A Bouillabaisse, for those unfamiliar, is a seafood soup claimed, by the residents of Marseille, in southern France, as their very own specialty. For the rest of you who have tried it elsewhere, the chances are virtually certain that it was a derivation of the sort that would have a Marseillaise restaurateur rolling his or her eyes and squawking Gallic epithets of deep disapproval.
According to tradition, a Bouillabaisse, was a very rustic soup made by French fisherman, who employed the less saleable remnants of the day’s catch which they then boiled (‘bouille’) for supper. It is said, in that part of the world, that a true version of the dish must contain at least three or four species of rock fish from the native waters and thus, since these fish are rarely available elsewhere, a Bouillabaisse, in other parts, will necessarily differ. Indeed, whereas a Marseillaise Bouillabaisse, is mostly fish, and only includes the occasional odd variety of shellfish, other versions are often mostly shellfish and can include, lobster, scallops, shrimp and clams. Far be it for me to argue the point with the guild of Marseille restaurateurs (who once drafted a charter specifying exactly what constitutes the dish), but I do recognize that any dish can have a whole variety of otherwise acceptable versions that the strict ‘purists’ will always disavow. Still, I do feel that, to properly be called a Bouillabaisse, certain features must come together:
In my opinion, a Bouillabaisse is a seafood soup based on a broth heavily redolent of the ocean, but infused with the additional flavors of saffron, garlic and fennel, with a bit of dried orange peel optionally added for that special taste. Potatoes, tomatoes and leeks are all welcome additions and a little bit of wine is also very nice. I think that some variety of fish (as opposed to just shellfish) really should be added, but for the present experiment, since I had nothing I thought suitable available, I am using a combination of shellfish only…
This is the selection of shellfish I decided to use.:
- Scallops: I only used three very large scallops and sliced them horizontally;
- Clams: Some of the Mirabel brand frozen variety (very good);
- ‘Kiwi Clams’: These are clearly mussels rather than clams (New Zealand in origin, I presume). I bought them from a local who ships up various seafood products at Christmastime. Whole, rather than half-shell would be preferable as would raw, rather than cooked.
- Scampi: Also known as ‘langoustines’, these were also purchased from the same guy who sold me the mussels. These are just the tails. The whole scampi would be nicer, especially for presentation, and, again, I would have preferred raw rather than pre-cooked;
For the base of the broth, I am using the Simple Shellfish Stock I made up for another dish as I had some leftover in the freezer. In a traditional Bouillabaisse, the stock is created by boiling the fish and other ingredients, but, outside of Marseille, at least, a pre-made stock is very commonly employed. This can be clam broth, a richer seafood stock, or even (as I have seen) chicken stock. As a matter of fact, since I don’t have quite enough of my shellfish stock for this experiment, I am actually going to eke out the quantity with a cup or so of chicken stock and white wine as well. Here, then, are the remaining ingredients, excluding the shellfish shown above:
- 1.5 quarts good Shellfish Stock;
- ¾ cup White Wine;
- 1 good pinch Saffron;
- 3 cloves Garlic, left whole but slightly crushed;
- 1 tbsp. Fennel Seed;
- 8 – 10 Black Peppercorns;
- 1 Bay Leaf;
- 2 strips dried Orange Peel, pith removed ideally;
- 6 – 8 baby potatoes;
- ½ cup chopped leek (white part only);
- Salt as needed
We will actually be making our broth in two stages (well, three if you count making the original stock too). First, add the stock base and wine to a suitable sized pot and then throw in the garlic, fennel seed, peppercorns, saffron, bay leaf and orange peel. Bring this to a low boil and the turn down the heat and gently simmer for one to two hours. At the end of this time, strain the broth, discarding the solids, and set it aside for the time being.
Next, sauté the chopped leek in a little olive oil until just softened.
Add the strained broth and the potatoes. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook just until the potatoes can be pierced with a toothpick;
Traditionally, a bouillabaisse is eaten by removing the fish from the broth, eating it separately and then drinking the broth with toasted bread (often with a rouille). Most commonly these days, though, the meal is eaten as a single dish. You could serve everything in a singe tureen, or, as I prefer, arrange the components attractively in individual bowls with the broth poured over. The simplest way to complete the cooking is to first remove the potatoes two the serving bowls along with a little of the broth and keep the warm in the oven.
Now, stack the various seafood products in a suitable pan so that they will be easy to retrieve individually and then pour over the still-hot broth. Cover and continue to cook over a gentle heat until all the seafood is just cooked. The length of time will depend on what variety of seafood you have chosen but, in my case, since only the scallops were raw, this took about 5 minutes.
Finally, you can transfer the various components to the serving bowls, arranging them attractively, pour over the broth and then serve immediately.
This may not have been the prettiest bouillabaisse I have ever eaten, or made, but I have to say that the broth was about the best I have had yet. The mussels were, I think, the star of the show, but the scallops were very nice too. I was a bit disappointed with the quality of the scampi. They were quite sweet-tasting but the flesh was a little friable, suggesting they were originally over-cooked. I will have to think carefully about buying them from the same source again, I suppose. Anyway, I was very please with this and look forward to doing it again, perhaps with some actual fish, rather than just shellfish next time.