Different variations of bouillabaisse abound along the Mediterranean coast – every village seems to have its own version – and almost any combination of fish and shellfish can be used.
It helps for people to know that bouillabaisse du pecheur was originally prepared using sea water, which was boiled up on the beach while the fishermen were untangling their nets. When the water boiled, in went the fish that were destined for the soup, along with fennel, tomatoes and so on, to cook. Once the work of untangling the nets was done, the bouillabaisse would be ready and the fishermen and their families could sit down and eat. It was only later that the original bouillabaisse underwent the various refinements that we use today.
It is worth pointing out that spiny lobsters can never be seen as an essential ingredient of bouillabaisse because it was originally a very simple dish to use up the fish that were either damaged or had not been sold. It might be stretched to feed all the family by adding potatoes.
There are certain ground rules that must be adhered to:
- The freshness of the fish is the prime rule.
- The variety and quantity of fish contribute decisively to the quantity of the stock on which the soup is based. All the fish are cooked fresh to order.
- Pure, genuine saffron is essential (strictly speaking, neither paprika nor herbs of Provence add anything of benefit to a bouillabaisse).
Mediterranean Fish Stew - Bouillabaisse
- 2-3 pound white fish, such as sea bass, basa, snapper, or monkfish filled and skinned (choose thick fish)
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- grated rind of one orange
- 1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
- pinch of saffron threads
- 2 tbsp Pernod (or other anise-flavored liqueur)
- 1 small fennel bulb, finely chopped
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- ½ pound small new potatoes, sliced
- 1 pound mussels
- 1 dozen small clams
- croutons, to serve
- For the stock:
- 2-3 pound fish heads, bones, and trimmings
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 leeks, sliced
- 1 onion halved and sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, cored and sliced
- 1 ½ pound ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
- 4 garlic cloves, sliced
- bouquet garni
- the rind of ½ orange, removed with a vegetable peeler
- 2 or 3 pinches of saffron threads
- For The Rouille:
- 2/3 cup soft white breadcrumbs
- 1 or 2 garlic cloves very finely chopped
- ½ red bell pepper roasted
- 1 tsp tomato paste
- ½ cup extra virgin oil
Cut the fish fillets into serving pieces, then trim off any thin parts and reserve for the stock.
Put the fish in a bowl with 2 tbsp of the olive oil, orange rind, garlic, saffron, and liqueur.
Turn to coat well, cover and chill.
To make the stock:
Mix the fish heads and bones under cold running water.
Heat the olive oil in a large, preferable stainless steel, saucepan or flameproof casserole.
Add the leeks, onion, and pepper and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes until the onion starts to soften, stirring occasionally.
Add the fish heads, bones, and trimmings, with any heads or shells from the shrimp.
Then add the tomatoes, garlic, orange rind, saffron and enough cold water to cover the ingredients by 1 inch.
Bring to a boil, skimming any foam that rises to the surface, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered for ½ hour, skimming once or twice more. Strain the stock.
To make the rouille:
Soak the breadcrumbs in water then squeeze dry.
Put the breadcrumbs in a food processor with the garlic, roasted red bell pepper, and tomato paste and process until smooth.
With the machine running, slowly pour the oil through the feed tube scraping down the sides once or twice.
To finish the bouillabaisse:
Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a wide fireproof casserole over medium heat.
Cook the fennel and onion for about 5 minutes until the onion just softens then add the stock.
Bring to a boil add the potatoes and cook for 5-7 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add the fish, starting with the thickest pieces and adding thinner ones after 2 or 3 minutes.
Add the mussels and clams and continue simmering gently until all the fish and shellfish are cooked.
TiffanyApril 5, 2012 at 12:33 am
That sounds like an absolutely wonderful dish, and as usual, your photography is exquisite!
YelenaApril 5, 2012 at 12:46 am
Thank you Tiffany!
MarinaApril 6, 2012 at 4:07 am
It's amazing how time transforms the dish from being a poor men meal to an exquisite top of the line seafood dish! You've chosen a beautiful color for presentation, and my favorite color too!
Spicie FoodieApril 6, 2012 at 9:29 pm
I love, love Mediterranean fish stew. Yours looks divine! Thanks for sharing the great tips and background history. Had no idea that the sea water was what was used, interesting. Have a great weekend!
Rowena Dumlao-GiardinaApril 13, 2012 at 11:16 am
How I love bouillabaisse! I tried it the first time in a very small town close to Marseilles. It was unforgettable. Thank you for the history of this dish. It's always nice to know how the food came about. I think they use seawater in a fish stew version in Greece too. Cheers!
CarlaNovember 8, 2013 at 9:56 pm
Truly beautiful recipe and pictures! I was born in Marseille, home of the original Bouillabaisse (Toulon will say they were the first but you can't believe anything they say lol), and my grandmother used to make this at Christmas since she was a little girl (her father was a fisherman). I was looking for a recipe in English to send a friend and I have never found one that is so close to the authentic recipe, with all its complex flavors and simple techniques.
Thanks for the trip back in time, I can almost smell it!
melangeryNovember 8, 2013 at 10:04 pm
O Carla, thank you for your wonderful comment! One day I love to travel to France and taste all delicious dishes that I heard so much about. I love everything about France, I wish I was born there-)) It is so nice to meet you! Please visit me again-)