Bouillabaisse, a rich and fragrant fish soup, is the most famous product of Marseille, the oldest city in France.
In fact, bouillabaisse may be as old as the city — some guesses place the dish’s origins with the seventh-century B.C. Greeks who founded the city, maybe bringing with them the fish stew they called kakavia.
Others say it may have been born of a 19th-century French restaurateur’s desire to use as many of the Provençal fish as possible. Or from a fisherman’s need to use the fish that no one else would.
The French and English form of bouillabaisse comes from the Provençal Occitan word bolhabaissa, a compound that consists of the two verbs bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to reduce heat or simmer).
Like its origins, what makes a “true” bouillabaisse is heavily debated. The Marseillais will say that the real thing is only made with an assortment of seven fishes, including the incredibly hideous rockfish (not often found in the U.S.).
Others define bouillabaisse not by the fish, but by the unique combination of flavors: saffron, olive oil and a strong licorice flavor from Pernod (I personally prefer and use Absinthe).
The broth is traditionally served with a rouille, a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, saffron, and cayenne pepper on grilled slices of bread.
What makes a bouillabaisse different from other fish soups is the selection of Provençal herbs and spices in the broth; the use of bony local Mediterranean fish; the way the fish are added one at a time, and brought to a boil; and the method of serving.
In Marseille, the broth is served first in a soup plate with slices of bread and rouille, then the fish is served separately on a large platter or, more simply, as Julia Child suggests, the fish and broth are brought to the table separately and served together in large soup plates.
My recipe is based closely on one by Alain Sailhac, the legendary French chef who started in the four-star kitchens of Le Cygne and Le Cirque and then became executive vice president and senior dean of studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York.
Alain Sailhac’s Bouillabaisse is as canonical as it gets – I’ve adjusted some seasonings, and most ingeniously (IMHO) added some purée of uni that I feel adds the true breath of the sea to the soup’s aroma. It also helps to color the soup, thus serving double-duty!
Citizens – I know this is not an easy recipe, but it is delicious beyond measure! I hope you will give it a try! 🙂
Battle on – The Generalissimo
The Broth & Cleaning the Fish
Bouillabaisse begins with a rich fish broth, made from the heads and bones of the red snapper and monkfish in this recipe; you can substitute any white, non-oily fish you like).
If you don’t have lobster bodies or shrimp shells, use whatever shrimp, lobster or fish parts you can get. If your fishmonger cleans the fish for you, be sure to ask him for the remaining bones and heads and use them here.
If you don’t have an immersion blender, purée the mixture in a food processor or regular blender, in batches if necessary. Also note that any white, non-oily fish can be substituted, but snapper and monkfish hold up well to the relatively long cooking time.
Fish heads and bones (gills and eyes removed, cleaned with cold water)
1 pound lobster bodies, cut into small pieces, and/or shrimp heads and shells (set aside shrimp with tail left on for bouillabaisse)
¼ cup olive oil
1 onion, finely minced
1 small fennel, stalks removed, minced
1 leek, white part and bottom half of green part, cleaned and minced
1 head garlic, outer paper removed, crushed but not peeled
6 ripe tomatoes, cut into large chunks
1 star anise, crushed
2 quarts fish stock (or water).
1. In a large, shallow saucepan, simmer the fish heads, lobster bodies and shrimp heads and shells in olive oil over medium heat for 5 minutes.
2. Add the onion, fennel, leeks and fish bones and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 3 minutes, stirring. Add the tomatoes and star anise and cook for 3 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to high, add the fish stock or water and cook for 10 minutes at high temperature.
4. Using an immersion blender, food processor or regular blender, purée the mixture.
5. Strain, season with salt and pepper to taste and reserve.
Cleaning the Fish
The easiest technique here is no technique at all: let the fishmonger do it for you. Make sure you get the bones and heads for the broth described above. (Of course choosing a good fish is your job: look for one with clear eyes, colorful skin without slime, and gills that are separated and bright red.)
