Not Bouillabaisse

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…well almost. The debate about what makes an “authentic” Bouillabaisse can be argued until kingdom come but I’m not about to give my two cents on the matter because honestly, I’ve had 1 or 2 of this in my entire life. Granted that it was from a reputable brasserie in New York, but I think I should actually taste it from its place of origin – Marseille – to join the opinionated contention of whether it should have lobster or white wine and the type of fish should be used. However, I have it straight from a French gal that each region in France has their own version of this esteemed fish stew.

Searching for a recipe to use was not difficult. I’ve always liked Anthony Bourdain’s relaxed writing style in his cookbook, Les Halle, it almost feels like he is there with you, guiding you through an afternoon of companionable cooking – he even tells you when to take a sip of wine in between cooking stages.
As I read the recipe list for Bouillabaisse, I realized that it was not a spur of the moment dish. Granted that Bourdain offered substitions for the conger, loup de mer and rouget in the recipe, where in Richmond, Va can I find porgies or whiting fish at 9:00 am on a Sunday morning? I’m sure they’ll have monkfish, skate and red snapper at Whole foods, but I need the little fish for flavoring the broth. Fumbling through my pantry at ten till midnight, I found … shrimp bouillon – I can just see Ruhlman shaking his head in disapproval and now you all know why I dare not call this a Bouillabaisse. Going to bed that night, I pondered the other missing ingredient, Pernod, oh boy, this dish was moving further and further away from my original aspiration.

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Whole Food’s dealt me another blow the following morning as the fish monger informed me that they have not had monk fish for a while now. There was also no 1.5 lb. red snapper in sight! That’s it! My mind screamed in exasperation, but then I pictured the “Hungry” Hubby and me starving for the rest of the day. Seven minutes felt like a lifetime as I stared through their seafood case hoping that a monkfish will apparate (okay, I watched Harry Potter the night before.), but alas as customers happily walked away with their salmon or rockfish fillet, I knew I had to make substitutions. I also bought some clam juice just in case I decided not to use the bouillon.

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Almost Bouillabaisse
Based on Tony Bourdain’s recipe from Les Halle

2 oz. olive oil
2 leeks, white part only, washed and thinly sliced
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves
3 fresh plum tomatoes, seeded and thinly sliced
1 1/2 lbs. whole snapper (red snapper preferred), head removed and set aside, scaled and gutted but skin still on, cut right across the spine into 4 steaks.
1 bouquet garni (1 sprig parsley, 2 sprig thyme, 1 bay leaf)
3 strands of saffron
8 small red potatoes
2 lbs. of 2 different fish (I used 1 lb. halibut and 1 lb. black cod)
salt and pepper
extra-virgin olive oil
12 fresh shrimp, heads on preferred
1 shrimp bouillon

2 garlic cloves
small pinch of salt
5 strands of saffron
1 egg yolk
2 oz. extra virgin olive oil
2 tbs. lemon juice
sliced toasted baguette

In a large heavy bottomed pot, heat the oil. Add the leek, garlic, onions and fennel and let them sweat over medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes. Add the fish head and cook for about 5 minutes. Add about 4 cups of water, the shrimp bouillon and the bouquet garni. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Turn the heat off and using a mallet, crush the heck out of everything in the pot. Empty everything into a strainer and squeeze every last drop of tasty broth out of it. Set liquid aside.

Make the aioli. In a food processor, puree the garlic and salt. Add the yolk and saffron threads. Mix very well. Now, while the machine is running, slowly, slowly drizzle the olive oil until you get a mayonnaise consistency, Add the lemon juice at the very end. Adjust thickness with a little oil if needed, as the lemon juice will thin the mix. Remove from machine into a ramekin, cover with plastic and reserve for later.

In a small pot, boil the potatoes until cooked 3/4 of the way. Remove from pot and cut in half.

In a large pot arrange the remaining fish (except the shrimp) in a single layer if possible. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle some olive oil on top. Nestle the cut potatoes in between the fish. Add half the broth, bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

Two minutes before the fish is done, add the shrimp and the remaining liquid. Add additional saffron threads if needed to enhance aroma and color of the broth. Simmer the entire glorious mess until everything is cooked through.

Cooking Notes:
“Almost bouillabaisse” turned out to be a hearty trifecta of aroma, flavor and texture in a pot. The black cod dissolved into a delicious mess but the halibut remained firm and allowed the spatula to lift it from the depths of the saffron-tinged broth.

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My challenge, as usual, was the aioli. Determined to do it right this time I  patiently trickled the oil into my tiny whirring food processor. The original recipe was 8 cloves of garlic, juice of 1 lemon, 2 oz. of oil, 1 egg yolk, a pinch of salt and 5 saffron threads. Adding the lemon juice at the end turned my aioli into the consistency of crème anglaise. I had to start all over again despite dire warnings of a seriously overheating food processor – I’m getting that aioli dammit! In the end, I finally got the hang of it, albeit with less garlic and lemon juice ( Helen said her grandmother uses a whole bulb of garlic, and I thought I was the garlic fiend? Garlic wimp is more like it).
Toasted baguette slathered with aioli is a must – soaked in the scrumptious golden liquid, it is luscious with each savory bite.

