fish) for 20 minutes, take them out, add a second set, cook that for 20 minutes, and so forth.  The more fish trimmings you use, and the more times you repeat the process, the richer the stock will be.  This is what I meant when I said at the beginning, that royal ukha would require several pounds of fish to make one serving.  Once you’ve gone through all your sets of “broth fish” (I recommend at least 3), then you are ready to strain and use the broth for ukha or whatever else you need.  You should use the same “stage” method to prepare fish stock for sauces, such as a fish veloute.
  • One last thing: fish heads provide especially good flavor, so get plenty of those (salmon heads work great).  Go to a traditional fishmonger for those — regular supermarkets mostly just throw out their fish trimmings or sell them to companies that make fish bouillion cubes (don’t use those, by the way).  Some more traditional markets, such as Asian ones, sell trimmings to the public.  MAKE SURE, however, that the gills are removed from the heads; they ruin the flavor.  Rinse the inside of the heads before you use them.
  • Almost forgot!  There is one more secret to making clear soup, well, clear.  Whatever starches go into it, they have to be cooked separately.  That’s why the recipe below directs you to cook barley and potatoes apart from the fish.
Ingredients:
5 lbs (or more) of fish trimmings, such as heads, tails, fins and spines
3 medium-sized river trouts, gutted, rib bones removed;
1 small turnip, peeled and quartered
2 small carrots, trimmed
5-6 inch section of leek (white part only)
1 small bunch of parsley
1 tbps black peppercorns, crushed
1 rib of celery, trimmed
1 small bunch of dill stems (fronds reserved for mincing)
1 bay leaf
 
10 small potatoes, peeled
1/3 cup barley*
minced dill
salt and pepper
Tools:
3 pots (yes, 3; plus a kettle)
1 mesh sieve
several layers of cheese cloth
1 very sharp non-serrated knife
DIRECTIONS:
1.  Bring a pot of water to a boil, season generously salt, and boil potatoes,  covered, until fork-tender, but  not falling apart, about 15 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Keep warm.
2.  Add barley to the water in which you cooked the potatoes, adjust the salt and simmer, covered, until the barley is fully cooked and tender (adding more hot water, if necessary), about 45 minutes.  Drain, set aside, and keep warm.
3.  Spread the parsley and the dill stems on the bottom on a large pot, arrange the vegetables on top, add enough water to just barely cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat, season generously with salt and add the cracked peppercorns and the bay leaf.  Let simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
4.  While the vegetables are cooking, trim the trouts: lay each fish flat, skin side down and the sides spread apart.  Slice off the heads, along with the top approximately 1/2 inch of the body, which contains the front fins and tough cartilage.  Slice off the tails.  Next, slice off belly strips (the portions of the filet that are really thin and fatty), along with the belly fins.  Add these heads and trimmings to the others.  Slice the trimmed filets into pieces about  1-1/2 inches wide and set aside.
5.  Add the first set of heads and trimmings to the pot with vegetables (do not mix the layers), add just enough boiling water to barely cover and bring to a simmer (do not let the soup boil).  Cover and keep the soup at a very gentle simmer for 20 minutes.
6.  Remove the heads and trimmings from the soup using a slotted spoon and discard.  At this time, also remove the carrots and set them aside.  Add the second set of fish heads and trimmings,  bring to a gentle simmer again, and let cook, covered and without boiling, for 20 minutes.  Remove and discard the second set of fish heads and trimmings, and repeat the process with the third set.
7. While the final set of fish heads and trimmings is cooking, arrange the trout filet pieces on the bottom of a clean pot.  Set a mesh sieve over them and line it with several layers of cheese cloth.
8.  Remove all solids from the broth using a slotted spoon and squeezing any liquid against the sides of the pot.  Slowly pour the broth into the mesh sieve, so that the liquid strains over the fillet pieces.  Once all the broth is added to the fish, bring the pot to a gentle simmer, cover, and let cook without boiling (but simmering slightly) for the final 20 minutes.  Take off heat, adjust the salt, add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes before serving.
9. To serve:  to each warmed soup plate, add 1 or 2 potatoes, a spoonful of barley and a piece of boiled carrot.  Add 2 or 3 pieces of fish fillet and pour ukha over the solids to cover.  Sprinkle with fresh minced dill.
Bon appetit.
*Some people use cream of wheat instead of barley, which is also great.  If you prefer to use that, cook it just before serving ukha, so that it doesn’t turn gelatinous.
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