However, if you are feeling ambitious, here’s a quick primer on cleaning your fish (in this case, red snapper and monkfish). Even if you do the cleaning yourself, have the fishmonger remove the gills and eyes, which are useless in cooking, and the scales, which can cause quite a mess.
Cut off the fins. Make an incision through the top of the head, following around the head, then cut down the length of the fish to just one side of the spine. Cut off one fillet by slicing in short motions to get the meat off the bones. Remove the skin with your knife. Repeat the process on the other side and remove that fillet. Remove any remaining skin or bones. Reserve the bones for the broth.
Monkfish “fillets” are actually just from the tail portion, so there’s no head to deal with (which you’ll know is a good thing if you’ve ever seen a monkfish head).
Peel off the skin, cutting to free it from the flesh when necessary. Make an incision down the center of the fish, just to the side of the tailbone. Cut off one fillet, then make another incision on the other side of the tailbone, and remove that fillet. Remove any remaining skin or bones. Reserve the bones for the broth.
1 pound red snapper fillet, with or without skin
1 pound monkfish fillet, cleaned
½ pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined, but with heads attached if desired (I always leave them on)
1 pound littleneck or other small clams, cleaned
1 pound mussels, debearded
1 medium onion, peeled and minced
1 leek, white part only, cleaned and sliced
2 pounds fennel, stalks removed, bulb sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
4 large cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and chopped
¼ cup top-quality uni
4 small potatoes, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
2 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup olive oil
2 pinches saffron
1 shot top-quality Absinthe (preferred) or 2 shots of Ricard or Pernod
1 quart fish broth (see recipe linked at right)
2 tablespoons of chiffonade of basil
1. Cut the red snapper and monkfish fillets into 1 ½-inch chunks, and put in a bowl or pan.
2. Add two cloves of the garlic, ¼ cup of olive oil, 1 pinch of the saffron and the Absinthe (or Ricard or Pernod).
3. Add the shrimp. Gently combine the ingredients (be careful not to break the shrimp; you can use rubber gloves and hand-mix if you like).
4. Marinate the mixture in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 hours.
5. Warm a large saucepan over high heat. Add another 1/4 cup of the olive oil.
6. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until just translucent. Add the leeks and sauté another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the fennel, season with salt and pepper, and stir.
7. Add another 2 cloves of the garlic, stir and cook for 1 minute.
8. Add the tomatoes, potatoes and fish broth. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Remove the potatoes from the broth and reserve in a small bowl, covered with a bit of the broth.
9. Season to taste, and add the last pinch of saffron at the end of the cooking.
The Rouille and Finishing the Dish
Rouille (pronounced ROO-ee), which means “rust” in French, gets its name from its lovely red-orange color. But it’s the flavor that makes rouille the classic companion to bouillabaisse. Made with hot chiles or cayenne pepper, raw garlic, saffron, and in our version, thickened with cooked potatoes, it’s served on a piece of toasted baguette, floating in the sea of the stew.
Cooked potatoes reserved from bouillabaisse preparation
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 pinches saffron
Salt and pepper
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
Baguette, sliced on a bias and toasted.
1. Put the potatoes in a bowl. Add the garlic, saffron, cayenne pepper and eggs, and purée the ingredients in a blender or food processor (or crush and whisk them together).
2. Using a whisk, add ¼ cup of olive oil very slowly, add a little fish broth to thin, if necessary, and season according to taste.
Finishing and Presenting the Bouillabaisse
1. Remove the shrimp from the marinating fish. Put the fish mixture in a pot over high heat. Lightly salt, cover and bring to the boiling point. Add the clams, mussels and shrimp, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 2 minutes.
Take some of the broth and add it to the uni; stir vigorously to make a thick paste. Add this back into the soup, stir.
Turn off the heat and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes, until almost all of the clams and mussels have opened.
2. Gently set a few pieces of the fish and 2 or 3 shrimp per person in a warm serving bowl. Add the broth and garnish with the littleneck clams and mussels. Ladle just a little more broth over the top and garnish with the chiffonade of basil. Serve the toasts topped with the rouille on top of the soup or on the side.