Analyzing flavors at the end of a meal is an automatic brain function of mine, I can’t help it. Picture each pore of my tongue lighting up like a digital board and sending “byte” sized information for further processing in the gustatory region of my consciousness. This dish, though scrumptious in every way did lack something. The Pernod, perhaps? Upon further reading, fennel and Pernod are an obvious pairing and my omission of the latter may have stymied the bulbous vegetable’s ability to fully realize its anise-y potential.

Oh well, I shall make  another French fish stew, the bourride, on another occasion. This time with the Pernod at hand, oh and yes, without the bouillon. 🙂

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24 thoughts on “Not Bouillabaisse

  1. I love fish stew, whether the french or spanish versions. I haven’t made it in years and I blame a general lack of fish heads in this town.

  2. Missing something … seems to me like it’s going to be a great adventure getting it just right.
    I wish I could have aioli every night.

  3. It looks delicious, I’m always afraid of cooking fish, don’t know why? But this Bouillabaisse looks so good I’m going to try.

  4. Aw come on T.W. , I’m sure you can make the bouillabaisse and it might be easier where you are with availability of ingredients.
    Hi Eugenio- yes mediterranean fish stews seem to be the best.
    Thanks helene – you can probably try my substitutions.
    Thanks Erica!
    Thanks Tanna! And I did say to the hubby that the aioli was definitely delish, we should keep some at hand always.
    thanks Lucy!
    Thanks Joey! You have great abundance of fresh fish where you are!
    Thanks Anna! I used to be leery about handling fish too, but you really should try bouillabaisse, the time consuming part is just the beginning where you make the broth. The rest is easy peasy…

  5. What a lovely, and beautifully photographed, post! This isn’t something I would make (as a vegetarian), but it looks so good, I’m almost tempted!

  6. Thanks Dana! Give it a try sometime when you are more tempted :).
    Thanks Kristen!
    Thanks Marc, actually you might remember my old blog, Veronica’s test kitchen.

  7. Veron, I recently made “bouillabaisse”, too, in May, for a wine tasting of French Rosés. I read up on the subject, and like you found out that there are as many versions as there are people! I hunted around for all different fish, too, using a combo of Monkfish, Halibut, Haddock, swordfish, etc, deciding at the last minute to throw in some seafood toward the end (shrimp & scallops)… just a small amount. I made some stock myself, but didn’t have enough fish or time to make a super-concentrated fish stock (and I was cooking for more than 20 people), so I found a great fish stock bouillon in my gourmet liquor store that was very good, so I added it:
    I didn’t want to use a seafood bouillion as I thought it was the wrong flavor. Mine had strips of orange peel, saffron, celery, leeks, fennel, bouquet garni, cayenne, tomatoes and other herbs and I did add a Pastis (I used something less well known than Pernod, but equally good). I also made a lemony-garlic aioli. I tried to double my first batch and it came out awful, too!… grainy, and kept separating. So I broke down and made a second batch. It was like night and day! Ethereal! Divine! I also made a Rouille (used Paula Wolfert’s recipe from Mediterranean Cooking with roasted red peppers & chili peppers. I meant to make my own tapenade with it as well, but was running out of time (I ended up staying up all night cooking so I was pretty loopy by the end of the dinner and the wines!) I used Trader Joe’s tapenade, which worked out fine. I wish I’d taken notes on the bouillabaisse, because I don’t remember exactly what I did, as I improvised between 3 cookbooks (A Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford A. Wright, The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, & Patricia Wells At Home in Provence- I keep meaning to get Anthony Bourdain’s book, but somehow keep forgetting about it, even though I’ve eaten in the restaurant, …mine didn’t have potatoes). I served it in bowls with a floating toast crouton and a bit of all 3 sauces. It was so good! It was a big project but definitely worth the results! Yours looks so good, too! [And, I know, I know, someday I will start a foodblog! 😉 ]

  8. Magnificent! You are so courageous and patient to dive in to such a dish! I find inspiration in this post and for that, I thank you:)

  9. Veron, I love Bourdain’s Les Halle cookbook too for exactly the same reasons. I haven’t tried this recipe but every time I look at it I think “I must try this”. Your pictures have inspired me to give it a whirl in the next few weeks.

  10. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you
    I just made this for my Husband and I.
    We loved, loved, loved it.
    I missed out the egg yolk from the aioli and made a rich garlic butter for the bread.
    I also added Sherry at the end (rather than Pernod) – I could not bring myself to buy a whole bottle of Pernod just to use a couple of table spoons.

  11. Whatever you call it, this dish looks amazing! I have the same problem finding fresh fish down here. It doesn’t matter what I’m looking for on a particular day – all the stores are out of it or don’t carry it. Sigh….

  12. Robin – you really need to start a blog! 😉
    Thanks Mary – love bourdain!
    Thelovethinguk – so glad that you and your husband enjoyed it!
    thanks susan – finding the fish you need can be a pain sometimes. It’s funny when you don’t need it you see all around you but when you do it’s no where to be found!
    Thanks Y!

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