On taste and travel, and lemony fish soup…

Traveling is wonderful. You eat, you see, you smell, you connect, you explore and discover. Time goes by in a blink. And you are back home. Remembering.

So of course, once home, you can talk about the trip, remember the quirky things that happened. You can look at photo albums. Listen to a CD you brought back. But of all the senses, I find the one that has the most intimate and interlaced relationship with memory, is taste (and its close companion, smell). What brings me really back there for a moment, is a bite. A flavor. Marcel Proust in his genius expressed this infinitely more eloquently in this excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way.

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine […] My aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it […] But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

I just love this idea of smell and taste as souls. Phantoms that stay with us, but comforting, joyful phantoms… tucked in our suitcases, whose mission is to make our experiences in distant lands indelible.

One of the great joys of traveling for us is most definitely trying the local cuisine and ingredients. And bringing home those recipes, to be able to reminisce on our wondrous adventures through our taste buds.

This works also for places we haven’t been to. When friends come back from travels, sure I enjoy looking at the pictures and hearing the stories, but I really feel like I’m sharing their experience if they cook a dish from a recipe they brought back. Travel recipes are the new slideshows! (I know, that is a really old reference, no one uses slides anymore, but you get the idea…) And that’s also a sure way to make me want to go to that place. We had this experience with a friend recently: I made an authentic Greek salad (with capers brought back from Greece), and told her to take a bite of feta, tomato, cucumber and caper, and to just imagine the salt in the air, the sun ever so bright, the blue sea and sky in contrast with the white buildings… I think she was with us in Greece there, for just a few wonderful shared moments.

So in this spirit, I am happy to share this wonderful recipe also from Greece. As I have said before, I am a big proponent of introducing children to fish very young (read: during pregnancy and while nursing). It is an extremely healthy food (preferably choosing it wild caught, fresh and of small size for low or null mercury levels), being a very lean protein, full of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B2, calcium and phosphorus, and minerals such as zinc, potassium, iron, iodine, magnesium, all crucial nutrients for brain development.

That being said, it is really important to make fish taste good. I myself, disliked most fish as a young child, mostly because I found it bland and the fish bones didn’t help matters either. I found this fish soup simply delicious. It has a lot of vegetables, and the lemony flavor marries itself so well with the fish. Of course, it does.  I know a lot of young babies / children enjoy acidic or lemony flavors, so this is perfect for them. (Pablo has certainly been known to suck on a lemon, make a face, and go back at it again!)

Now there’s an easy way to make this, or a hard way. You can simply get fish fillets with no bones, simply ask your fishmonger to give you a few fish heads and tails (or to fillet whole fish for you, giving you the heads and tails separately).  Or, if you want to go the hard traditional way, you can get the whole fish and then, spend the time to pull the meat apart and go through it carefully to remove all bones. Being so busy these days, when I do this here at home, I will definitely go with the fillets option.

So if you do make this soup, as you take a sip, just imagine lunch in a shady courtyard, amidst fig and citrus trees, clothes on a line and grapevines, the smell of salt in the air, and there, floating, the prospect of an after-lunch nap before a swim in the Aegean sea… Welcome to Greece.

Lemony fish soup

Recipe from Sofia and my sister Marilena in Greece – Ευχαριστώ!

Serves 4

Age for babies: I would serve this starting 10-12 months, because of the egg and lemon.

2 medium carrots, sliced

1 large potato, quartered

2 small onions or large shallots, sliced

4 sprigs of celery leaves

1 large zucchini, sliced

Salt & pepper

½ cup olive oil

4 tbsp short grain rice

1 egg (room temperature)

Juice of 1 lemon (room temperature)

1 lb fish fillets (sole, black cod or mullet)

3 or 4 fish heads and tails (optional)

(or, for the brave and patient, 2 lbs of whole medium size

In a large pot with a steamer basket (if you don’t have
that, just use a large pot over which you can place a metal colander where you
will steam the fish), cook the carrots, potato, onions, celery leaves, zucchini
and olive oil in water (so there’s about 2 inches of water above the
vegetables). Bring to a boil and lower the heat.

Place the fish (fillets, heads and tails) in the steaming
basket, over the vegetable broth, cover and cook until the fish and vegetables
are cooked through and soft.

Remove the steamer basket with the fish. (If you chose to
use whole fish, now’s the time to go through the painstaking task of pulling
apart the fish meat and removing all the bones, going through the fish a few
times.) Discard the heads and tails, set the fillets aside.

Remove the celery leaves from the broth. Add the rice to the
vegetable broth, bring to a boil, and cook until rice is tender, about 20 mn.

Once the rice is cooked, add the cooked fish fillets (cut up with a fork)
to the soup.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg. Add the lemon juice
little by little, whisking constantly. Then add half a ladle of broth from the
pot, whisking until frothy. Add the lemon/egg mixture to the soup, and let
simmer on very low for another 5 minutes (this will thicken the soup).

Serve hot with some country bread.

Note: For a younger baby, you can mix this in the food processor
for a very smooth soup.

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