Casablanca: Bouillabaisse


If we served nothing but Bouillabaisse, our meal would be a feast! This oh-so-French seafood dinner is just the thing for any New Year's Eve menu.

I can imagine Claude Rains' Captain Renault ordering on the eve of some conquest. "Rick", he might say, "Bouillabaisse for two and a bottle of your finest French Champaign".

There is a lot of lore that surrounds Bouillabaisse - almost every cookbook has a recipe that claims to be the "true" method. Some cooks add shrimp and lobster, others use crab, while others claim that these are adulterations. Some claim that unless you have fish from the Mediterranean you can't even make the dish.

Don't be deterred. Use shellfish if you want to dress the dish up. Omit it if you want a simpler meal. If you can't find Mediterranean fish, use a good variety of available fish.

Believe it or not, this is not a difficult dish to make, though there are a lot of steps, and at the end they come fast and furious. You don't want to overcook the fish, so everything you need for final preparation should be set up in advance.

The key is preparation. We'll try to prep all the ingredients in advance of when they are needed, separating preparation from assembly. Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Make the fish stock
  2. Prepare the fish marinade
  3. Cut and marinade the fish
  4. Prepare the vegetables
  5. Prepare the Croutons
  6. Prepare the Rouille
  7. Prepare the Lobster (optional)
  8. Final Preparation

Prepare all of the steps except the last the morning of your dinner and you'll be free to entertain your guests in the evening. The final preparation is completed in less than thirty minutes, so you won't spend all of your time in the kitchen when you want to be entertaining.


    For croutons
    1 baguette
    3 T olive oil
    2 or 3 garlic cloves

    For the soup
    1 large or 2 medium onions
    4 garlic cloves
    1/2 C olive oil
    2 Leaks
    1 Can Italian Plum Tomatoes
    1 Stalk Celery
    1 Orange (for zest)
    1 lb waxy potatoes
    1/3 C finely chopped fennel fronds
    1 Bay Leaf
    1/4 t saffron threads
    Sea Salt
    3-4 springs of fresh Thyme
    9 C fish stock
    1 T Penrod liqueur
    3 - 4 lb mixed skinned white fish fillets (get the heads and bones from your seafood store for use in the stock, if possible). Mediterranean fish should be used, but this is often impossible in US fish markets. Good choices include halibut, monkfish, bronzino, and snapper. You want a good variety of fish; aim for at least four varieties.

  • Optional: 1 1 1/4 lb. Lobster
  • Optional: 6-12 Littleneck Clams

    For the Rouille
    3 T Fish Stock
    1 slice White Bread, crust removed.
    Pinch of Saffron
    3 cloves garlic
    1/2 t sea salt
    1/2 t Cayenne Pepper
    1/2 C extra-virgin Olive Oil
    1 T Paprika

    Special Equipment
    Slotted spatula or griddle flipper
    Garlic Press Two large soup pots
    If serving lobster:

  • Lobster or nut crackers
  • Small lobster forks
  • Serving Platter
    Soup Terrine




Prepare the Fish and Marinade:

If possible, don't buy fish fillets. Rather, buy whole fish where possible, and have the store fillet the fish for you, reserving the bones for use in your fish stock. Even if you don't make your own stock from scratch, adding them to the preparation of the soup base, below, will add delicious flavor to your meal.

Rinse the fish heads and bones in cool water, drain, cover, and refrigerate. If you're making the fish stock from scratch, skip to that recipe before proceeding here.
The first "official" step is making the marinade for the fish. Put 1/4 t saffron into a bowl.
Put 1/4 cup of olive oil over the saffron.
Add 1/4 C of olive oil into a large bowl.
Crush 2 cloves of garlic into the bowl and stir up the ingredients. Let them sit at room temperature for about ten minutes while we prepare the fish.
One of the most important aspects of making a bouillabaisse is using a variety of fish. Ideally they should be from the Mediterranean, but that is not always possible. Here I've chosen about four pounds of monkfish, bronzino, halibut, and snapper.
We are going to cut the fish into pieces roughly 2" x 4". The important thing is not to cut the fish into pieces that are too small or they will fall apart when we transfer them from the broth to the serving plate at the end, leaving you with a platter of "fish crumbs".
Place the fish into a the bowl.
Add the saffron/wine mixture to the fish. Cover and refrigerate.

Prepare the Vegetables

Prepare the vegetables: We'll clean and cut the veggies in advance.
Chop a stalk of celery. Reserve.
Cut off the fronds (the fine, wisp tops) from a bulb of fennel.
Chop the fronds. We'll need about 1/3 of a cup - roughly the amount you'll find on one bulb.
Clean and trim 2-3 leeks. Cut off the bottoms and the green tops.
Slice the leeks in half. Reserve.
Peel and chop 2 large onions. Reserve.
Peel 8 garlic cloves. Reserve.
Cut a 3" strip of orange rind, removing the white pith. Reserve.
Meanwhile, peel the potatoes.
Slice the potatoes, put them in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate.

Prepare the broth

Pour 3/4 cup olive oil into a frying pan over a medium flame. Add the onions and celery. Saute until they begin to turn translucent, but not brown.

Add the leeks.

Sprinkle in the chopped fennel fronds.
Crush 4 garlic cloves into the pot.
Add a bay leaf...
...and then 3 or 4 peppercorns.
Give the pot a stir and add the entire contents of a can of Italian plum tomatoes, including the liquid.
Now add 4 or 5 sprigs of fresh thyme, or about a 1/2 t of dried if that is all that is available.
Now pour in the 9 C of fish stock.

