Bouillabaisse has the power to transport me to the Vieux Port de Marseilles in a single bite. It’s a hearty, brothy fish stew with a near-perfect flavor balance of fresh seafood, safron, fennel, and orange, served with rouilles lathered croutons. Just one taste and I hear the calls of waiters enticing me into their bistros as sailboat halyards ping against masts in the background. The Marseillais take their bouillabaisse (pronounced boo-ya-behs) very seriously and claim that it cannot be made anywhere else. Not so. I’ve lived in France, and I know from experience that a wonderful bouillabaisse can be made in any kitchen in any country.
The foundation of a great bouillabaisse is the fish broth. It’s traditional to make it with several fish varieties so each can add its own flavor. You don’t, however, need to import fish from the Mediterranean. Instead, buy the freshest sustainable fish available to you locally, and pass the cooked broth ingredients through a food mill so you get every last drop of flavor from them. It makes all the difference.
The rest of the soup comes together easily: Marinate four kinds of white fish fillets and then poach them in the fish broth. Cook the potatoes in the broth, too. Simple croutons topped with rouille—a coarse paste of garlic, cayenne, breadcrumbs, cooked potato, fish broth, and olive oil—bring a garlicky note to the dish and soak up the fragrant broth.
Sure, bouillabaisse takes an afternoon to make, but it’s a showstopping all-in-one meal that’s absolutely worth the effort. Try it, and you’ll soon feel the warm Mediterranean breeze and hear the slap of the waves against the fishing boats in the harbor—all without leaving home.
Eight steps to a showstopping bouillabaisse
Choose Lean, Firm White Fish
If the Marseillais had their way, bouillabaisse would be made with at least four (but preferably more) varieties of local Mediterranean fish, including scorpion fish, conger eel, sea robin, and monkfish. It would also be made only within 100 kilometers of the city.
But the truth is, any combination of four fresh, lean, moderately firm varieties of white fish will make a delicious bouillabaisse. (Look for local and sustainable choices; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide are two reliable sources for information.) Some good options:
• Atlantic pollock (wild, domestic or Canadian)
• Barramundi (farmed, domestic)
• Black rockfish (also known as black rock cod and black snapper; hook-and-line caught, Alaska)
• Black sea bass (wild, north- and mid-Atlantic waters)
• Halibut (wild, Pacific)
• Pacific cod (bottom longline-caught, domestic)
• Pacific lingcod (not actually a cod, but a member of the greenling family; wild, domestic or Canadian)
• Porgy (also known as scup; wild, Atlantic)
• Sablefish (also known as black cod; wild, Alaska or British Columbia)
• Striped bass (wild or farmed, domestic)
Serve Bouillabaisse as a One-Bowl Meal
In France, bouillabaisse is most often eaten in restaurants, where it’s served as a two-course meal. First, bowls of the aromatic fish broth are served with rouille croutons floating on top. Then, cooked whole fish are presented on a platter and filleted tableside. It’s a dramatic presentation, to be sure, but it’s not very practical for the home cook.
My bouillabaisse is served plated, with fish, broth, potatoes, and croutons in each bowl for an all-in-one meal. Use wide, shallow soup bowls for the best presentation. In a nod to tradition, I put the fish skin side up in each bowl to show off the different types of fish (plus, it’s pretty that way). I like to serve additional fish broth in a warm sauce pitcher, and pass around bowls of extra croutons and rouille, too.