Certain recipes are so complicated, so expensive, and so high-stakes that they become, for adventurous home cooks, the equivalent of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or sailing a boat around the world.
Bouillabaisse is that sort of recipe. Originating from Marseille (in France), bouillabaisse–at least, the authentic kind–asks you to make your own fish stock (with fish bones that you have to collect from a fish purveyor), to use that stock to flavor bread for a rouille (an emulsion of garlic, egg yolks, the soaked bread and a roasted red pepper and tomato), to marinate fish in a mixture of white wine, Pernod and saffron, to form a soup base with chopped leeks, onions, tomatoes and white wine, and finally to cook the marinated fish (which, if you buy it fresh, will be expensive) in the soup (made with the stock) along with mussels and clams just enough so nothing overcooks. Yes: that’s a lot of work but then the results speak for themselves. When I made this last week, our dinner guests swooned over their bowls of bouillabaisse–there were actual groans of pleasure at the table–and I’d easily list it as one of my greatest culinary triumphs. Here’s how the whole odyssey began.
I’d recently read an interview with a chef (I forget who) and the chef credited the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook for inspiring them to become the great chef that they became; and so I found myself flipping through it before falling asleep one night.
And there it was on page 176: “La Bouillabaisse Chez Panisse.” Hilariously, it’s part of a section of the book called “Uncomplicated Menus.” As I read through it–the recipe is four pages long–I carried out the steps in my head. Step one: buy fish; Step two: make stock; Step three: make rouille; Step four: marinate fish; Step five: make garlic croutons; Step six: bring it all together.
For step one, I called Whole Foods to see if they’d sell me fish bones. They wouldn’t. So I turned to Twitter and some nice people turned me on to McCall’s Meat and Fish Company in Los Feliz. I called and, sure enough, they could have fish bones ready for me the next day.
And the next day, that’s where I went:
It’s a really lovely store that has the telltale sign of a good seafood purveyor: no fishy smell.
The man behind the counter had my fish bones ready to go; but I was also here to buy fish. The Chez Panisse recipe says, if serving 8 to 10, you should buy 8 pounds of very fresh rock fish (cod, snapper, sea bass, halibut) PLUS a whole ocean perch or anglerfish, 3 1/2 dozen clams and 1 1/2 dozen mussels.
Being on a budget, that would be totally impossible—plus I was only serving five people that night. So I bought two pounds of cod (at $24.99 lb; hence the high-stakes nature of this meal–if I screwed it up, I’d be out $50!):
I also bought 18 mussels and 18 clams which may sound strange but 3 mussels and 3 clams were for the fumet (or fish stock); the other 15 were for my five dinner guests, 3 mussels and 3 clams each.
Back home, I started Step Two: making the fumet.
The word “fumet” may be intimidating, but really all you do is chop a bunch of vegetables–carrots, a leek, onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms:
Cook them for a bit with olive oil and then you throw in the fish bones:
To that you add two cloves of garlic (unpeeled) and a bouquet garni–which is a cheesecloth sachet filled with parsley, fennel seeds, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns and coriander seeds:
You also add two cups of white wine, 3 mussels, 3 clams, the peel of 1 small orange, 2 tablespoons Pernod, a pinch of saffron and a pinch of cayenne. Actually, two of those flavors–the Pernod (an anise liqueur) and the saffron–are major players when it comes to making bouillabaisse:
They make an appearance here but will come back later when you flavor the finished soup. (And its their flavors, in particular, that make the soup taste so unique.)
To the pot, you add water, to cover, and simmer for 30 minutes. Here’s what things look like, simmering away (via Instagram):
As it cooked, the taste grew concentrated–I seasoned it a bit with salt, conscious of the fact that if I added too much that would be hard to undo. But just a little bit of salt made it taste wonderful.
After 30 minutes, you take it off the heat for 15 minutes and then strain it:
And there you are–homemade fish stock:
On to Step Three (making rouille), where you take 1/4 cup of that fish stock and soak a slice of bread in it (crusts removed) along with a pinch of saffron and cayenne:
Chop up 5 to 8 cloves of garlic (really chop them, you want it to be pasty; adding a pinch of salt while you chop helps):
Add to the bowl with the bread (I strained off any remaining liquid) and then add 3 egg yolks:
This part’s just like making a mayonnaise or aioli. Begin to whisk everything together and slowly incorporate 1 1/2 cups of olive oil, drop by drop at first, until it grows thick and then you can stream it in faster. Eventually, you’ll have a rouille (minus the red pepper and tomato):
That alone tastes wonderful (how could it not with all that garlic and highly flavored fish stock?) but then you add two more ingredients. A red pepper that you char over an open flame:
(You put it in a paper bag after it gets that black and 5 minutes later, the skin slides right off.)
