Hearty Fish Soup with Cider, Leeks, and Mushrooms

I don’t know what I find so funny about fish heads but, well, I think most of the prep I did for this soup involved me holding the fish heads up in front of my face, giggling and pretending that they were speaking to me in funny voices. I was literally laughing out loud, alone in my kitchen with a fish head.

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to the poor fish that had to die for my soup. I really do respect him for that. I’m truly grateful. But unlike working with chicken heads or pig’s heads, which have an strikingly sad expressions, fish heads have this look on their faces, like they are half-surprised and half-tiffed that you are about to eat them. You wash them off, cut up your stock vegetables, and throw them all in the pot—and then the fish heads look up at you like “Seriously? You are seriously about to cook me?” You pour in the liquid and turn on the heat, and the heads look towards one another and say things like “Damn, man, this is it. Thought we’d fare better than our bodies, us heads being so cute and big eyed and all. But no, she’s going to actually frickin’ cook us.”

Obviously, I spent a lot of time talking in what I assume is a fish voice.

And I almost didn’t want to cook them. They are so cute. They were perfect, fresh fish. I bought them whole from the market. I think I impressed the guy behind the counter, who has never sold a whole fish to me, because when I asked him if he could gut and fillet them and give me the heads when he was finished he gave me this pleased look and said “oh yeah”. He knew there’d be real fish soup in my house tonight, baby. None of that canned fish-stock nonsense, no Sir.

And fish soup it was! The delicious and interesting recipe I’ve provided below is verbatim from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups (I luckily found the real recipe online and copied and pasted.) I put in some notes because while this was a wonderful soup that I would gladly make over again, there were a few things that I did differently here because I didn’t have the ingredients or was being lazy, and I don’t suggest you follow my lead (except where I recommend shitakes as the mushrooms—they were so good!) The cider in the soup made for a complexly sweet flavor when combined with the earthy mushrooms and the leeks. We ended up adding a lot of salt to our bowls and I thought that helped to bring out all the flavors and mask the sweetness of the cider. I’m sure that using hard cider would make the taste even more complex and enticing, and I plan to make this again with it. All in all, I loved this recipe and my first experience making fish stock. I don’t think I’ll ever make a fish soup without it again—and I’ll probably make one soon, for another excuse to play with the fish heads!

Hearty Fish Soup with Cider, Leeks and Mushrooms

6 servings//from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups

As you can see, I left the skin on my fish for this soup. I particularly like the taste of fish skin and since a lot of nutrients are packed in the skin, I almost always eat my fish skin-on. The texture of the skin in the soup was very similar to the mushrooms, so it was almost unnoticeable, but go by your own preference when choosing skin or not.


  • 3 pounds whole fish

Fish Broth

  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 3 leeks, green part only, but whites reserved, coarsely chopped
  • 5 cups hard cider or 3 cups apple cider combined with 2 cups water*
  • 1 bouquet garni**


  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 18 small mushrooms, quartered***
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tablespoon parsley or chervil, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons Calvados****
  • 1/3 to ½ cup cider vinegar
  • Salt and white pepper to taste


To prepare the fish broth, have the fishmonger gut and fillet the fish and remove the skin. Be sure to save the fish head and bones. When you get the fillets home, check them carefully and remove any bones.

Make a fish broth by thoroughly rinsing the head and bones in cold water and combining them with the onions, leek greens, cider and bouquet garni in a 4-quart pot. Bring the broth to a slow and simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off any froth that floats to the top. Strain the broth through a medium-mesh strainer.

At the last minute, slice the white parts of the leeks finely and put them in a 4-quart pot with the butter. Cook them gently until they soften, for about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook gently for 3 minutes more.

Just before serving, arrange the fish in one layer in the pot with the leeks and mushrooms. Pour the simmering fish broth over the fish. Poach the fish fillets for about 8 minutes for each inch of thickness and distribute them among soup bowls with a slotted spoon.

Add the cream, parsley, Calvados and a tablespoon of the cider vinegar to the broth. Taste it, adjust the vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Ladle the broth with the mushrooms and leeks over the fish.

Suggestions and variations
Apple wedges lightly sautéed in butter make a lovely additional garnish for the soup.

*I used plain cider with water and while it was good, I bet the hard cider would have given the taste to the soup that I thought missing, or at least give a twist to the apple’s sweetness.

**I didn’t use this because I was lazy. I’m sure it’s better to use it, though I didn’t miss any herby taste.

***I used shitakes and cut them in half, they were my favorite part of the soup.

****I used a dark rum instead (and a little less of it) because I didn’t have Calvados. I imagine it’s best to use Calvados.

I’ll be posting about my somewhat unusual superbowl supper later this week. How was your superbowl dinner? Did you learn any new recipes?

15 thoughts on “Hearty Fish Soup with Cider, Leeks, and Mushrooms”

  1. Aaagh! When I opened my feed reader and that fish head jumped out at me, I almost spit out my drink. So, yes, fish heads are funny. (and delicious!)

  2. Call me crazy, but fish aren’t critters that fall into my ‘cute’ category. Certainly delicious, especially in those beautiful photos, but not cute. I just would’ve looked at them heads and thought about how delicious they’d make the soup stock 😉

  3. Yikes! That is a gorgeous pic. You offer serious perspective with that.

    It makes me think of the song; “Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads”. I know, silly. But come on, can’t be any less serious than talking in a little fish voice can it? 🙂

    I’ve tagged this to make. You’ve just added MORE to my must make list. I’d better get started, huh?

  4. I love the second picture. That red fish head looks funny. And the soup sounds absolutely delicious!

    And to answer your Superbowl question, my Superbowl meal was great. Our menu was quite eclectic (crab rangoons and pigs in a blanket? really?) but everything was delicious and everyone ate so much. I don’t think I’ll need to eat for another couple of days! But my favorite part was the banana and black bean empanadas I made. So good!

  5. Ellie: If you think puppies and kittens are still what’s cute, then you are way behind the times. The other day Paris Hilton was on TV with a fish head on a long gold chain — the new must-have fashion accessory. To hell with those babies!

  6. I got one better….

    whenever I have a whole chicken, I dance it around the counters holding it up by its wings, making goofy sounds and singing.

    I totally get the fish heads and funny voices thing. That is so me.

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