Bouillabaisse

boulaTraditionally, bouillabaisse was considered an everyday meal, not the fancy dish it has become. This simple Provencal fisherman’s stew was made with whatever the catch of the day was. The first time I had bouillabaisse was at a restaurant in Maine with my friend Todd. While the mound of seafood piled in the bowl was impressive, it was the broth with which I was enamored.

The backbone of a bouillabaisse is the stock, so use a good one. I make my own fish stock. I once left a dinner party quite happily with the fish heads from the night’s meal. (If you are shy, it helps to know the host well when asking to take home the table scraps.) Anytime I have leftover fish parts, shrimp shells or, if I’m particularly lucky, lobster shells, I place them in a pot of water, let simmer for about an hour, strain and either use it right away or let the stock cool and freeze it.

Saffron is another essential ingredient of bouillabaisse. Unfortunately, saffron, which is cultivated from the stigmas of crocuses, is one of world’s most expensive spices. Luckily, a little goes a long way. Anise or fennel adds to the complexity of the broth as well.

For me, after the broth, the best part of bouillabaisse is the rouille. Rouille is garlicky, spicy and delicious. It is spread on nice, crunchy French baguette slices and traditionally served with bouillabaisse. The baguette slices are often floated in the stew.

Health wise, this dish is isn’t too shabby. It has fish, so you’ll get a dose of omega-3 fatty acids, and the tomatoes are loaded with of vitamin C and lycopene. Plus, I believe the six cloves of garlic, and the garlic in the rouille, help ward off vampires … I mean colds.

Fish is one of those things that we hear we should add to our diets. We also hear that some types of fish are full of mercury and other seafood is in danger of being over fished. It’s hard to keep track of all of it. To the rescue comes the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their nifty pocket guide to sustainable seafood. I downloaded and printed the one for the Northeast region. And yes, I have been known to whip out the credit-card-sized guide at the seafood counter in Price Chopper.

Shelling out for a bunch of seafood plus the saffron can put a strain on your wallet, so I often make ours with just fish (but I always use saffron). Like I said, it’s the broth that makes me happy, the rest is just window dressing.

Ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium leek (cleaned thoroughly and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Additional onion may be substituted)
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced (additional teaspoon of fennel seeds may be substituted)
1 medium celery stalk, chopped
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons anise seeds or fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chopped tomatoes with juice (canned or fresh)
6 cups fish, seafood or lobster stock
1/4 cup Pernod (or any anise flavored liquor)
2 to 3 pounds assorted seafood (use any combination of any or all listed): Littleneck or other small clams, well scrubbed; white-fleshed fish, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces; sea scallops; lobster; mussels; shrimp.

Method

  • Heat butter and olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat until the butter is melted.
  • Add leaks, onion, fennel bulb and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.
  • Add bay leaf, anise seeds or fennel seeds, saffron, garlic, salt and cayenne pepper and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.
  • Add tomato paste and white wine. Cook, stirring, for about a minute.
  • Stir in chopped tomatoes.
  • Add fish stock.
  • Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. The bouillabaisse broth can be made a day in advance; in fact, I think it is better the next day.
  • Add Pernod.
  • Bring to a gentle boil again and add seafood. Cook for five to seven minutes or until seafood is done. Discard any clams or mussels that do not open.

Serve with rouille on French bread.
Serves six.