Bouillabaisse

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the marinated fish is ready to add to the boiling broth

Bouillabaisse is a fish stew whose origins date to the ancient sea routes of the Mediterranean. Though strongly associated with coastal Provence, the stew has roots in Greece and Italy, where for centuries fish has been cooked in rapidly boiling  broth combining strong wine, herbs and olive oil. More than fish, the broth itself is truly the essence of bouillabaisse, with its delicate balance of fennel, saffron and orange zest. The word ‘bouillabaise’ derives from ‘bouillon abaissĂ©’ -to reduce by evaporation. I think of this dish as the mother of fish stews, and the most poetic fusion of the fruits of the land with the fruits of the sea. Living close to the shore in a climate resembling the Mediterranean, we have access to fresh seafood year round, and I’m beginning to experiment with adapting recipes for bouillabaisse to the wild Sonoma Coast. Ideally, we would grow the ingredients composing the broth, beginning with the variety of crocus that produces saffron. Ene has already ordered the bulbs.

I made a large batch of Bouillabaisse in stages over the past few days when Allison Smith and I hosted a dinner in honor of our mutual friend, the artist J. Morgan Puett, who was in town giving a lecture at the California College of the Arts. I thought the dish appropriate to the season and the occasion (Morgan’s birthday as well), to the number of people expected and to the auspicious date of Friday the Thirteenth. Going through the steps of planning and preparing the bouillabaisse helped me to tap the spirit of the dish and begin to experiment with developing my own version. I relied heavily on the advice of our good friend and neighbor, Pierre Bernier, who has cooked many versions in his native France, but also peeked at several recipes online.

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Bouillabaisse for 30:

Prepare a fish stock, beginning by cooking about 3 large onions, sliced, in about 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add freshly cleaned and rinsed fish bones/carcasses (I used the remains of 2 large-ish halibut), about 3 quarts of water, one bottle of white wine, a teaspoon of whole peppercorns and a bouquet garni of fresh parsley, thyme and 2-3 bay leaves. Bring to a slow boil for about 2-3 hours. Strain the broth and set aside.

Gather about 20 pounds local fresh fish, consisting of fillets of firm white fish, oily fish, shrimp, squid, crab, scallops, mussels and clams. For the fish, I used sturgeon, striped bass, tuna and sea perch. Marinate the fillets in about 1.5 cups olive oil infused with chopped garlic and a pinch of Saffron. Refrigerate, but bring to room temperature before cooking.

In a huge pot, heat up about 3 cups olive oil. Saute sliced onions, shallots, garlic, fennel, and leeks until soft. Add about 5-6 pounds juicy fresh tomatoes, chopped, about 2-3 tablespoons fennel seed and about a teaspoon saffron, infused in warm wine. Add dried peel of one blood orange. Add the strained fish stock, a new bouquet garni and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and simmer for at least one hour, but for longer if you prefer. Salt and pepper to taste. When the fish is ready to cook, bring the broth to a rapid boil and add the fish in order of what requires the most time to cook, without loosing the boil. Remove the fish when cooked and arrange on a large platter. Strain the broth through a sieve and whisk in tomato paste infused with anise seed or pernot. Serve the broth in bowls with toasted baguette and sauce rouille, a garlic mayonnaise with saffron and hot chili pepper. Serve the fish separately, sprinkled with chopped fresh parsley. We offered a side dish of boiled potatoes, thinly sliced and buttered.