In Praise Of Bouillabaisse

In these dog-sled days of winter, few foods present the palate with a finer promise of warm weather to come than thick, rich soup or stew.

A bouillabaisse, for instance: that sunny-weather dish native to the port city of Marseilles in the south of France.

Because of their fierce reliance on fish peculiar to the area, especially rascasse - the prickly scorpion fish - purists consider a bouillabaisse without it culinary blasphemy. Others (usually beyond Marseilles) say this is nothing less than snobbery.

One can argue about this fish or that, but there's little debate that a true bouillabaisse must include the characteristic complexity of flavorings imparted by fennel, saffron, and orange peel.

Non-purists - those of us who won't be vacationing on the sunny Riviera this season - can construct a flavorful bouillabaisse from fish available locally. (An excellent adaptation by food doyenne Patricia Wells follows.)

Ms. Wells suggests using any of a number of white-fleshed fish including cod, monkfish, striped bass, and grouper. Other recipes combine red snapper, sea bass, haddock, eel, perch, and flounder. Those in a liberal frame of mind (purists need read no further) might add shellfish such as shrimp, scallops, or lobster.

Bare in mind that bouillabaisse is a humble fish dish invented on the beaches of Marseilles by fishermen who used mostly trash fish, (there's that ugly rascasse again) considered unsuitable for market.

Rather than the traditional spicy-hot rouille, Wells suggests a milder garlic mayonnaise known as aioli - to accompany the bouillabaisse. French bread, mesclun salad, and a simple dessert would round out a satisfying meal redolent of the sea.

And, if there is no hot sun in southern France to bask in quite yet, the warming glow of saffron-scented bouillabaisse may be enough to have you humming the Marseillaise.

Bouillabaisse with Aioli

3 tablespoons virgin olive oil

1 plump head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Bouquet garni: a generous bunch of parsley, celery leaves, thyme, and bay leaves tied in cheesecloth.

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 cube fish bouillon (if available)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 14-1/2 ounce can of whole plum tomatoes in juice

6 plump, ripe tomatoes, peeled and quartered

5 to 6 cups of water

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 small, fresh fennel bulbs (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces

2 pounds of fillets of monkfish, cod, striped bass, grouper and/or tilefish, cut into pieces

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

Grated zest (peel) of 1 orange

3 tablespoons of minced fennel fronds or leaves

In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat the oil. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, bouquet garni, and salt. Cook gently without browning for 10 minutes. Add bouillon cube, tomato paste, canned and fresh tomatoes, water, and cayenne pepper.

Cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni.

Dredge out tomato chunks and garlic with a slotted spoon, puree in a food processor. Return pure to the pot. Add fennel bulbs, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until fennel is tender. (The dish can be prepared several hours in advance up until this point.)

Add fish and saffron; continue simmering for about 4 minutes, until fish is tender. Taste, and adjust seasoning.

Transfer portions of fish and fennel into shallow soup bowls, and spoon broth over them.

Sprinkle with fennel fronds and orange peel.

Serve with aioli, so guests can swirl a teaspoon or two into the bouillabaisse. Serve with plenty of French bread for soaking up the juice.

Serves 4 to 6.

Aioli: Garlic Mayonnaise

6 plump, garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large egg yolks, at room temperature

1 cup virgin olive oil

Puree garlic with salt in food processor. Add egg yolks and process until smooth. With processor running, add olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Serve with aioli with bouillabaisse and French bread. It can be refrigerated for up to two days.

Recipes adapted from "Patricia Wells At Home in Provence," Scribner, $40.00

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