Yesterday I went food shopping with my friend Diana. We went to Lassen’s and the produce looked fine, not great, so I grabbed two cauliflowers (cauliflower?) even though it’s the height of summer and I should be buying corn and tomatoes. Then we went across the street to the butcher (McCall’s) and despite the vast array of meat and fish options — short ribs, head-on shrimp — I chose two skin-on chicken breasts because I was just feeling very basic yesterday.
Sometimes, though, the most basic, bland, white ingredients (chicken breasts and cauliflower!) can be canvasses for the creative mind. To quote George Seurat in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: “White / a blank chicken breast or cauliflower / the challenge? Bring order to the whole.”
For the past few months, I’ve been buying kosher chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s not because I prefer kosher chicken breasts but because Trader Joe’s is underneath my gym and it’s way easier to grab chicken there than to make an extra stop on my way home. The problem with this is that kosher chicken breasts are brined in salt water and, as a result, they’ve spoiled Craig for more ethical, more sustainable chicken from our local butchers. I know this because I recently bought chicken from one of them, sprinkled it with salt, and cooked it and though Craig enjoyed it–he enjoys all of my cooking–he didn’t like it as much as the brined stuff I get much more cheaply after jogging for 60 minutes to the Footloose soundtrack. Brining, it turns out, is a powerful technique.
My usual dinner party process goes like this: a day or two before a dinner party, I grab a handful of cookbooks off my towering cookbook shelf and casually thumb through them. The goal is not to frantically search for the perfect recipe, it’s to let the perfect recipe come to me. Usually that happens best when, while flipping, I meditate on who my dinner guests are going to be and, also, what foods I’m most excited to make. Which is why, on Wednesday of last week, a certain recipe from Michael Symon’s Live To Cook positively lifted itself off the page and smacked me in the face. It was a recipe for an indoor clambake and considering that I was going to be cooking for seven hungry guys for my friend John’s birthday on Friday, a more perfect recipe couldn’t have existed at that particular moment. Now all I had to do was ready myself to make it.
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.