Bouillabaisse, that ancient and legendary fish stew, has a history as rich and colorful as its ingredients.
Over the centuries along the coast of Marseille in southern France, local fishermen have brewed their humble fare with a variety of so-called "trash fish" and leftovers from the day's catch. Although still considered a simple dish, bouillabaisse (BOO-yuh-bess) has achieved haute-cuisine status with the addition of flavors and spices synonymous with the dish today. The end result has been described by one Provençal food writer as a "magical synthesis."
Exactly what constitutes a "real" bouillabaisse is a matter of debate. Some purists insist that no authentic recipe can be prepared outside the Marseille area. The focus of this discussion centers on the rascasse, a nasty-looking scorpion fish, which is said to act as a sort of catalyst, bringing out the delicate flavors of the other denizens of the deep.
Indeed, in the several bouillabaisses I've had along the Côte d'Azur, the rascasse is prominently displayed atop the other fish in the dish.
On a recent trip to the French side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin, I did a bit of bouillabaisse sleuthing. I found a number of restaurants serving their local fish stew "in the bouillabaisse style." The fish used were local snapper, mahi-mahi, and grouper, among others, but all included those flavors that give the soup its uniqueness: fennel, orange zest, and that most expensive of spices, saffron.
Where all agree is that the soup must be prepared with a variety of fish, never fewer than four – some firm, some tender. That said, bouillabaisse is still a simple stew, taking only about 15 minutes to prepare.
Shellfish, although not included in a traditional bouillabaisse, add a certain panache. Try to include monkfish. Then serve the soup with a simple green salad and a dessert plate of French cheeses.
Serves 6 to 8
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 large leeks, white part only, thoroughly cleaned, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, including juice
2 cups bottled clam broth
8 cups water
2 four-inch strips orange peel
2 pinches saffron threads
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, or two sprigs fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
4 pounds assorted fresh fish, cut in chunks (These can include fillets of sole, sea perch, hake, sea scallops, sea bass, cod, haddock, monkfish, and red snapper. Shellfish, such as littleneck clams, shrimp, or mussels, may also be added.)
In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil. Sauté fennel, leeks, and celery in the oil until soft. Add garlic, sauté another minute; add tomatoes with juice, clam broth, water, orange peel, saffron, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, and pepper to taste.
Simmer, partly covered, for 15 minutes. (This may be prepared ahead and refrigerated for two days before using.)
Add fish and shellfish to hot broth. Simmer covered, about 10 minutes, until fish turn opaque and begin to flake and shellfish have opened.
Serve in shallow, wide bowls. Float croutons spread with rouille on each serving.
Rouille (roo-EE) is a spicy, garlic mayonnaise. It is indispensable in a bouillabaisse. Any additional rouille may be stirred into the bouillabaisse or served on the side.
1 medium red bell pepper
2 one-inch slices French baguette
2 to 3 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 egg yolk at room temperature
1 cup olive oil
If using a gas stove, hold pepper over flame with tongs, turning until pepper blackens with blisters. Otherwise, place pepper on foil and broil, turning occasionally, until blisters appear. Wrap pepper in a paper bag and set aside for 15 minutes. When cool, peel off skin, then core and seed. (You may also purchase roasted red peppers in a jar.)
Soak bread in water or fish broth for 10 minutes; squeeze out liquid and place bread in food processor or blender.
Add pepper along with garlic, cayenne, salt, and egg yolk, and purée until well combined. With motor running, slowly add olive oil in a thin stream until sauce is emulsified and has the texture of thick mayonnaise.