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
Toast the croutons in the oven until golden; then turn the oven off and let them dry completely.
Add water to the aromatics, vegetables, herbs,spices, and fish parts to make the broth.
To extract flavor and give the broth body, grind the cooked broth ingredients in a food mill.
The oil in the broth separates, so use an immersion blender to emulsify it, or whisk vigorously.
For even more fennel flavor, drizzle the fish fillets with pastis (an anise-flavored liqueur) before cooking.
Parcook the potatoes in the fish broth (they should still feel slightly firm when cut into); then let them finish cooking off-heat in the hot broth.
To make the rouille, mash garlic, breadcrumbs, broth, cooked potato, and olive oil in a mortar.
Use a paring knife to check the fish for doneness—the flesh should be opaque throughout.
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)