Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A fine kettle of fish.

One of the finest things to serve with that loaf of crusty, rustic sourdough bread you now know how to make is bouillabaisse. Hot, fresh, rich, and redolent with the aromas of land and the sea, this is another dish that is simple to make, and yet is sure to impress your family and friends. Basically, there are two steps to this Mediterranean fish stew: making the base, and cooking the fish in it. And while fish stews are made in fishing communities all over the world, bouillabaisse a la Marseillaise is recognized the world over as a classic of French cuisine.

To begin with, the fish. You'll want to use the freshest fish you can find. Halibut, cod, sea bass, sea bream, whiting, pollock, snapper, monkfish, weakfish, sea trout, squid, and eel are all excellent choices. You can also include mussels, clams, and oysters, as well as crabs, shrimp, and lobster, if you'd like. Buy the fish from your local fish monger, someone you trust, and someone with whom you have, or can develop, a good relationship. Your fish monger is your friend.

Don't live near the ocean? No worries. You can still get the same fish that seaside communities get. Whole Foods and other large supermarkets have seafood departments that sell high-quality, flash-frozen fish that comes direct from fish markets on the east and west coasts. Is there an Asian market nearby? Chances are they'll have a decent selection of previously frozen fish to choose from. Heck, last I heard, the wild salmon and halibut that I like so much come from the west coast, and those shrimp that I had last night came from the gulf. I'm sure that they're of the same quality that you can get where you live. It may take some time to find a source, but trust me, there's one near you.

Select fish that doesn't smell like fish or ammonia. It should have a clean, briny smell. The flesh should be resilient, not mushy, and the eyes (on whole fish, obviously), should be clear, not cloudy. So how do you judge these things? Ask to smell the fish. Ask if you can have one of their disposable plastic gloves to poke it. If they say no, walk away, and find another source. If buying whole fish (sea bream, snapper, etc.), ask your monger to fillet it, but tell him (or her) that you want to take the head and bones home with you. It's from these that you'll be making the base for your stew.

The fish:
Use various kinds of fish, some firm (halibut, monkfish, eel, etc.), some flaky (cod, haddock, pollock, etc.), in addition to squid, and shellfish. The choice is entirely up to you. Figure about 3/4 pound of uncooked fish per person (i.e., to serve 8, you'll need between 4 and 6 pounds of fish), a total of about 1 pound of squid, a total of about 1 pound of shrimp, and about a dozen each of clams and mussels. Cut your fish into chunks about 2 inches wide. If using squid, clean (if you don't know how, ask). Cut the body into rings about 1 inch wide. Keep the tentacles. If using shrimp, peel. Keep the peels, as they can be used to make stock. (Whenever I make shrimp, I keep all of the peels. I put them in a zipper-close bag, and keep them in the freezer. When I need fish stock, a handful or two placed into some water with a bay leaf, some onion, and some garlic and brought to a boil for 10 minutes makes a fantastic base.) If using clams and mussels, rinse them well under cold water. Trim the beards off the mussels. Place them both into a deep bowl of cold water, and put in the fridge. Place all of the other fish onto a large plate, cover with plastic, and place in the fridge.

The base:
To a large stock pot, add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 cup of sliced onions 1 cup of cleaned and sliced leeks (white part only), 4 cloves of mashed garlic, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. You don't want them to brown. Next, add 2 or 3 cups of chopped fresh tomatoes, or 1 or 2 cups of undrained Pomi chopped tomatoes. Cook for five minutes more. Add 2-1/2 quarts cold water, 4 sprigs of Italian flat-leaf parsley (unchopped), 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried), 2 bay leaves, about a dozen cracked black peppercorns, 1/4 teaspoon of fennel seed, a 2 inch piece of orange peel (wash the orange first), two large pinches of saffron, the fish heads and bones, and the shrimp peels. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, and allow to cook for 30 minutes. NOTE: As this cooks, a lot of foam will appear on the top of the stock. You'll need to skim this off frequently. After 30 minutes, strain the stock through a double layer of cheesecloth in a colander. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed. You're now ready to make your bouillabaisse.

Bring the base to a boil, and add the fish (not the shellfish). Reduce heat to simmer, and cook without stirring for about 5 minutes. Add the shellfish, and cook until the bivalves open. Remove from heat and stir. Don't worry if some of the flaky fish breaks apart, it's supposed to.

Traditionally, this is served by removing the fish from the pot, and placing it on a platter, while the stock is put into a tureen, but I prefer to transfer it all to a tureen, sprinkle it with chopped parsley, and let my guests ladle portions into their soup plates. It makes for a more "family style" meal.

Serve with home-baked bread, a good rosé, Riesling, or Beaujolais, and you've got a meal fit for a French fisherman.

And don't bother telling anyone how easy this was to make. You'll be given credit for having spent all day in the kitchen, and chances are, no one will believe you anyway. I think it took me longer to write this entry than it did to prepare the last batch of bouillabaisse a la Marseilles that I made. Bon appetit, mes amis!


  1. When you're talking about the orange peel, do you mean just the zest or the whole peel, pith and all? I would think just the zest, no?

  2. You're right, just the zest. Using a vegetable peeler, start at the top of the orange, and cut off as much as you need.

  3. Actually, as long as I'm commenting, can you give us a rundown of which are the strong-tasting and mild-tasting fish? And do different cuts (salmon steak vs. fillet, for example) make a difference in strength of taste? I am often tempted to cook a whole fish but, when I get to the market, am stopped by my lack of knowledge of which are the oilier fish.

  4. OK, but that will require an entire entry. Look for it soon!