Bouillabaisse, as you may well know, is a classic Provençal seafood stew from the French port city of Marseilles. And if you didn’t know that, now you do. Bouillabaisse also happens to be an outrageously delicious bowl of human bliss. It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you’re alive. I’m quite serious. It’s really good.
The Humble Origins of Bouillabaisse
Given France’s well known reputation for haute cuisine, coupled with Marseilles’ well known reputation as a European cultural center, you can bet that there are plenty of very refined and exquisite bouillabaisse preparations to be had. Think Michelin Star restaurant. Imagine how good that is for a moment. Also know this: if you ever have an inkling to take me to dinner in Provence–or a Michelin Star rated French restaurant wherever it is you happen to live–I’m totally game. Just FYI.
That said, it is worth noting that bouillabaisse is traditionally a humble Mediterranean fisherman’s stew. The fennel, olive oil, fish and shellfish are local. In the case of the fish, traditionally it’s not even the best cuts, but leftovers that the restaurants wouldn’t buy. The saffron and orange peel are products of ancient Mediterranean trade. The cayenne pepper–a typical addition to the stew–is a New World ingredient from the great Columbian Exchange.
In fact, there are fisherman’s stews that bare a family resemblance to bouillabaisse all along the European coast of the Mediterranean sea. For example, just a few hundred miles to the west you can find an equally amazing Spanish fisherman’s stew called Zarzuela de Mariscos (this is a link to my recipe for that dish). I recommend checking it out some time as well.
The version of bouillabaisse I’ve made here is more in keeping with this traditional spirit. For instance, while more refined versions strain the vegetable solids out of the world famous bouillabaisse broth, I think that’s a bit too fussy. I’ve left all of the veg in there. It’s good for you. It’s got fiber. And you know what? It’s delicious.
Those of you familiar with my Orange-Fennel Braised Chicken recipe know that I’m a big fan of the classic French orange-fennel-saffron flavor combination. Those flavors come through clearly and brightly in bouillabaisse, and yet lightly enough to allow the flavors of the seafood to shine through. It’s amazing, really. I think it’s at least arguable that bouillabaisse is the finest way to consume fresh seafood.
Bouillabaisse and the Famous Tall American Spy
If you are reading this and happen to be a French person, I think it is important for you to bear in mind that, like most American self-taught cooks, I first learned French technique and how to cook French cuisine from a six foot two inch (188 cm) tall American Spy from Pasadena, California.
Her name was Julia, and after her secret agent work ended at the end of WWII she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and proceeded to write a two volume French cookbook with two French women (Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle).
It’s not clear to me what French cooks think about Mme. Child’s books. However, since no French author since Auguste Escoffier has been able to produce a better historical rendering of classic French cuisine, I’m afraid you may be stuck with the version recounted by a tall American spy.
Julia naturally has a recipe for bouillabaisse. If you’re interested, the Family Food blog produces a faithful rendering.
Julia herself made bouillabaisse on her 1960s pioneer cooking television show, The French Chef. You can watch the entire episode here. It’s not for the faint of heart. The episode opens with the vacant gaze of a dead fish staring at you in black and white. You expect this scene to be followed with one of Albert Camus or Jean Paul Sartre describing the horror of our existential predicament while chain smoking cigarettes. What you see instead is far more disturbing. You see Julia decapitate the dead fish violently, first with a massive cleaver, and then with a large French chef’s knife (very apropos, methinks). It’s kind of gruesome.
She proceeds to make fish stock out of five pounds of fishmonger scraps. This isn’t the bouillabaisse recipe yet. This is just the stock for the bouillabaisse recipe. All of Julia’s recipes take a day and a half of full time labor to prepare (Alan Richman humorously describes this very shortcoming in a very funny article in GQ Magazine). You’ll see that my recipe is a bit less complicated. I want bouillabaisse today.
About this Bouillabaisse Recipe
In the spirit of the humble Mediterranean fisherman, I recommend using whatever seafood is available where you live. Typically bouillabaisse has two or three kinds of fish, and various shellfish (clams, mussels, shrimp, crabs, languistines, etc.). I ended up using bay mussels, Manila clams, shrimp, cod, and sockeye salmon. It’s what’s available here in Portland, so that’s what ought to go into the bouillabaisse. You should use whatever you can find.
If you get shrimp, peel them and reserve the shells to make a stock. It’s not five pounds of fishmonger scraps, but it’ll be fine. Trust me. Wash your clams and mussels well. Mussels have beards. That is to say, they have this fibrous bit hanging out of them that was used to attach them to something solid at the bottom of the sea, so as not to be washed out with the tide. Remove this beard, as it’s not something you want to try to eat. If you inadvertently purchased hipster mussels, these beards will likely be very large.
As for herbs and such, again, use what’s available. I used fresh thyme and marjoram because it was available. Tarragon would be good (the licorice flavor will amp up the fennel). Basil would be good. I frankly think rosemary would be good and almost added it myself.
The tall spy says that in Marseilles they plate the seafood and the broth separately. Unless you’re serving more than half a dozen people, I think this too is overly fussy. Serve it up like you would…a…stew. Just make sure everyone gets a bit of everything.
Make this. Tell me how it turned out. Write a comment or let me know on Twitter (@slow2burn). Take a picture. Post it on Instagram. Tag it #slowburningpassion. I’ll see it and be very thankful for the support.
Finally, a big shout out to Jaden at Steamy Kitchen. My bouillabaisse recipe benefited from reading about hers.
- 6 Cups Water
- ½ Pound Shrimp
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 12 Whole Black Peppercorns
- Peel from 1 Orange
- 3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- ½ Teaspoon Kosher Salt
- 2 Small Fennel Bulbs, thinly sliced, fronds reserved
- 1 Small Onion, diced
- 1 Leek, white part only, thinly sliced
- 4 Cloves Garlic, minced
- 4 Tomatoes, skins and seeds removed and diced
- 1 Cup Dry White Wine
- 1 Teaspoon Fresh Thyme
- 1 Teaspoon Fresh Marjoram
- ½ Teaspoon Saffron Threads
- ½ Teaspoon Ground Cayenne Pepper
- ½ Pound Sockeye Salmon, skin removed, cut into 1 inch wide strips
- ½ Pound Cod, cut into 1 inch wide strips
- ½ Pound Manila Clams
- ½ Pound Bay Mussels
- Peel the shrimp, reserving the shrimp shells. Bring the water to a simmer and add the shrimp shells, bay leaf, peppercorns, and orange peel to the pot and simmer gently for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy bottomed soup pan. Add the onion, leek, and fennel bulb and a pinch of salt, and slowly sweat them until tender but not browned (about 20 minutes).
- Add the garlic, saute a few more minutes until garlic is tender and fragrant.
- Add the tomato and the wine. Turn up the heat until the wine begins to boil. Cook until wine is reduced by about half.
- Strain the shrimp and orange stock into the onion mixture. Add the thyme, marjoram, saffron, and cayenne and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the fish first. About two minutes later add the mussels and clams. About two minutes later add the shrimp. Simmer until the shrimp is just cooked through. About two more minutes.
- Remove from heat and serve immediately, garnishing each place with some reserved fennel fronds.