Five pounds of frozen fish heads, now what?

I took my seat on the train warily, clutching a canvas bag filled with a cookbook, a change of clothes, and five pounds of frozen fish heads. I recalled how innocuously it all began.

"Let's throw a dinner party," said my friend over a mediocre lunch at a popular New York restaurant. Perhaps it was the revelation that we could serve a better meal than this celebrity chef had dished up. Perhaps it was a hint of masochism.

In any event, it seemed like a terrific idea. We could have some friends out to her parents' house in Connecticut and provide a break from a stifling summer in the city.

We needed a dish that would seem as natural on a warm summer's evening as mosquito repellent and cool lemonade. It had to be sophisticated but simple; not just nourishment, but an epic meal that we could linger over for hours.

After much discussion, the answer became apparent: bouillabaisse, the magnificent fish stew from the Provence region of southern France. The food of the region is simple, lusty, and flavorful - qualities we would capture for this dinner party.

Like so many dishes now gentrified, bouillabaisse has its roots in peasant food. After a long day on their boats, fishermen would take hard-to-sell "trash" fish and throw them into a rapidly boiling pot with some vegetables. The stew was then mopped up with stale bread and rouille (a rust-colored mayonnaise infused with garlic, olive oil, bread crumbs, and hot peppers). It could be prepared in 20 minutes and eaten in less time than that.

Eventually, restaurateurs realized what a good thing the fishermen had going. So they found ways to make peasant food sophisticated enough to rival Dover sole in price. Some chefs even added lobster and other pricey ingredients, and made the cooking and serving methods more complicated.

It can now be served on white tablecloths without embarrassment.

In choosing a recipe for our adventure, the challenge was to balance the desire for authenticity with other concerns. Foremost among them: We must deal with a seafood selection that is different in the US than in the Mediterranean; racasse and other bony fish unavailable here are said to be the source of the rich, powerful flavors of a true bouillabaisse.

I started perusing recipes. A 1941 Escoffier cookbook insisted on 15 minutes total cooking time and a mere two cloves of garlic. That seems terribly bland in the age of Emeril Lagasse. Other recipes were absurdly complicated, using four steps when one would do.

In one recipe I found a combination of rustic authenticity with the epic meal I had in mind. Found in the recent "Dean and Deluca Cookbook," by the estimable David Rosengarten, it is an adaptation of the bouillabaisse at the Restaurant du Bacon in Cap d'Antibes, France. One attraction: It divides the meal into three courses, perfect for a languid summer evening.

First, one makes a very rich broth, in which fish and potatoes are poached for a first course. Then, shellfish are cooked in the remaining broth and served. Finally, the now-thickened broth itself is served as a soup, with toast and rouille.

I adjusted the recipe slightly: Bowing to the squeamishness of some guests, I replaced the whole fish Rosengarten calls for with fish fillets. (Note that one must be particularly careful about overcooking the fish when using fillets.)

All that was left was to buy the ingredients. I visited a fishmonger several days before the event to get the pounds of fish heads that would flavor the stock. When I got home with my bounty, I put them in the freezer, sealing them in plastic bags, hoping not to contaminate my roommates' Haagen-Daz with the scent of red snapper.

Then off to the produce market, where I rescued several tomatoes from the thin (red) line between ripe and rotten. Potatoes, leeks, and fennel completed the trip.

So I loaded it all into a canvas bag, lugged it to Grand Central station, and boarded the train, thankful that the fish heads emitted no odors. We soon arrived, made a final seafood purchase (annoying those in line behind us, no doubt, as we ordered some of most everything the fishmonger had), and began cooking.

The guests trickled in. I somehow thought it would be easy to be sociable while standing over a rapidly boiling 50-quart copper pot. It was not.

Dinner on the deck began with a simple salad of mixed greens.

Next, we brought out a platter of fish and potatoes. This course provided nourishing warmth, evoking the peasant roots of the dish - subtle flavors with the pleasant color and taste of saffron.

Next came the dramatic platter of shellfish. This was the real show-stopper; a colorful plate piled high with perfectly cooked seafood. Messy hands seem integral to eating shellfish - and were in ample supply as we downed shrimp, lobster, mussels, and scallops.

The final course was the greatest failure. In my rush to make the rouille (the guests were arriving at the time), I added the oil to the egg yolk mixture too quickly - and therefore it didn't emulsify. With the party under way, I didn't have time to rescue the effort or start over (which shows the importance of doing as much as possible ahead of time).

And the soup was a bit too salty - again this cook's error.

Almost three hours later - and after a simple dessert of ice cream, berries, and roasted figs - I said goodbye to a contented set of guests. The frantic cooking had paid off, after all.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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