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Papa’s Bouillabaisse


When autumn arrives and just about every male I know is heading to the hunting camp, I think of my father. He was an avid hunter, fisherman AND a great cook. He loved nothing better than cooking over a wood fire at THE camp. His repertoire included duck and sausage gumbo, goose and oyster gumbo, and a bouillabaisse that he made with whatever fish—bream, sac-a-lait, redfish or speckled trout—he snagged on his line.

I hope you’ll indulge me and allow me to share this story with you. Perhaps it will inspire you to make your very own bouillabaisse.

I well remember the ritual that went with making his bouillabaisse. My mother would set his ingredients—chopped onions, chopped bell peppers, tomatoes—on a folding table besides his fire pit.

With a cold beer never far from his reach, he would assemble the ingredients in his beloved black iron pot. Then he covered the pot, made sure the fire was just so, grabbed for another cold beer, then tell us the story about bouillabaisse. The tale never varied, but we knew better than to tell him we had heard it many times before.

According to Papa, the first bouillabaisse was made in Marseilles, France and it was concocted with their local ingredients of racasse (a small fish), crabs and potatoes. And it was purported to be the creation by two fishermen, who were disputing as they sat in their boat as to the proper way of cooking fish. One succeeded in making a dish that would have gladdened the heart of any French bon vivant, but the other failed. The successful one enthusiastically offered to teach his friend, and as the latter was following the directions implicitly and the finishing touches were being added to the dish, the teacher seeing that the important and crucial moment had come, cried out, brining down his hand emphatically, “et quant ca commence a bouiller, baisse. (And when it begins to boil, lower the flame.) Hence the name “bouillabaisse” was given to the dish from that moment.

In later years when I became involved in the food business, I was intrigued how the dish developed in south Louisiana. It seems that when the first Frenchmen came to Louisiana they brought a great love for bouillabaisse to a place that had none of the ingredients necessary for making it. There was no racasse, no eels or lobsters. But the Frenchmen found that they could get crabs from Lake Pontchartrain, and oysters, shrimp, red snapper and pompano from the Gulf of Mexico. They could still make a fish and shellfish stew even if they had to use different raw ingredients.

So here is Papa’s version. When he was at the camp at Cypremort Point on Vermilion Bay, he used saltwater fish as well as a handful of fresh shrimp and some lump crabmeat he picked from the crabs he caught at the end of the pier.

He often made a rouille, a garlic flavored mayonnaise to spoon into the bouillabaisse. In Provence, the rouille (meaning rust which refers to the color of the mixture), is really a paste made with garlic, saffron, mayonnaise, sweet paprika and pepper.

  • Makes 8 servings
  • 2 ½ pounds fish fillets, like snapper, redfish, or speckled trout
  • Salt and cayenne
  • 3 cups coarsely chopped yellow onions
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped green bell peppers
  • 2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 stick butter
  • 2 (1-pound) cans whole tomatoes, mashed with their can juices
  • 1 pound medium-size shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 8 slices French bread, toasted

Rouille (recipe follows)

Season the fillets generously with salt and cayenne.

Combine the onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic in a bowl and season with salt and cayenne.

Heat the butter in a deep, heavy pot over medium heat. Put two to three fillets of fish in the bottom of the pot in the butter. Then add one-third of the vegetable mixture, then one-third of the tomatoes. Continue making the layers until all the ingredients are used. Put the shrimp, crabmeat and bay leaves over the final layer. Pour in the wine, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for one hour (do not remove the lid).

To serve, put a slice of French bread in the bottom of a soup bowl, then ladle the soup over it and pass the rouille.

  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to blend.

Now, for an authentic bouillabaisse, it’s best to go to Provence, France where it all began. I snitched this recipe from 1996 issue of SAVEUR Magazine. The writer of the article had indeed travel to the port of Sanary-sur-Mer, right down the coast from Marseille. But again, I had to “make-do” with our local seafood.

According to Lucien Vitiello, who supplied the recipe to the magazine, it’s not what fish you use, but how many kinds that counts. A good fish stock is important as well. That recipe follows after the bouillabaisse.

  • 1 baguette, about 24 inches long, cut into ½-inch thick slices
  • 7 cloves garlic, peeled (2 left whole, 5 crushed)
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced
  • 3 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¼ cup fennel tops or coarsely chopped fennel bulbs
  • 2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and sliced
  • 1 ½ pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 5 to 6 pounds cleaned assorted fish, like red snapper, grouper, monkfish, stripped bass, and speckled trout
  • 8 small blue point crabs (optional)
  • 16 large shrimp
  • 2 ½ quarts warm fish stock
  • 1 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • ½ cup Pernod
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rouille (Use the recipe from above)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the bread on a cookie sheet and toast until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Rub with whole garlic while still warm. Set aside.

Pour half of the oil into a 10 to 12 quart pot. Add the onions, crushed garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf and fennel. Add the potatoes, then the tomatoes. Add the fish, then the shrimp.

Pour in the stock and the remaining oil. Add the saffron and Pernod, season with salt and pepper and place over high heat. The ingredients will cook as bouillabaisse comes to a boil. After five minutes, start checking and transfer the seafood as it cooks, then the potatoes, to a platter. This can take up to 25 minutes.

Strain the soup and for the first course, spread the rouille on the toast, place three pieces in each warm soup bowl. For the second course, serve a platter of fish and potatoes at room temperature. Moisten with additional soup and add a dollop of rouille if you wish.

Serves 8

Now for that fish stock.

  • Makes 2 ½ quarts
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped leeks (white parts only)
  • 1 chopped fennel bulb
  • 1 chopped rib celery
  • 2 medium-size carrots, chopped
  • Chopped zest of half an orange
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 3 coarsely chopped tomatoes
  • 4 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 6 pounds fish carcasses with heads, broken
  • 1 bottle dry white wine
  • 4 quarts water

Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add the leeks, fennel, celery, carrots and orange zest. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, parsley, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add the fish carcasses, the white wine and the water. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium and simmer uncovered for 1 hour, skimming off foam as it rises.

Allow the stock to cool, then strain through a fine strainer, return to the pot and reduce by about half over medium-high heat for 30 minutes. Use immediately for freeze.

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