Add the strips of orange zest. Also, if you are not using home made fish stock, add the fish bones and heads to the pot.

Bring the pot to a boil and them simmer, covered, for an hour.

While the broth is cooking, make the croutons and rouille, below. However to keep the steps for the broth together, let me show what to do when the timer dings.

We're going to set up another large pot next to the broth pot. Working with a ladle, pour the broth through a sieve into the new pot. Don't be afraid to press down on the veggies and bones to get out the liquid. When you're done, rinse out the broth pot (we'll use it to cook the optional lobster), discard the bones and squished veggies, and refrigerate the broth until final preparation.

Make croutons:

Preheat oven to 250°F. Slice the baguette into 1/2" coins.
Arrange bread slices in 1 layer in a shallow baking pan and brush both sides with olive oil.
Cook in the oven for about 15 minutes, then flip and cook for another 15. The croutons should get toasted but not burnt.
Rub one side of each toast with a cut side of garlic. Set them aside for final assembly. Don't put them into a plastic bag while they are hot or they will go limp!

Make the Rouille:

While the stock is cooking for the first time, let's make the Rouille, an eponymous named, rust colored mayonnaise that is served as a condiment with bouillabaisse. Crush 3 cloves of garlic into a food processor.

Cut off the crust of a piece of white bread and tear the soft inner part of the bread into the processor.

Add a single egg yolk.

Drop in a pinch of saffron.

Spoon in 3 T of fish stock.
Sprinkle in 1/2 t sea salt.
Sprinkle in 1/2 t Cayenne Pepper.
Process the ingredients until smooth.
Working mere drops at a time, add the 1/2 C olive oil to the bowl. Don't dump the oil in or you will not make mayonnaise. You must work slowly, dribbling the oil in. Don't add more oil until the what you've got in the bowl has been incorporated. This step takes time and patience.
Here you can see the consistency of the near finished rouille. I add in 1/2 t of paprika to give the rouille a more "rust-like" color. Just process for a couple of seconds to blend it all in. Spoon the rouille into a serving dish, cover, and refrigerate.

Final Preparation

As you've seen, nothing about this dish it too hard. The one place that you can get seriously screwed up is in the timing of the final steps. Here you want to be prepared and nimble. To help you keep your timeline straight, I will incorporate the cooking of the lobster into the final preparation. If you choose to forego the lobster, just skip those steps.

This would be a good time to warm your plates and serving platter and tureen. We don't want cold dishes to suck the heat away from our dinner.

Scan your table and make sure it is completely set. You won't want to be looking for anything when dinner is being brought out. Preparation makes it all look easy!

45 minutes before dinner: If you're going to add lobster to the dish, you'll need to bring a large pot of water to a boil. This can be a trap for the unaware chef, because though the lobster only takes about 15 minutes to cook, bringing that water to a boil can take a long time.

For that reason I'll bring a large pot of water to a boil about 45 minutes before dinner and leave it simmering. Keep it covered and just under a boil until we're ready to go, adding water to the pot if it begins to evaporate.

Thirty minutes or so before dinner: Bring the water to a full boil.

Twenty-five minutes before dinner: When the water is boiling, plunge the lobster into the boiling water and cover. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Twenty-four minutes before dinner: bring the broth to a hard boil in a separate covered pot. I like to use a very wide pot so that the liquid is only a couple of inches deep. The wide surface area will make it easier to deal with the fish in a few minutes; we want to minimize the stacking the fragile pieces of fish one on top of the other.

Add 1 T Penrod to the boiling broth.
Fifteen to twenty minutes before dinner add the potatoes to the rapidly boiling broth.
Ten minutes before dinner add the fish. Try to keep like types of fish together in the pot.
Add any extra juices from the fish bowl to the broth. Keep track of this time: These next eight to ten minutes will tell the tale of your dinner. Overcook the fish and it will dry out and crumble.
If you're using clams add them next.
"Bing!", the timer just went off - the lobster is done. Pull it out of the water with tongs. You'll actually be doing these next few steps as the fish is cooking.
Twist the tail off the lobster.
Twist off the bottom "fin" from the lobster tail.
Pushing on the meat of the tail from the bottom with your thumbs, you should be able to pop out the flesh from the shell all in one piece. Depending on the number of guests and the amount of lobster you have, you can serve each guest a half tail, or just pieces of the tail. Cut the tail to the size desired.
Crack the lobster claws, removing the meat. Break off the other pieces and reserve all the lobster meat. Arrange the lobster in the center of the warmed serving platter.

Word of caution: Don't lose track of time on your fish while you're playing with the lobster. Even if you have to let the lobster sit in its shell for a few minutes, do not let the fish over cook.
Using a flat slotted spatula or griddle flipper, transfer the fish and potatoes to the platter as soon as it is cooked through. Different fish may need slightly different times, so rely on your eyes and not the timer - err on slightly under cooked if you're not sure, because the fish will continue to cook on the platter.
Arrange the fish, potatoes, and lobster on the platter. Move fast, but delicately. Keep like kinds of fish together on the platter as much as possible. I put the lobster in the middle. Cover with a light tent of aluminum foil until ready to serve.
Pour the broth through a sieve into the soup tureen.
Present the dinner!
Each soup bowl should get one or two croutons topped with the rouille.
Give each plate a sample of the variety of fish and potatoes. Serve the extra rouille on the side for guests to use as desired.

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