And a tomato that you’re supposed to grill; without a grill, I tried to use the burner flame too:
As you can see, it was only a minor success (the skin came off easily, which was nice).
Into a mortar, the peeled, seeded, sliced pepper goes along with the seeded tomato (I only used a little tomato because it wasn’t super fresh or summery) and then you smash it until you have a red paste:
Stir that paste into the rouille:
And there you are–a lovely sauce that’ll enrich your bouillabaisse later on:
Now, as for marinating the fish, I didn’t want to do it too early because there’s wine and Pernod in the marinade and I thought that might cook the fish too much. So two hours before my guests arrived, I made the marinade–which is a simple combination of olive oil, white wine, thyme, fennel tops, parsley, peeled garlic, Pernod and saffron. I cubed the cod, which came so packed in plastic it looked like a pillow:
And added those chunks to a bowl with the marinade:
I covered with plastic and placed in the refrigerator until it was soup time.
After that, I sliced a baguette into 3/8-inch slices (not that I measured), placed them on a cookie sheet, drizzled olive oil over them and baked at 400 degrees until they were toasty:
When they came out, I rubbed them all with a clove of garlic.
At last, it was time to make the bouillabaisse (now you know why I called this a French seafood odyssey!).
In my Dutch oven, I sauteed leeks and onions with a bay leaf and a pinch of saffron:
As that was happening, I was heating my strained fumet in a pot on the other back burner; in the foreground you’ll see a bowl with diced tomatoes (I used canned), minced garlic, sprigs of fennel, a sprig of parsley, the peel of an orange, and 1 cup white wine:
When, at last, the onions and leeks had softened, I added the warm fumet and the bowl with the tomatoes to finally form the base for the bouillabaisse:
Once that came up to an active simmer, I added the clams and mussels (which I’d been soaking in water with a little flour, to help draw out any impurities):
I covered it for two minutes, until the clams and mussels started to open, and then–at last–I added the fish (which I gently lifted out, piece by piece, from the marinade):
This is the key moment: YOU DO NOT WANT TO OVERCOOK YOUR FISH. (Trust me: see here.)
I turned down the heat so there was just a bubble or two and then two minutes in, I started checking the cod visually: as it turned opaque, I knew it was time to test a piece. I lifted it on to a plate, sliced in–totally opaque inside too–and tasted: it was cooked. It was tasty. The bouillabaisse was ready.
My friend Diana pitched in here: I ladled all of the fish and mussels and clams into six bowls. Then, when all of the fish is taken out, you bring the broth to a big boil (so everything emulsifies in a way) and you flavor it with more Pernod, more saffron, and more salt until it tastes absolutely breathtaking (though the cookbook warns: “saffron and Pernod should be added with a light hand”):
At last, I ladled that boiling, flavorful broth into the bowls with the fish and shellfish and topped with parsley.
At the table, everyone could apply the garlic croutons and rouille however they wanted. Here’s Mark and our friend Dara, who inspired this meal too (she doesn’t eat meat, so I chose seafood!), about to dig in:
And here, one more time, is the finished bouillabaisse, with some crouton and rouille added:
Is that not a work of art? And to know all of the work that went into it, every bite tasted that much better.
You won’t be making bouillabaisse tonight, that much I know. But file this one away for the big day when you want to up your game and join the ranks of the great chefs who would file bouillabaisse under “uncomplicated menus.” It may not be Mount Kilimanjaro, but it’s the next best thing.
* * * * *
To make this easier, recipe wise, I’m breaking it up into four separate recipes: the fumet, the rouille, the marinade and the bouillabaisse itself. As for the garlic croutons, that’s pretty much as listed above: slice a baguette, place on a cookie sheet, brush (or drizzle) with olive oil, bake at 400 degrees until toasted and then rub with garlic.
Recipe: Fish Fumet (for Bouillabaisse)
Summary: The fish stock you’ll need to make a dynamite soup.
- About 4 to 5 pounds of well-cleaned fish bones (ask your fishmonger; the amount really doesn’t matter, as long as you have enough to flavor the stock)
- 2 carrots
- 1 leek
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 2 medium tomatoes
- 6 mushrooms
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
- Bouquet garni: 6 sprigs parsley; 1 teaspoon fennel seeds; 2 bay leaves; 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon; 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme; 10 to 12 black peppercorns; 6 to 8 coriander seeds
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 6 mussels (I used three of each, it was fine)
- 6 clams
- Peel of 1 small orange, with no white pith
- 2 tablespoons Pernod
- Pinch saffron
- Pinch cayenne
- Clean and peel the carrots, leek, onion, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Chop the vegetables coarsely. Be sure that there are no bloody parts left on the fish bones and that the gills have been removed. Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a heavy 12-quart stock pot and gently cook the vegetables, the 2 cloves of garlic, and the fish bones and scraps for 10 to 12 minutes.
