Saturday, May 15, 2010


When I was a very callowed youth still dewy behind the ears, I was attending an American Management Association seminar all gussied up in my suit and tie and all (I just recently reread The Catcher in the Rye). Around noon, the leader of the seminar passed out menus from a local restaurant so we could order lunch. I said, “Oh, they have boobalaise!” to whit the guy next to me said, “I think it is pronounced bouillabaisse …” I was chagrined to say the most. As a red-faced penitence, I have learned to cook this South-of-France dish to the point where I can improvise with just about any seafood combination. However, there are certain necessities around which this dish is constructed -- leeks, garlic, an orange, olive oil, fish stock, saffron, tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, and either a fennel bulb or some Pernod or Ricard.

The seafood in the American version of this dish traditionally consists of a sturdy, meaty fish like monkfish or halibut, a flaky fish like cod, haddock, or hake (even better, cod cheeks), maybe a few crabs, some cleaned/deveined shrimp, possibly some scallops and/or squid … maybe even octopus (double sucker-down-the-arm type, not single sucker), some shellfish like clams and/or mussels and, as a pièce de résistance, some lobster of whatever variety.

First start with the fish stock. This is best made with fish heads and fish frames begged from your local fish monger (as Julia Child used to say). To do so, sauté a handful of chopped onion, carrots and celery in some olive oil until “sweated” in a big enameled or stainless steel pot. Then add a few quarts of water and the fish heads/frames, a small palmful of sea salt, some grinds of pepper, a sprig of fresh thyme (or ½ a teaspoon of dried), and a few bay leaves. Simmer about an hour until all the goodness is rendered from the contents. Then cool and strain the stock into another container to use in the main dish. If you don’t want to jump through this hoop, use bottled clam juice or store-bought fish base/stock … which is now increasingly available. But the result won’t nearly be as good (and you will need to augment it with the herbs mentioned above.).

Next prepare a garlic mayonnaise (rouille) using two garlic cloves, a handful of bread crumbs or Panko , an egg yoke, a pinch of Cayenne pepper, the juice of ½ a lemon, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Place everything in a blender and process adding ½ cup of good virgin olive oil until you achieve a mayonnaise consistency.

Now split a good-sized leek in two and clean out all the sand between the leaves. Chop the leek crosswise up to and including most of the green part (my departure from the classic recipe). Again sweat this chopped leek in a good quantity of virgin olive oil in the same (cleaned out) large enameled or stainless steel pot until transparent. Add and sweat one fennel bulb cleaned and cross chopped just like the leek (save the gossamer top for a garnish) and about three cleaned and chopped up garlic cloves. Clear a space on the pot and place there a tablespoon of good tomato paste. Stir this with a wooden spoon until it is well heated and a little toasted. Next add back the fish stock, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and two good pinches of saffron. Stir well. Now, either grate and add just the zest from ½ an orange or cut two half dollar sized pieces of orange peel (the classic procedure) and add them to the fish stock.

Now for the seafood. To this base, first add the cut-up lobster, if available, and any larger cut-up crabs (such as Dungeness) remembering not to cook them for more than a total of 15 minutes. Then add the meaty fish (like the monkfish). Cook two minutes or so. Next the flaky fish (like the cod). Cook another minute or so Next add the well-cleaned clams and mussels. (to rid them of sand, soak in water with flour or corn meal for about an hour), any octopus, and any small crabs such as blue crabs or rock crabs.. Cover and cook about five minutes (making sure all the shellfish open ... if not, discard). Add the scallops, calamari and the shrimp. Cook a few more minutes until the shrimp change color. Season to taste with salt and pepper, some chopped up Italian parsley (don’t put the parsley in earlier as it tends to get bitter) and the chopped-up fennel gossamer. If you haven’t included fennel, add a jigger of Pernod or Ricard now. Stir well again and take off the heat.

Serve over crusty French bread in a large soup bowl adding a good dollop of rouille on top of the bread. Enjoy with a good glass of white wine (a Sancerre, a Pinot Grigio, a Chenin blanc, or even a Piesporter.) Have enough friends and family over to eat it all up because it doesn’t keep well.

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