Bouillabaisse

This soup is a big production. It is not merely dinner, it is dinner for a ceremonial occasion, a ritual feast. It is worth it. The basic idea here is that you will make a broth first by boiling the shrimp shells and whatever fish carcasses you can obtain, in water, with a few seasonings. Then you prepare the main soup with tomatoes, onions, and garlic, and add the fish broth to it. In this vegetable/fish broth soup, you cook a common inexpensive fish, like cod, and then puree the tomato-onion-fish mixture. The puree then cooks another 45 minutes to develop its flavor. While it is simmering, you make a garlicky mayonnaise. The shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, and more delicate fishes are added to the soup and cooked at the very last so that they are just barely done when the soup is served. When the soup is served, the mayonnaise is spread on little toasts of French bread which are then dipped in shredded Gruyere cheese to be placed in the soup bowls, and the soup is ladled over it. Leftovers are not as good as the fresh soup, and fish is expensive, so plan carefully for zero leftovers. In the finished soup, you will be able to taste tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, fish and shellfish, chili, orange, herbs, fennel, and saffron. All are essential.

The broth:

Start with the shells from the shrimp and whatever bones, heads, fins and skin you can come by. A yellowtail collar is a fine contribution, too, although the fillet of this fish is not the best suited to this soup. Wash everything in copious running water, then cover with two quarts of water and add:

  • shells , heads, fins and such
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seed
  • 3 bay leaves
  • several grinds of black pepper
  • ten sprigs of parsley, not chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt

and boil it all together gently for 30 minutes. Strain this broth and discard everything but the broth.

Then prepare the vegetable body of the soup:

  • 2 or 3 large onions, chopped in bite-sized pieces
  • 10 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2/3 cup of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed, or a small bulb of fennel, chopped
  • ½ cup parsley, chopped fine
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Fry all of this together over medium heat in a large pot until the onions are well wilted and the garlic is cooked a bit. Then add:

  • 1 large can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons thyme
  • 3 strips of peel from an orange, about ½” x 3″, orange part only, no white flesh
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon saffron
  • 2 teaspoons harissa sauce

and simmer about 20 minutes. Then add the fish broth prepared earlier, and

  • one pound of inexpensive fish fillets—frozen cod is fine.

and cook until the fish is done.

Then remove the bay leaves and orange peel (but save them), puree the soup in batches (blender gives the best result) and return the soup and the bay leaves and orange peel to the pot to simmer another 30 to 45 minutes. The pureed soup will be a light orange color, but it will develop into a fine colorado red as it simmers, and the flavor will develop also. After 30 minutes or so, taste the soup and correct the seasoning for salt, pepper, and harissa.

To this point you can prepare the soup ahead.

Freeze it if you are not going to use it within 24 hours.

Note on harissa: You can buy harissa in a small can or in a tube at middle eastern markets. The tube is better because it keeps a long time, although if you put the harissa from the can in a little jar and put olive oil over it each time you use some, it will keep well also. If you cannot find harissa, substitute a couple of fresh chilis, seeded (either serrano or jalapeno is good) and add 1/2 teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander.

Somewhere less than three hours from serving time, make a mayonnaise with

·        one egg yolk and

·        about ¾ cup of olive oil.

Start by beating the yolk with a whisk until it is pale yellow, then add the oil, first in drops, then in half teaspoons, whisking thoroughly each time to assure the mayonnaise properly emulsifies. When you have a good quantity, add

·        2 or 3 cloves of crushed garlic,

·        a bit of harissa, and

·        salt to taste.

If you had a lot of presence of mind, you could have dropped

·        a tiny potato ( 1 ½”, red or white)

into the soup and it would be cooked in about ten minutes, and you could now fish it out and peel it and mash it. Or you could cook the little potato briefly in the microwave. Either way, peel it and mash it thoroughly, then mix a bit of the mayonnaise with it, then mix the potato into the mayonnaise. If you are not going to serve within a half an hour, cover and chill the spicy potatoey garlicky mayonnaise.

Slice

·        a small baguette

into fairly thin slices and toast them lightly. You will need 4 to 6 pieces for each guest, assuming each guest will have seconds and that two to three will fit in your soup plates. The toasts can be prepared ahead, too, as the bread should be fairly thoroughly dry when they are finished toasting. Store them in a zip lock bag if you are not going to use them the same day.

When you are nearly ready to serve, heat the soup to a simmer, and put the shellfish and other fishes into the soup. Remember you have a pound of fish in the soup already, and aim for about 2 to 3 persons per pound of filleted or cleaned fish or shellfish. For 8 people I usually buy

·        1 pound shrimp

·        1 pound scallops

·        1 pound seabass

·        2 dozen clams or mussels, or ½ pound of another fish

but other varieties are fine, too.

Good candidates for this soup: seabass, halibut, red snapper, cod, ling cod, shrimps, scallops, clams, lobsters, mussels, and even sole. Basically, most shell fish and all white-fleshed sea fishes.

Bad candidates: swordfish, mackerel, tuna, yellowtail, bluefish, salmon, oysters, other oily fishes, squid and octopus, and all fresh water fishes.

Depending on the volume, the shellfish and fillets will cook in as little as 5 minutes. If there are many bivalves, it will take longer because their shells will cool the soup and it will have to come back to a simmer before the fish will cook.

While the soup is cooking, grate about

·        ¼ pound of gruyere cheese,

spread the little toasts with mayonnaise and dip each one in grated cheese. Put two or three in each bowl and ladle the hot soup over it. There is great danger here that the guests will discover how delicious the little toasts with spicy potatoey garlickly mayonnaise and cheese are and eat them up before you serve, so proceed with caution.

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