May it Please the Palate: Bouillabaisse (If you can spell it, you can make it)

I have made bouillabaisse exactly once, way back when I was in law school. I promised some friends a special meal, and while they were waiting patiently in the dining room, I was working furiously to finish the bouillabaisse. Except I left it in the kitchen, and instead took out two plates each containing a White Castle (still in the box) and a Snickers bar. After a good laugh, I replaced the joke meal with the bouillabaisse - a hearty fish and shellfish stew, served in a fragrant broth, in a bowl made of a scooped out sourdough bread loaf. Yum, except one of the guests didn't want to part with her Slider 'n' Snickers. It all went downhill from there. Fast forward to last weekend, where my wife and I enjoyed an anniversary weekend at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville. I saw bouillabaisse on the menu and had to order it. I was not disappointed; it was delicious. And I thought, it's really not that hard to make. Julia Child backs me up on that. She says, "It doesn't have to be a fancy production; remember that it started out as a simple fisherman's soup and not a high-priced restaurant fantasy." Bouillabaisse is said to have originated in the port city of Marseille, and like many regional specialties, there are spirited arguments about which is most "authentic." It began when the local fisherman, after selling the more expensive fish to market, made themselves a meal by boiling the bony rockfish and shellfish in sea water, flavored with a little garlic and fennel. Today, the bony "rascasse" remains one of the four essential ingredients of the Marseille bouillabaisse, according to the Michelin Guide Vert, along with other fresh fish, olive oil, and excellent saffron. In Marseille, they serve the broth in a bowl with crusty bread and a rouille (a spicy mayonnaise); the fish (along with boiled potatoes) is served on a separate plate. Today we typically put all the ingredients in the same bowl; however, it remains traditional to make bouillabaisse for large groups only, in order to use as many types of fish and seafood as possible. When you make it for your next special occasion, I'm going to give you two options: the lovely scenic route, with Julia Child as your guide; or the fast lane - which is also quite delicious. There are three basic steps. One is to make the broth; another to prepare the seafood; and a third is the crusty bread with a garlicky spread. In Julia's version, the orange peel makes the broth. Julia Child's Bouillabaisse á la Marseillaise (serves 6-8) Broth: * 1/2 cup olive oil * 1 cup each chopped onion and leek * 4-6 cloves mashed garlic * 6-8 tomatoes, washed and roughly chopped * 2 1/2 quarts water * 8 sprigs parsley * 1/2 tsp thyme * 1/4 tsp fennel seeds * 3 big pinches saffron threads * 1/2 tsp dried orange peel * parsley, fennel fronds and basil (in any combination) * 1/2 teaspoon saffron * Either: 2 quarts fish trimmings or shellfish, 2 1/2 quarts water, and 1 TB salt; OR: 1 quart clam juice, 1 1/2 quarts water, and no salt Simmer onions and leeks in olive oil 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and garlic, cook 5 minutes more. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Skim and boil slowly, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Strain, pressing juices out of ingredients, correct seasoning, and set aside uncovered. (If not proceeding immediately, when cool, cover and refrigerate.) Rouille: * 4 large cloves peeled garlic * 2 egg yolks * 1 dozen large leaves of fresh basil or 1 Tb dried * 1/4 cup canned red pimientos, drained * 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs * 2-3 Tb hot soup base (the broth you just made) * 2/3 to 3/4 cup olivie oil * drops of hot pepper sauce (Frank's, of course) * salt and pepper to taste * Editorial license here: Julia has you using a mortar, pestle, and whip. Just toss it all in the food processor EXCEPT the oil, which you will add in droplets through the holes in the top of the processor until you have a thick sauce. Fish: * 6-8 lbs. of the freshest fish you can find, such as bass, cod, conger eel, founder/sole, monkfish, grouper, halibut, perch, rockfish, snapper, trout, whiting; and/or shellfish, such as mussels, shrimp, crabs, lobster, scallops Directions: 1. 20 minutes before serving, boil soup base. 2. Add lobsters and crabs and boil 5 minutes. 3. Add remaining fish and shellfish and boil up to 5 more minutes. Fish is done when opaque and springy - do not overcook! 4. Arrange fish attractively on a large serving platter. Ladle some broth over it with chopped parsley. 5. Place a soup plate before each guest with two large wedges of toasted French bread; serve the rouille on the side and/or spread some on the bread. 6. Arrange some of the fish into each bowl with a ladle of soup broth. The Fast Way 1. Go to your local seafood market and buy some pre-made bouillabaisse broth. Monahan's in Ann Arbor has an excellent one. 2. Use garlic butter with parsley instead of making rouille. 3. Sorry; you still gotta cook the fish. Serve with boiled parsley-buttered potatoes and a just about any wine you can think of. A light red, rose, or strong white is ideal. And if this dish is an utter failure, I'm sure there's a White Castle nearby. Published: Mon, Sep 26, 2011