Bouillabaisse is one of those things—like barbecue, cassoulet or cioppino—that people will never agree on. I think that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where every bouillabaisse tastes the same.
On a drive along the French Riviera several years ago, I tasted bouillabaisse in restaurants that ranged from total dives and family restaurants to a Michelin two-star restaurant, where a captain in a white blazer filleted all the fish and returned them to the broth. No two tasted alike. (Again, good thing.) When I asked people what went in them it all boiled down to one thing: whatever the guys in the fishing boats brought back. So I follow the same line of thinking whenever I undertake this soup—and undertake is the right word. Just look for whatever is good in the market. (Thank you Jersey City Fish Stand.) You will need at least two whole fish; it’s their bones that make the stock that makes the base that makes the soup. Got it?
I mapped out a little time frame for you below. Which takes you all the way from the fish store through faire chabrot.
When it comes to the croutons, I usually make half the batch plain and half with cheese. I put them in the same breadbasket and let people choose.
Makes 6 servings (really more like 8, but you try to stop people once they get going)
For the stock:
2 ½ cups dry good Provencal rosé (you’ll be drinking more with dinner and if you decide to faire chabrot**)
½ teaspoon (or more) saffron threads
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
Stalks from 1 bunch fennel
Greens from 2 leeks, well trimmed and washed
Head and bones from the fish (see below)
For the rouille:
2 to 3 tablespoons of the rose (or wine of your choice)
Large pinch saffron
A 2 x 2 x 3 crustless piece rustic bread, day-old or toasted at 250 F until dry
1 egg yolk
1 cup good olive oil
1 head garlic, roasted (traditionally made with raw garlic, I like this better)
1 red pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
For the base:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bulb fennel (the stalks went in the stock), quartered, cored and cut into ½-inch strips
2 leeks, white and light green parts, split lengthwise, washed and cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (can be canned; if using fresh, save the skins, juice and seeds for the stock)
2 tablespoons Pernod
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
For the soup:
4 small (about 12 ounces) Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced thin
1 small red snapper (about 2 pounds) cleaned* and then filleted, save the bones for stock
1 small dourade or branzino (about 2 pounds) cleaned* and then filleted, save the bones for stock
1 ½ pounds assorted fish fillets (I used cod, monkfish, tilefish and whiting—I bought all the little tail and odd pieces, the fish guys loved me)
3 to 4 tablespoons really good olive oil
For the croutons:
1 thin, long, crackly-crusted baguette
¾ cup grated Guyere, optional
Make the stock and marinate the fish:
Heat the rosé to boiling in a small saucepan and cook until reduced by half. Remove from the heat and add the saffron.
Heat the oil in a heavy 7-quart or so Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring, until wilted. Don’t let it brown. Stir in the tomato paste and stir for a minute or two. Add the saffron-wine to the pan and stir. Add the leek greens, fennel stalks, fish bones and heads, and Pernod. (I used the bones/ head from 1 fish plus just the bones without the head from the other fish. I don’t like strong fish stock.)
Pour in enough cold water to barely cover everything and add the tomato leavings if you peeled your own. Bring to a boil, boil a minute, then lower the heat so the stock is simmering. Skim the foam off the top. Cook 40 minutes, skimming occasionally. Turn off the heat and ladle a little into a small glass bowl. Add a pinch of salt and taste. There should be a nice saffron flavor and a nice golden color. If not add a little more saffron. Let sit 30 minutes then drain in a colander placed over a large bowl. Get rid of the solids. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. You should have about 3 quarts stock. If there’s more and it is a little weak, boil it down gently. If there is less and it is strong (unlikely) add water.
Also a day in advance: take all the fish fillets and cut them into 1 ½ inch pieces. Season them well with salt and pepper and sprinkle them lightly with Pernod. Refrigerate them. If you’re using monkfish, season and refrigerate that separately.
