Bouillabaisse: A Magical Yet Easy Synthesis
One rainy Sunday afternoon a couple of years ago, my boyfriend and I ducked into an eccentric Italian restaurant that had long ago stopped trying to impress customers and occasionally offered French delicacies. Sandwiched between house-made pastas and calamari fritti, I saw it: bouillabaisse. I could hardly spell it, let alone say it. As someone raised on meat loaf and boiled vegetables, this was exotic enough for the culinary explorer in me.
A cavernous pot arrived in front of me like it was Christmas: shrimp, mussels, monkfish, skate wing, bobbing in a garlicky golden broth spiked with tomato, potato, saffron and garlic. A toasted baguette came alongside, ideal for dipping.
Bouillabaisse -- the word is a fusion of two French verbs, bouillir (to boil) and abaisser (to reduce) -- originated as a hearty stew for Provencal fishermen, who rewarded themselves with their leftover catch.
The French have dubbed this robust fish stew "the magical synthesis," and on first bite, I knew why. I plucked out a soft mussel, then discovered a droplet of piquant juice cradled in its shell -- the perfect combination of comfort and surprise.
Since that meal, I have tried to replicate the experience at home. While bouillabaisse once represented the treasures of a day spent fishing, for me bouillabaisse means a leisurely morning foraging at the fish market and an afternoon spent experimenting in the kitchen.
Perhaps the French would fault me: In Marseilles, where the dish originated, cooks hold their stew to strict standards. La Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, a charter signed by several Marseilles restaurants, outlines an explicit plan: Fish should first be cut in front of diners, with the soup spooned on afterwards. For the stew to be authentic, it must contain at least four of five fish: chapon, John Dory, monkfish, conger eel, rascasse (otherwise known as scorpion fish, native to Marseilles) and galinette.
Of course, securing these ingredients can be almost as expensive and time-consuming as a flight to France. Fortunately, there are plenty of affordable riffs on the traditional, purist bouillabaisse. Americans enjoy many variations, and as countless U.S. recipes will attest, there's nothing distasteful about a little culinary improvisation.
Most non-oily white fish work well; I usually choose something durable, like red snapper and monkfish, both of which are easy to come by. Halibut or grouper also make nice stand-ins. Sea scallops (which are heartier than bay scallops), shrimp (best to buy de-veined) and mussels round out the potpourri.
While fish is often a matter of taste and availability, the broth of tomatoes, garlic and potato is a constant. Most important is saffron, which gives the stew its distinct golden hue. In France, wild fennel lends a pungent aroma to the broth; an acceptable stand-in is anise seed, which hits similar licorice-like notes.
While the French plan dictates that fish must be cut in front of diners, I prefer to skip the theatrics and slice solo, far from the watchful eye of guests. Perhaps it's a bit less authentic, but I find it's just as satisfying. Actually, I like to think the modern bouillabaisse's devil-may-care flexibility is distinctly French; to taste delicious, all this magical synthesis demands is a little ingenuity on the part of its creator.
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