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A Bouillabaisse Legend for Eight

May 19, 1988|ANNE WILLAN

Why should bouillabaisse be limited to the Mediterranean? It is, after all, nothing more than a fish stew, albeit a particularly successful one.

The glowing colors of tomato and saffron, the pungent flavors of fennel, garlic and bay leaf, all unite with half a dozen different fish to create what has become a legend.

The legend can easily be recreated at home. What matters is the freshness and variety of the fish, not the exact species. So, the other day I searched our fish market here in Washington, for firm white fish, plus a rich fish or two to balance flavor, I settled for bass, porgy and bluefish, all locally caught and glistening fresh with bright eyes.

For your own local version, alternatives might be cod, pollack, shark, tilefish or whitefish--none of them are very expensive. To my bouillabaisse I added a couple of dozen Chesapeake soft-shell clams instead of the mussels used in France: either do well. Finally, I have to admit I abandoned budget and included shrimp and scallops--not classic but oh so good.

The key in making the stew is to simmer fish trimmings and heads for a flavorful broth in which to cook the fish. Meanwhile, the fish is marinated with olive oil, garlic and the all-important saffron, while leek and fennel are cooked with bacon to form a base for the stew. Finally, just before serving, all are combined and boiled rapidly so the olive oil and broth emulsify and thicken to be deliciously rich.

Bouillabaisse is a meal in itself, especially with my addition of noodles, ideal for serving in or out of doors. Classic accompaniments are garlic French bread and rouille , a pungent mayonnaise you can re-create at home by adding half a dozen garlic cloves and a finely chopped hot red chile pepper to regular mayonnaise. The bread should be sliced, brushed with olive oil, rubbed with garlic and then baked until crisp in a low oven.

If you added chilled melon as an appetizer, and a dessert of fresh goat cheese and almond tartlets or macaroons, the feast is complete.

FEAST OF FISH FOR 8 Chilled Fresh Melon Washington Bouillabaisse Garlic Bread Rouille Mayonnaise Fresh Goat Cheese Almond Tartlets or Macaroons Suggested wine: White or rose. Bouillabaisse is cooked at the last moment, but all preparations can be made ahead.

Up to 12 hours ahead marinate fish. Make broth and cook vegetables for bouillabaisse. Make garlic bread. Flavor mayonnaise with garlic and chile pepper. Chill melon and wine.

About 15 minutes before serving cook bouillabaisse.

WASHINGTON BOUILLABAISSE

1 1/2 pounds bluefish, or other rich fish fillets, with head and bones

1 1/2 pounds sea bass, or other lean fish fillets, with heads and bones

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and shells reserved

1/2 pound bay scallops

Olive oil

4 onions, sliced

4 bay leaves

5 cloves garlic, chopped

Dash saffron soaked in 2 tablespoons hot water

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt, pepper

1/2 pound bacon, diced

2 leeks, washed, sliced, including some green

3 large fennel bulbs, chopped

1 sprig thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

3 whole star anise

3 quarts water

1 pound plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

4 ounces dry noodles

24 fresh steamer clams or mussels, cleaned

Cut fish fillets in 1 1/2-inch pieces. Add to shrimp and scallops in bowl. Combine 1/4 cup olive oil with 1 sliced onion, 2 bay leaves, 1 1/2 cloves chopped garlic, saffron and liquid, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Pour over fish mixture in bowl. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 2 to 12 hours.

Fry bacon until fat runs in large skillet. Add leeks, fennel, 1 sliced onion, 1 1/2 cloves chopped garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Press piece of foil on top. Bake at 350 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes.

To make fish broth, saute remaining 2 sliced onions in 3 tablespoons olive oil until tender. Add fish bones and heads, shrimp shells, remaining 2 cloves chopped garlic, remaining 2 bay leaves, thyme, anise and water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes.

Strain broth into saucepan. Stir in bacon mixture. Return to simmer. Add tomatoes and parsley. Simmer 10 minutes. Broth and fish may be prepared up to 12 hours ahead and refrigerated.

About 15 minutes before serving, bring broth to boil. Add noodles. Simmer about 5 minutes. Add fish, starting with rich fish, then firm fish, then shrimp and scallops and finally clams. Boil, uncovered, until fish just flakes easily and clams open, 5 to 7 minutes. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Spoon into bowls. Makes 8 servings.

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