Bloody hell. Bloody bloody hell. Shall I say it again… well, heck, it is worth it – bloody hell! This was good. This was so good. Not blowing my own trumpet. I am not saying I did great. It is the dish. Bouillabaisse in all its fantastic variations is bloody amazing. Originally coming from the south of France, there are as many variations of this dish as Frenchmen. A bunch of Provence restaurants claim their version is the “original”, but it really doesn’t matter. The variations should certainly be appreciated.
Bouillabaisse is a French seafood soup, in which at least 4 different types of seafood should be used, preferably even more. The soup broth is a heady mixture of tomatoes, saffron, fish stock (or clam juice), herbs and spices. All these are simmered together until this brilliant rich broth emerges. If you ask me there is three important ingredients that define Bouillabaisse – saffron, fennel seed and orange zest. Without those, well, you don’t have Bouillabaisse (in my opinion).
One of the great things about this dish is just the variety of seafood that gets used, depending on the location it is being made, and the freshest seafood that is available. Here in the Northwest we have access to great mussels (Penn Cove) and clams. For me, I have to add them when I am cooking this here, my selection however would certainly be different in England or France however. Along side this I also used some halibut cheeks and some scallops. You want to use firm fleshed seafood so it won’t fall apart when boiled in the broth. I would also avoid using any really oily fish that could impart a strong flavor on the soup base – salmon and mackerel for instance would best be avoided, as would black cod.
Traditionally the soup broth and bread would be served before the seafood. It is pretty common today though to see it all served on one plate/bowl. My preference is the latter (obviously from looking at the photos). The broth helps keep the seafood warm (not that it stays around for long…), and I like the presentation of everything together. I am sure a couple of Frenchmen would roll in their graves, but heck, deal with it!
The actual origins of Bouillabaisse are a little unclear. Apparently it was meant to be a working mans dish – something that the fishermen (er.. most likely their wives back then..) would knock together at the end of the day. I could only see this happening if they used the cheaper fish that they couldn’t sell that day, otherwise this would be a pretty costly dish for them. These days it seems to have made a bit of a come back, and I have eaten it all over the place. One place I had it at even charged nearly $30 for a bowl of it – and it was one of the worst incarnations that I had tried (it didn’t taste any different to a cioppino that Danika had that night). It was here in the NW, and rather close to Penn Cove.. Thanks, but I know how cheap mussels and clams are here, and that was pretty much all that was in it.
And why the roasted veg you ask? Well, whilst this soup is great, it isn’t a ton to eat – unless you want to spend a small fortune on fish. Typically in France this would be a course in a larger meal, so you need something a little hearty to go along with it. This was just simply a mix of peeled and chopped parsnip, carrot and fennel, tossed in olive oil, thyme and salt and pepper. Roasted at 425 for 40 minutes (until soft).
Normally there is also a thick sauce called “rouille” on top of the bread. This can often be a touch spicy, and I tend to leave it out. My opinion is that it imparts too much of a flavor on the overall dish, and I prefer it without.
And finally – where do I recommend for buying seafood in Seattle? Mutual Fish. I have been going there for years, and never had anything bad from them. An awesome selection, very knowledgeable staff (friendly too), and what I love is that they are honest about what they have. They all eat a ton of seafood, and will direct you in the right path.
Bouillabaisse (serves 2 people)
A bunch of super-fresh seafood – I used about 30 mussels, 20 clams, 4 halibut cheeks and 4 scallops
2 slices of baguette
1 cup of clam juice (or fish stock)
1/2 can (14oz) of chopped tomatoes
1 small handful of chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 sprig of thyme
1 pinch of saffron
1 bay leaf
small handful of fennel leaves, chopped (optional – I hate wasting those great smelling fennel leaves)
1 good pinch of fennel seed
2 small/medium fennel blubs – sliced
1/2 large onion – sliced
1/2 garlic bulb – sliced
2 leeks – sliced
grated zest of 1 small orange
2 glasses of white wine
sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper
Start by slicing the fennel, onion, garlic and leeks. For the fennel, slice off the base, then pull off the outer skin and discard – it will most likely be tough. Slice the bulb into 1/4″ slices. When slicing the leeks, again remove the outer skin. You also just want to use the white and light green section of the leeks. Slice into 1/2″ slices.
Get a large, deep saute pan going over a medium heat. Add some olive oil and gently saute the onions, fennel, leeks and garlic until soft, and slightly caramelized on their edges. I do this with a lid on the pan, it will most likely take at least 10 minutes.
Crank up the heat under the pan, and add the white wine. Let this reduce down until the alcohol smell is gone, and it is reduced by at least half. Add in the canned tomatoes, clam juice, parsley, thyme, fennel leaf, bay leaf, saffron, fennel seed and orange zest. Season with salt and pepper. Get this boiling, stir, and gently simmer with a lid on for at least 30 minutes, for the flavors to combine.
Whilst this is simmering, prepare your seafood. To clean your mussels, first check the shell over for any cracks. If the shell is cracked, discard the mussel. If the mussel has a “beard” (the stringy thing hanging out the split of the shell) grasp the beard and pull it outwards, and down towards the hinge of the shell. If you do this swiftly then the beard should pull out no problem. Now, using either a stiff brush or one of those blue scratch pads, clean the shell of all the sea gunk on it. If any shells are open, and don’t close when you tap them (or start cleaning them) discard them too. To clean the clams, again inspect for any shell damage (unlikely since their shells are much thicker), and scrub the shells like above. I do all of this under running cold water. Put them in a sieve, with a wet paper towel on top, and keep them in the fridge until needed. For the halibut cheeks and scallops – just slice them in half.
When the soup base has simmered for at least 30 minutes, strain it all through a sieve, making sure you keep both the liquid and the strained vegetables. Return the liquid to the pan. Pick out the bay leaf and thyme sprig and any large piece of herbs that you don’t want. Cover these cooked vegetables with foil to keep warm.
Get the soup liquid boiling again. Add all of the seafood, and cover the pan with a tightly fitting lid. Let this boil away for about 3 minutes, until the clam and mussel shells have opened.
Whilst they are cooking, lightly toast the bread.
On a plate, put down some of the cooked vegetables (typically not done in a traditional Bouillabaisse, but I hate to see them all go to waste, and adds some more substance to the dish) in the center of the plate. Top this with the slice of toasted baguette. Around the outside place 1/2 of the cooked seafood. Pour half of the broth (that you cooked the seafood in) over everything. Repeat for the second plate.
Turn off the TV. Pour some wine. Don’t eat on this on the sofa. Relax and savor. It is bloody fantastic.