How to make the authentic bouillabaisse is always a subject of lively discussion among French experts; each always insists that his own is the only correct version. If you do not happen to live on the Mediterranean, you cannot obtain the particular rockfish, gurnards, mullets, weavers, sea eels, wrasses, and breams which they consider the absolutely essential fish for bouillabaisse, but you can make an extremely good facsimile even if you have only frozen fish and canned clam juice to work with, because all the other essential flavors of tomatoes, onion or leeks, garlic, herbs, and olive oil are always available.
Bouillabaisse is really a fish chowder; whole small fish or large fish cut into serving pieces are boiled in a deliciously aromatic fish broth. The fish are served on a platter, and the broth in a tureen, and you eat both together in large soup plates.
For the best and most interesting flavor, pick six or more varieties of fish, which is why a bouillabaisse is ideally made for at least six people. Some of the fish should be firm fleshed and gelatinous, like halibut, eel, and cusk; some should be tender and flaky like hake, whiting, and sole. The firm fish hold their shape, and the tender fish partially disperse in the soup. Shellfish are optional, but always add glamour and color if you wish to include them.
Except for live lobsters and crabs, all the fish may be cleaned, sliced, and refrigerated several hours before the final cooking. The soup base may be boiled, strained, and refrigerated. The actual cooking of the fish in the soup will take only about 20 minutes, and then the dish should be served immediately.
Fish for bouillabaisse should be lean, and of the best and freshest-smelling quality. Here are some suggestions: bass, cod, conger or sea eel, cusk, flounder, grouper, grunt, haddock, hake or whiting, halibut, perch, pollock, rockfish or sculpin, snapper, spot, sea trout or weakfish, wolffish. Shellfish—crab, lobster, mussels, clams, scallops.
Have the fish cleaned and scaled; discard gills. Save heads, bones, and trimmings for the soup base. Cut large fish into crosswise slices of 2 inches wide. Scrub clams; scrub and soak mussels; wash scallops. If using live crab or lobster, split just before cooking; remove sand sack and intestinal tube from lobsters, and tail flap from under crabs.
Summary: Mediterranean Fish Chowder
- The Soup Base
- 1 cup sliced yellow onions
- ¾ to 1 cup sliced leeks, white part only; or ½ cup more onions
- ½ cup of olive oil
- A heavy 8-quart kettle or casserole
- 2 to 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes, or 1¼ cups drained canned tomatoes, or ¼ cup tomato paste
- 4 cloves mashed garlic
- Cook the onions and leeks slowly in the olive oil for 5 minutes without browning.
- Stir in the tomatoes and garlic, and cook 5 minutes more.
- 2½ quarts water
- 6 parsley sprigs
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp thyme or basil
- 1/8 tsp fennel
- 2 big pinches of saffron
- A 2-inch piece or ½ tsp dried orange peel
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 1 Tb salt (none if using clam juice)
- 3 to 4 lbs. fish heads, bones, and trimmings including shellfish remains; or, 1 quart clam juice and 1½ quarts of water, and no salt
- Add the water, herbs, seasoning, and fish or clam juice to the kettle. Bring to boil, skim, and cook, uncovered, at the slow boil for 30 to 40 minutes. Strain, correct seasoning. Set aside, uncovered, until cool if you are not finishing the bouillabaisse immediately, then refrigerate.
- Cooking the Bouillabaisse
- The soup base
- 6 to 8 lbs. assorted lean fish, and shellfish if you wish, selected and according to directions at beginning of recipe
- Bring the soup base to a rapid boil in the kettle about 20 minutes before serving. Add lobsters, crabs, and firm-fleshed fish. Bring quickly back to the boil and boil rapidly, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Then add the tender-fleshed fish, and the clams, mussels, and scallops. Bring back to the boil again for 5 minutes. Do not overcook.
- A hot platter
- A soup tureen or soup casserole
- Rounds of toasted French bread
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
- Immediately lift out the fish and arrange on the platter. Carefully taste soup for seasoning, place 6 to 8 slices of bread in the tureen, and pour in the soup. Spoon a ladleful of soup over the fish, and sprinkle parsley over both fish and soup. Serve immediately.
- At the table, each guest is served or helps himself to both fish and soup, placing them in a large soup plate. Eat the bouillabaisse with a large soup spoon and fork, helped along with additional pieces of French bread. If you wish to serve wine, you have a choice of rosé, a strong dry white wine such as Côtes du Rhône or Riesling, or a light, young red such as Beaujolais or domestic Mountain Red.
Number of servings (yield): 8