Saturday, 13 April 2024

Foodie Freak: The glories of Bouillabaisse

I want my last meal to be bouillabaisse (pronounced BOUY-a-base), and it has to be the authentic Marseilles traditional recipe too. Not its San Francisco cousin cioppino, not the Tuscan cousin cacciucco, not the Creole cousin gumbo, or even caldeirada, the Portuguese cousin. They’re all great and delicious seafood stews, but there’s just something wonderful about the Marseilles version.


In order to be considered “authentic Marseilles bouillabaisse,” the soup must contain garlic, olive oil, saffron, onions, leeks, tomatoes, fennel seeds and seafood. (If you want to be really authentic, one of the fish in the stew should be a scorpion fish known in France as “rascasse,” but due to its scarcity here in the U.S. it’s not considered vital.)


If you have those base ingredients you can then add anything you want and still consider it authentic Marseilles style. If you don’t use all those base ingredients then you are just making a fish stew.


Many myths talk about the creation of bouillabaisse. The name is rooted in the words “boil” and “reduce”; in French, “bouillir” and “abaisser.” The basic instructions for the stew are, “When it boils then you reduce” or “Quand ça bouille tu baisses.”


The ancient Romans believed it was what Venus (the goddess of love) fed to Vulcan (her husband and god of fire) in order to lull him to sleep, so that she could go have a roll in the hay with the god of war, Mars.


French legend says that the first bouillabaisse was brought from heaven by the angels to give to the three Marys from the Bible when they were shipwrecked on the shores of Camargue, France. That just seems a little cruel; fish stew while on the shore of France ... isn’t that like sending Gilligan a supply of coconuts? Couldn’t the angels have brought them a nice brisket!?


Actually it was created by fishermen as a way to use up the worthless, bony and small fish that they couldn’t sell. The fishermen simply boiled fish in seawater with some garlic, onions and fennel, probably right there on the shore. Tomatoes made it into the stew not long after they were brought back from the new world.


Eventually the stew became popular with restaurants and got jazzed up with saffron and every spice imaginable, including things like orange peel, tarragon and lavender.


The recipe I have included below is very simplified and basic, yet enough to feed four very hungry people and give you a feeling for the authentic Marseilles style.


The seafood to add to this stock should be whatever kind you like. I recommend a half-pound of monkfish, half-pound red snapper, one Dungeness crab (cleaned and quartered), 1 pound of shrimp, and a smattering of clams and mussels. Yes, “smattering” is a unit of measure ... look it up!


Some people like to use salmon in this stew, some people think it’s too oily; I leave that choice up to you, but I would definitely avoid shark ... long story, I’ll tell you later.


After cooking, the seafood is separated from the stew and served on a separate dish from the soup. The soup is served with bread covered with a garlic-saffron sauce or mayonnaise called “Rouille” (which can be quite strong, so care is advised). Recipes for Rouille (which means “rust,” due to the color) are as varied as recipes for bouillabaisse but mayonnaise with garlic, saffron, and red pepper is a good approximation.


Basic yet Authentic Marseilles Bouillabaisse stock


1 onion chopped

1 leek (white part only) chopped

3 tomatoes, chopped

1 clove of garlic, smashed

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1/8 teaspoon saffron, rubbed

1/8 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed

1 ½ teaspoon salt

1 bay leaf

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 cups water

1 cup clam juice

1 cup white wine

Assorted fish trimmings, shrimp or shell fish shells


Add all ingredients to a pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain into another pot through a colander, mashing as much liquid out of the leftovers. Discard solids.


Add any desired seafood to the stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes (or until bivalves open).


Traditionally, the ratio of seafood added is two parts fish to one part shellfish and one part bivalves. You can of course alter this to your own preferences.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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