Cooking really is just another type of language, and just like a language does, traditional dishes evolve over time, reflecting a change in custom, culture and lifestyle. Although it might offend some, I am not one to mind when a traditional recipe is adapted and simplified to suit more contemporary attitudes.

Bouillabaisse, or the ultimate mediterranean fish stew, is one of those recipes that die-hards will protect until their dying breath, throw their arms up in the air about varying methods and revere like a symbol of national heritage. In some ways it is, but should it really be?

This deeply flavored and slightly spicy fish soup originated in the South of France, and more specifically in the area around Marseille, a major fishing port. At the end of a good fishing day, the fishermen would collect all the small rock fish and shellfish that had collected at the bottom of their nets: too small and finicky to get much for at the market.

Mixing their modest harvest with typical Mediterranean ingredients – tomatoes, fennel, garlic, onion, olive oil – they would prepare an intensely flavored red/orange broth, either pouring it over boiled white fish or smashing the white fish into the broth, creating a thicker soup texture. The soup was served with a saffron infused aioli and a few slices of crusty bread.

Bouillabaisse was a typical poor man’s dish made from whatever fish and shellfish was on hand. In some ways, rather than being a strict recipe, bouillabaisse is more of a method to prepare available seafood.

Seafood isn’t usually associated with winter, when we tend to crave heavier ingredients: meat and carbs especially, but thinking that seafood is at it’s best in summer is a misconception, and some species are in fact at their peak in the cold months – specifically snappers, flathead, king prawns and pacific oysters.

A combination of white fish and shellfish forms the basis of bouillabaisse and everyone agrees: the more types, the better! The great thing about this is that it means you can just head over to your favourite fishmonger and choose based on the selection they have there rather than worrying whether they will have the fish you need. Choose a fishmonger which sells fresh fish primarily as this is more likely to reflect seasonality and sustainable practices.

Making the broth follows a fairly similar method across the board. The base ingredients typically are a combination of olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, saffron, fennel and morsels of the various types of fish simmered in fish stock (which can be bought already made or can easily be made at home). The broth is then strained through a sieve, removing solids, resulting in a brilliantly red/orange soup.

Last but not least, bouillabaisse is traditionally served with rouille and crusty bread. Rouille, which literally translates as rust in French is a tomato (and sometimes saffron) infused aioli (garlic mayonnaise). It’s delicious, has a lovely rusty color and takes the soup to another level. You’ll start eating the crusty bread to soak up the soup but I can almost guarantee, you’ll end up using it to swipe the rouille clean off your bowl.

While I have had my share of bouillabaisse growing up in the south of France, I had never made it so the recipe which follows is a combination of a few recipes I have found in various sources. There are many ways to enjoy this dish: The fine soup might be poured directly over the whole cooked fish, or the fish is incorporated into the soup, blended together to form a fairly thick and textured soup. the combinations of fish and shellfish are completely up to you: mussels, oysters, crab meat can all become a topping to this dish. Although there is a fair bit of tradition associated with the good old bouillabaisse, the best way to enjoy it is simply to make the recipe your own.

Bouillabaisse with rouille, serves 4

Ingredients for the soupe

About a kilo of various fish fillets: combination of flaky, white, firm etc…, roughly chopped

Olive oil

Thick strip of orange peel

1 fennel bulb, chopped

3 tomatoes, chopped

2 garlic cloves. crushed

handful of thyme sprigs

2 celery stalks, sliced

3 tbsp tomato paste

2 tbsp fennel seeds

Pinch of saffron

100ml pernod

700g combination shellfish (prawns, scallops, crab meat, mussels etc…)

1 baguette

750cl fish stock

Ingredients for the Rouille

1 clove of garlic

a small pinch of saffron

sea salt + freshly ground pepper

250ml ready made mayonnaise

lemon juice

1 tsp tomato paste

Method

Roughly chop the fish. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute the fish for 5 minutes. Add the orange peel, fennel, tomato, garlic, thyme and celery. Mix well. Add the tomato paste, fennel seeds, saffron and pernod. Cook for 3 minutes, then gradually add the fish stock to cover. Simmer for approx. 40 minutes.

Remove soup from heat. Using a stick blender, blend until smooth. Pass through a fine sieve, return to saucepan and heat (you can return some of the fish puree to the soup if you want to make it thicker and textured). Add the shellfish to broth and cook for a few minutes.

To make the saffron aioli (rouille), smash a clove of garlic, a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, and the saffron with a small pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar until it turns into mush. Add a tablespoon of mayonnaise and tomato paste and pound again. Stir in the rest of the mayo. Taste and season with a little more lemon juice, salt and pepper.

To serve, place shellfish in a bowl and cover with soup. Sprinkle with parsley. Spoon rouille onto crusty bread. Top the soup with the bread to serve.

ps: any left-over fish puree can be used to make fishcakes the next day.

What is your favorite way of enjoying seafood in winter? Is there a recipe you would like to share with our readers?

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