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The golden bowl

Outside the Mediterranean, this may be the best place to make bouillabaisse. With our rockfish and wild fennel, it's a natural.

September 29, 2004|Daniel Young | Special to The Times

Say "bouillabaisse" to a knowledgeable cook and you're likely to hear, "We can't make that here. We don't have the right fish."

French food purists will tell you you need rascasse, that terrible-looking scorpionfish that lends the broth its velvety body and deep flavor. Or at the very least, chapon -- another ugly scorpionfish -- not to mention galinette, also known as gurnard.

Chapon? Galinette? Not to panic, mes amis. The truth is that outside the Mediterranean, Southern California may be the best place in the world to make bouillabaisse. Not only do we have excellent stand-ins for scorpionfish right here in the Pacific (and waiting to be purchased -- often even live -- at many Asian markets), but we also have wild fennel, which, if you haven't noticed, is everywhere. Make bouillabaisse in New York or Massachusetts or Florida and you'll have to run around and look for that bottle of Ricard instead.

Widely accepted as having originated in the Provencal city of Marseille, bouillabaisse is a luscious, soupy seafood stew with a rich fish broth flavored with onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, leeks, orange peel, basil, thyme, bay leaf, potatoes and wild fennel. Subtle it's not: Bouillabaisse is a jazzy ensemble in which all these assertive flavors are heard.

Another thing it's not: a bowlful of tomato-based broth garnished with chunks of expensive seafood such as lobster, shrimp and scallops. Salmon is heresy. The croutons belong under the surface, not on top, and never, ever should it be topped with grated cheese. This last misstep is fine if you're talking about soupe de poisson, a generic name for French seafood soup, but cheese and bouillabaisse should not be uttered in the same breath.

Real bouillabaisse is very Marseille -- unpretentious, rough and hearty. Neither fancy nor refined, it came into the world as a simple meal assembled by hungry, resourceful fishermen. The juices extracted from the skin and bones of boiled fish give the broth a thick, distinctive, almost cloudy texture and a fresh, profound, rustic taste of the sea.

And that is where the rascasse comes in. Conventional wisdom says that to get a dish remotely similar to the one you'd find in Marseille, the broth must be made with the tiny Mediterranean scorpionfish whose tough skin and bones are boiled and extracted to create the broth.

With its chubby forward body, big head, protruding eyes, coarse flesh and venomous spines, the rascasse is one ugly, unsalable specimen. No wonder Marseille fishermen made soup out of it instead. Hiding out around the rocky, craggy coastline in depths as low as 1,000 feet (hence the big eyes and tough skin), the rascasse flourishes on a diverse diet of Mediterranean crustaceans. Its skin and bones give a distinctive taste and gelatinous texture to fish soup. There's nothing quite like it.

In Southern California, though, a Pacific variety of rascasse, California scorpionfish -- also known as sculpin -- lurks in the tide pools, kelp forests and rocky bottoms just offshore. Although the sculpin's flesh is a bit milder in flavor than that of its French kin, the gelatinous juices extracted from the skin, bones and fat heads enrich the broth just the same and produce a California bouillabaisse that is deliciously true to the spirit of the original.

According to the Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, a 1980 charter drawn up and signed by 11 restaurants, bouillabaisse must be prepared with at least four of the following fish to be genuine: rascasse, chapon (also known as rascasse rouge), monkfish, John Dory, galinette (gurnard, one of the mullet family) and fielas (conger eel). No serious restaurant chef or home cook near the coast of Provence would consider making a bouillabaisse without rascasse or chapon.

Although many of us know (or don't know) bouillabaisse from having ordered it in restaurants, in Marseille it's not particularly known as a restaurant dish, the Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise notwithstanding. To the Marseillais, fishermen at heart if not by trade, a bouillabaisse is a festive, convivial, lazy, all-day Sunday experience best enjoyed at home with friends and family who vie for their favorite types and parts of fish as Americans would with a holiday turkey. Their favorite places to make and eat it is in cabanons -- makeshift beach, harbor and hillside cabins that have sprouted over the years like wild fennel along Marseille's long, rocky coastline.

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