If there ever was a robust dish that also was endowed with elegance, it is bouillabaisse, a humble peasant soup-stew that has climbed in stature to become one of the great dishes of the world.
So great is its reputation that one would not hesitate to serve bouillabaisse to best and dearest friends at the finest party during the holiday season or anytime.
If you consult Webster's, you will find that bouillabaisse is from the French words bouli, meaning "to boil" and abaisser, meaning "to settle." Basically, the catch of the day--or whatever was left of the catch--was boiled in what became the soup that was eaten. There are numerous versions of bouillabaisse throughout the Mediterranean coast, where this and numerous other fish soup-stews originated.
Some bouillabaisses are flavored with a touch of fennel and orange. These flavorings are generally omitted in bouillabaisses from the Atlantic coast of France. Others are made black with squid ink and in some regions of Provence, the addition of white wine is a constant. There are some bouillabaisses served with peppery potato or bread-based garlic sauce called rouille, which is either added to the soup as a seasoning or spread on the toast served with the bouillabaisse. Michele Guerard, of slim-cuisine fame, has dubbed the sauce "rust sauce" because of its rusty-red color, even though some versions are white, or essentially colorless. Some bouillabaisses are served with fish in the soup, whereas in others, the fish is added separately.
The presentation simply depends on the cook, and where you happen to be dining.
Along the Cote d'Azur, bouillabaisse is the star attraction of many fish restaurants. At a place called Nounou at Golfe Juan (the inspiration for the version pictured on page 1), the presentation inspires a do-it-yourself-party. It's a meal of many parts, which are assembled by the diner.
This is how it works.
The bouillabaisse arrives at the table with only the soup in the tureen and the seafood on a platter on top of the tureen. A tray of toasted French bread slices is accompanied by a small bowl of the rouille, a saucer filled with whole cloves garlic, a small tub of butter and a few radishes and olives to nibble on.
First, diners place some of the seafood from the common platter in their soup bowls. Then they rub a clove of garlic on the toasted French bread and the toast is placed on top of the seafood. The next step is to ladle some of the soup into the bowl and sprinkle it with grated Gruyere cheese. The rouille is passed, to be added to the soup as a seasoning-thickener, if desired. Adjustments of soup and seafood are up to the diners thereafter.
The little nibbles--radishes and olives--to keep the diners' palates entertained throughout the meal are optional. One may serve a green salad as an accompaniment or not, especially if the crudites are added to the menu. A tart tatin, made with whole apples and topped with vanilla ice cream, can also be part of the menu, as it was at Nounou. The recipes for the salad and dessert are given here for those who want to round out a menu. Any fruit tart may be served, however.
At Nounou, the bouillabaisse was served with a lovely young Beaujolais nouveau, but rose or dry white wine, such as Cotes du Rhone, or even California Chardonnay or Chablis are fine.
Although the preceding version of bouillabaisse is typical of the Provence area, most Americans are more familiar with versions of bouillabaisse in which seafood and soup are served together. According to Daniel Forge owner/chef of Beau Rivage in Malibu, the custom of serving fish in the soup stemmed from the staffing difficulties as well as lack of skill in handling shelled and bony fish. "It became easier to simply add the fish to the soup," Forge said.
One of the convenient features of bouillabaisse or any fish stew is that the dish does not require long cooking because fish itself should not be cooked longer than necessary, usually within minutes. Overcooking destroys the texture of fish, causing the protein to become rubbery.
The soup base can be made a day ahead, using scraps of fish heads and bones from the fish market's dump-out bin. Since the seafood meant to be eaten with the soup is added to the base shortly before serving, and since the soup's flavor improves markedly if allowed to meld, it would not be unthinkable to make the broth portion of the soup the day before and add a new batch of seafood meant to be eaten at serving time. You may, for this reason, want to make an extra batch of the soup to serve the following day or freeze some to use later.