Make the rouille:
Once you have the stock you can make the rouille. Soak the saffron in the wine for 10 minutes or so. Put the stale bread in a bowl and pour enough hot stock over it to soak it completely. When soaked, squeeze out the excess liquid. Return the extra liquid to the stock, no one will ever know. Put the squeezed out bread and egg yolk in the work bowl of the food processor and process until smooth. Drizzle in about half the oil very, very slowly. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the cloves, add that and process again. Add the roasted pepper and saffron-wine and process again. Drizzle in the remaining olive oil slowly. If it breaks, don’t worry, buzz the whole thing in a blender just before you serve it. Refrigerate it.
Make the base:
Heat the olive oil in the same pot you made the stock. Add the sliced fennel and leeks and cook, stirring, until wilted but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add the diced tomato and cook for a minute or two. Add the strained stock and Pernod. Bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat and cook until the vegetables are tender but not mushy. Remove and cool. This can be done the day before too. Cool the base to room temperature and then refrigerate.
Make the croutons:
Afte cutting and setting aside the bread you will need for the rouille, slice the rest of the baguette into 1/2-inch rounds. Heat the oven to 400°F.
Lightly brush the bread slices on both sides with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake on the lowest rack until the underside is golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove and cool. If desired, rub the brown side of the bread very lightly with the garlic clove.
If you decide to serve the cheese version, top the croutons with a thin layer of Gruyere. Put back in the oven for 5 minutes to melt the cheese.
Make the soup:
In the same pot you used for the stock and base, add the sliced potatoes to the cold base. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook 3 minutes. If you’re using monkfish, add it now. (That’s why you kept it separate.)
Cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in the rest of fish and the olive oil, crank the heat and boil, stirring gently, until the potatoes are tender and the fish is all cooked through. Don’t worry about it being neat. The boiling incorporates the oil into the broth. Taste it and make sure it is really well seasoned. Add more Pernod if you think it needs it, but don’t go overboard. Put about ¼ cup of the rouille in a bowl and whisk in a couple of ladlefuls of the liquid from the pot. Pour that back into the soup and stir very gently. Taste it again. You’re good to go.
If you can, bring the soup to the table in the pot. Pass the croutons and rouille and suggest that people spread one or two of the plain croutons with rouille and put them in the bottom of their soup bowls. Ladle the bouillabaisse over the rouille croutons. If people opt for the cheese croutons, they can either put them in their bowls before filling them or float them on top. For all, keep passing rouille so people can stir in more if they like.
*If you have your fish cleaned and filleted at the fish store, ask to have the gills removed and the inside completely cleaned.
** This is the perfect time and place to introduce people to faire chabrot, an old French custom of adding a little of the wine you’re drinking to the last bit of soup or stew in your bowl, giving it a swirl and drinking it right from the bowl. Some bowls are better than others for this. I use oversized, deep plain white bowls that are perfect for faire chabrot. If you’re using rimmed soup bowls it might not be a good idea.
How to get the bouillabaisse on the table
Two Days Before:
- Roast the peppers and the garlic; squeeze the garlic out of the cloves
- Cut up the bread for croutons, saving a piece for the rouille; leave that piece out overnight to get stale
- Prep the stock vegetables
- Buy the fish if you absolutely cannot do it the day before
One Day Before:
- Buy the fish
- Make the stock
- Prep the base vegetables while the stock is simmering
- Make the base
- Make the rouille while the base is simmering
- Marinate the fish fillets
Early on the day of:
- Make the croutons
An hour before serving:
- Bring the rouille out to room temperature
- Pop the croutons into a 350 F oven for 3 to 4 minutes to freshen them up
- Put the base and the potatoes into the soup pot; make sure the potatoes are completely submerged in the base so they don’t darken
You’ll have to play this bit by ear:
If you’re serving something as a first course, start to bring the base to a boil over medium heat just before you serve the first course. If not, do so about 20 minutes before you sit down. Keep an eye on the base so the potatoes don’t overcook. Adding the marinated fish and oil and boiling the soup can only be done just before serving the soup.