- Make a bouquet garni in a cheesecloth using the ingredients listed above. Add it to the stock pot, along with 2 cups of white wine and cold water to cover. Finish the fumet by adding 6 mussels and 6 clams, the orange peel, 2 tablespoons Pernod, and a pinch of saffron and cayenne. Bring the fumet to a boil, reduce the heat immediately, skim the fumet often, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
- Let the fumet stand off the heat for 15 minutes, then strain it. If the fumet is being made in advance, let it cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate. You will have to warm it before adding it to the broth.
Preparation time: 15 minute(s)
Cooking time: 30 minute(s)
Recipe: The Rouille
Summary: An aioli like thickener that’s essential for authentic bouillabaisse.
- 1 medium sweet red pepper
- 1 ripe tomato
- 1 slice good white bread, crusts removed
- 1/4 cup strained fumet
- Pinch of saffron and cayenne
- 3 egg yolks
- 5 to 8 cloves well-crushed garlic (I chopped it into a paste)
- 1 1/2 cups olive oil
- Salt, pepper, saffron, and cayenne to taste
- Roast the red pepper over a grill or flame. When the skin is black, remove the pepper from the heat and put it in a plastic or paper bag to steam for 4 to 5 minutes. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, scrape the skin from it and discard the seeds and stem. Grill or roast a ripe tomato. When it has cooled, remove its seeds.
- Soak the slice of bread in the fumet with a pinch of saffron and cayenne until it is very soft (then I strained off the excess liquid). Beat 3 egg yolks together with the bread and the garlic. Proceed to make a mayonnaise in the usual way with the olive oil, going drip by drip at first and then adding it in a stream. It’ll thicken the more oil you add.
- Make a puree of the roasted pepper and the grilled tomato in a mortar, and stir the puree into the mayonnaise. Season the rouille with salt, pepper, saffron, and cayenne to taste.
Preparation time: 20 minute(s)
Recipe: The Fish Marinade
Summary: Flavors the fish before adding it to the soup and that’s a good idea.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 sprigs fresh fennel tops
- 6 sprigs parsley
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 tablespoons Pernod
- Pinch saffron
- 2 to 4 pounds of cod, snapper, sea bass or halibut (an assortment is best, though I just used cod); filleted by your fishmonger
- Stir together all of the marinade ingredients and then add your fish, stirring it around with your hands. Cover and refrigerate the fish if the bouillabaisse will not be cooked within 2 hours.
Preparation time: 5 minute(s)
Summary: Finally: the actual recipe.
- 2 leeks, white parts only (well-cleaned! You don’t want dirt in your bouillabaisse)
- 2 medium onions
- 4 large, very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (if tomatoes are out of season, canned will do here)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- Pinch saffron
- Salt and pepper to taste
- The warm strained fumet
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 1 sprig fresh fennel
- 1 sprig parsley
- Peel of 1/2 small orange, with no white pith
- 1 cup white wine
- Pernod and saffron to taste
- 15 clams
- 15 mussels
- The marinated fish
- Chopped parsley
- To make the broth, clean and peel the leeks and onions and cut them into medium dice. Peel, seed, and dice 4 large tomatoes. Saute the leeks and onions in 1/4 cup olive oil with a bay leaf, a pinch of saffron, and salt and pepper to taste in a large heavy pan (I used a Dutch oven) for 10 minutes over medium heat.
- Add the warm strained fumet, 3 cloves minced garlic, 1 sprig fresh fennel, 1 sprig parsley, the orange peel, the diced tomatoes, 1 cup white wine, and Pernod and saffron to taste.
- Add the clams and mussels, then cover and steam them for 1 to 2 minute, until they begin to open. Add the fish from the marinade, larger pieces first, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the fish and shellfish are just done. Do not stir the broth, or the fish will break.
- Remove the fish and shellfish to bowls. Bring the broth to a boil and correct the seasoning with whatever is necessary. This may be more oil, wine, Pernod, saffron, cayenne, or salt. Ladle the broth over the fish and garnish with rouille, parsley, and croutons.
Preparation time: 15 minute(s)
Cooking time: 15 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6