Visualize you’re in Marseilles, France, the gateway to Provence and largest seaport town on the Mediterranean coastline.
You listen to the clamor of seaport sounds in Vieux Port and the swell of the sea on the scraggly shoreline; you gaze at the sky as dusk turns the heavenly azure a fiery red; finally you savor the harmony of saffron, garlic, fennel and freshly caught seafood in Marseille’s “specialite de la maison”: Bouillabaisse.
Nice image, but I don’t think I’ll find a plane ticket in this year’s Santa stocking! I can’t experience the exotica and bustle of Marseille or the Mediterranean sky and sea, but after preparing this classic seafood dish, at least one of my senses is sated.
Traditionally, bouillabaisse is not thought of as a soup, but as a meal served in two courses. First the seafood broth is served, enhanced with croutons and rouille (see recipe below), a spicy bread or mayonnaise and saffron accompaniment. Secondly, one is served the seafood. Many prefer bouillabaisse presented, as in this recipe, as a complete seafood soup enjoyed as the main course.
Bouillabaisses are differentiated from other seafood soups, and defined by, the flavorful marriage of saffron, fennel and orange zest. If you like, a small bit of the anise-flavored Pernod boosts the intensity of the fennel as well.
Quality of the seafood, as well as type of fish bones used to make the stock, also play heavily on the outcome. Famed cookbook author Patricia Wells has written and spoken extensively on this subject. Ms. Well suggests the gelatinous monk fish spine produces excellent seafood base, particularly for bouillabaisse. Monkfish fillets are, as well, the perfect fish for bouillabaisse as they hold their shape without flaking in the soup. It may be difficult to get some of the exotic Mediterranean fish found in a Marseille bouillabaisse, but I enjoy shrimp, scallops and monkfish in mine.
A friend told me she saw Ms. Wells begin a demonstration of this dish (Aspen Food & Wine conference, 1996) and heard her say that it might be difficult to obtain monkfish spines from American fishmongers. Shipping the large fish in its entirety is not economically viable, as far as most fish mongers are concerned, so generally only fillets are shipped.
Monahan’s seafood in Kerrytown is an exception. “Fish filleted off the bone at the last minute, gives our customers far more flavor and goodness”, says Mike Monahan. Luckily for those who want to make fish stock from scratch, Mike saves the monkfish spines for us in his freezer. Monahan’s also sells frozen fish stock as well as frozen bouillabaisse base for time-starved customers.
I love make-ahead recipes and often entertain with bouillabaisse as the stock can be made several days in advance, even frozen up to 3 months, and the soup base can be made up to 36 hours in advance. This gives the brew an opportunity for the flavors to combine. Simply add the seafood and simmer a few minutes before serving.
Fresh buttercup salad greens tossed with a tapanade or walnut oil vinaigrette is a wonderful accompaniment. That and, of course, a crusty baguette.