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The 'Bouilla' Tribe

September 23, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Too few of us, perhaps, feel that the breaking of bread, the sharing of salt, the common dipping into one bowl, mean more than satisfaction of a need. We make such primal things as casual as tunes heard over a radio, forgetting the mystery and strength ... M. F.K. Fisher

Judith was the one to suggest bouillabaise. "I'll make the soup part," she offered, "If you all bring the fish."

Alan spoke up immediately: "Let's get this straight: You make the 'bouilla' and we bring the 'baise'?" Precisely.

For six months, our Unitarian Universalist writing group had met before church most Sundays to write on a variety of spiritual topics. We'd bonded into a smallish community and felt it was time to have some kind of social event outside of the class.

As the group's leader, I had considered cooking a dinner, but the size of the group, 12 to 15 people, was formidable. And we weren't thrilled at the prospect of the usual church potluck. Just when we were about to give up and assign salads, main dishes and desserts by alphabetical grouping, Judith had her brainstorm.

As the date for our dinner approached, Judith began to make suggestions, to drop hints at class. Shellfish would be good to bring, she said, and the fish we brought should be firm, not too flaky, not something that breaks apart too easily. In fact, maybe it would be a good idea if we all said ahead of time what we were bringing, to make certain that there was enough diversity and that everybody wasn't bringing the same thing.

We teased her gently: Was she, perhaps, being too controlling? Even a little, well, flaky? We told her that she might have more trust in the group, that the stew would turn out precisely as it was supposed to turn out. Hey, this was bouillabaise as an act of faith.

Judith bought several large fish heads from her fish market. She made a strong stock and then reduced it way down, by at least a third, if not half. To the stock, she added sauteed vegetables, fresh thyme, bay leaves.

One person brought homemade bread. One person brought a large green salad. One person brought chips and dip.

The remaining nine of us brought fish. As it happened, we brought nine different kinds of fish. We couldn't have planned it more perfectly had we actually planned it: There was shellfish, shrimp and firm-fleshed fish. One person, of course, brought Dover sole, the exact kind of soft, delicate fish that you don't really want in a boillabaise--isn't there always someone in every group who has to defy authority, eschew directions no matter how benign and restrained such directions may be?

As we gathered, there was a bit of preparation: Shellfish was scrubbed. Fish was unwrapped, cut into large chunks. A few of us peeled and deveined a pound of medium shrimp in about five minutes.

The "bouilla" was bubbling gently in a wide Dutch oven. One by one, we added our contribution to the common pot. Order was determined by how long it would take our fish to cook. Clams and mussels went in first; when they began to open, the firmest fish, yellowtail and swordfish, were added. Then salmon, snapper, pre-boiled crab. We placed the sole in at the very last, but the very stirring involved in serving caused it to break down, fuse into the stock. Scallops were set in the bottom of the bowls to cook as the hot soup was ladled in.

After only the briefest of cooking times, we filled our bowls. We spooned on rouille , a powerful blast of ground peppers, chile, garlic and lemon.

We sat, bowls in our laps, and ate. It was a good mix: Judith's soup, Nancy's shrimp, Chand's snapper, Irene's scallops, my clams . . . not to mention a bit of sole in every bite.

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This is a collaborative effort. One guest can bring a large green salad; another can bring good crusty bread. A third can bring Rouille--or you can make it yourself ahead of time. The remaining eight to 10 guests are each invited to bring one pound of fresh fish. The fish can be shellfish or a firm, not-too-flaky fish--clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, scallops, mahi mahi, yellowfish, swordfish, shark...

The host's part, the "Bouilla," can be prepared several hours in advance of the guests' arrival. You prepare the Fish Stock first. Notice that the stock uses the trimmings of fennel, parsley and leeks that are added at a later stage of the recipe. As the stock reduces, you can begin preparing the "Bouilla."

If you prepare the Rouille yourself, the bread crumbs for it can be made fresh in a food processor.

You'll see why a wide-bottomed Dutch oven is highly recommended during the last stage: In a deep stockpot, the fish is layered, then stirred around and broken down as the server digs for an assortment. In a wider-bottomed pot, more fish is laid out, displayed.

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