Classic Bouillaibaisse


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.

Recipe: Bouillaibaisse


  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 leeks
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 fennel bulbs, cored, halved and sliced (reserve leafy fennel fronds for garnish)
  • 4 1/2 cups fish stock*
  • 1 can (28oz) crushed Italian plum tomatoes
  • 12 raw jumbo shrimp
  • 12 dry-packed scallops
  • 2 # monkfish, filleted and cut diagonally into 3-inch strips
  • Grated zest of one orange
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil, optional
  • Cayenne, red pepper flakes or other spicy condiment, such as rouille


  1. Crumble saffron threads into wine and let steep.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Sauté leeks with a pinch of kosher salt, about 5 minutes or until softened. Add garlic, fennel seeds and sliced fennel and sauté an additional 2 minutes, stirring. Add stock and simmer 5 minutes.
  3. Add tomatoes, with liquid, and saffron-wine mixture. Stir and let simmer 30 minutes. (This can be made up to 36 hours in advance at this point.)
  4. Place monkfish pieces in hot broth and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in shrimp and scallops and simmer until just cooked through, an additional 5-8 minutes. Stir in orange zest and season to taste with cayenne and kosher salt.
  5. Ladle into bowls, garnish with fresh basil, if using, and reserved fennel fronds. Pass the cayenne, pepper flakes or rouille.

*If time allows, making your own seafood stock (or purchasing scratch-made stock from a vendor such as Monahan’s or Whole Foods) is worth the effort. (See recipe below.) I have made and enjoyed bouillabaisse using bottled clam juice or mixing a seafood base (such as Better than Bouillon) with water for the stock.

Active time (not including stock preparation): 40 minutes

Simmer time: 40 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 4-6

Copyright © Peggy Lampman’s dinnerFeed.

Recipe: Seafood Stock


  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Fish bones,* washed
  • Aromatics such as onions,leeks, carrots, celery parsnips, parsley &/or fennel fronds, chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 bay leaves
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed


  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot, heat the oil and stir in the fish bones and aromatics. Cook gently, without burning, 10 minutes. Add wine, bay leaf, garlic and enough water to cover the bones by an inch. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce and simmer for 40 minutes.
  2. Strain stock with a fine-mesh strainer or a cheesecloth. Season to taste with kosher salt.

*I used shrimp shells and a chopped monkfish spine (about 3 pounds total). Fish heads are fine for stock. Remove fish gills, and don’t use bones from oily fish, like salmon, as they deliver an off-flavor. Fish stock, unlike chicken or beef stock, only needs an hour to come together.

Copyright © Peggy Lampman’s dinnerFeed.

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