Bouillabaisse is a preparation I am very passionate about, so if you don’t have a few minutes to kill I’d suggest navigating to another website… or better yet, go fly a kite.
There are probably as many variations on the bouillabaisse as there are chefs so it is nearly impossible for anyone to lay any claims to authenticity. And let me state now that this dish is certainly not attempting to.
A native dish to Marseilles, bouillabaisse was created by fishermen who would cook their fish and shellfish catches in a cauldron set over a fire on the beaches. Conjugating the word arrives you at bouiller – to boil, and abaisser – to reduce. The one staying point is that the fish is meant to be cooked in liquid and at a quick pace. Another agreed on standard is that a bouillabaisse must include rascasse or scorpion fish.
Though rascasse is not readily available in the states and only obtainable at an astronomical cost, I was able to obtain another reef fish, strawberry grouper. So I begin to hang my head in disgrace for bastardizing the true bouillabaisse.
At Le Cirque I was eternally responsible for making the weekly batch and it consisted of monkfish, snapper, bass, lobster, shrimp, mussels and clams that were all marinated overnight in a spicy tomato sauce flavored with pernod and saffron. For the broth, we used cleaned bones and heads from the snapper or striped bass, onions, fennel, garlic, tomatoes, red pepper flakes, olive oil, white wine, pernod and water. Once it was cooked, it would be pureed with an immersion blender and passed through a sieve again and again. The fish would then be cooked in this, poured into a copper sautoir, garnished with boiled potatoes, a julienne of vegetables, batonette of chives and then sent out to the dining room to be serviced table side with garlic croutons and rouille.
During the time between the closing of the original Le Cirque and the re-opening of Le Cirque 2000, I spent a brief time as the chef of Chez Jacqueline in the Village. There, while making the soupe de poisson (fish soup), I adapted the technique of painstakingly picking the bones clean of their meat, discarding the bones, adding the meat back in to the broth, pureeing it, passing it through a food mill and then a china cap. To turn it into my present day bouillabaisse sauce I pass it again through a fine meshed chinois. Regarding the fish soup and not the bouillabaisse broth, I love the meatiness achieved from the coarser meshed strainer. The soup is truly a labor of love as it takes a great deal of energy to strain. This – along with drunken, 4am French onion soup – may very well be my all time favorite… I pretty much lived off of this and pastis for the several months I lived in Provence.
Not to be excluded – as it is also an indispensable addition to the bouillabaisse – are garlic croutons and rouille. They are dipped into the soup to soak before being spooned up. With the soupe de poisson, grated Gruyere cheese is also added.
Translated from French, rouille is the color rust, and relates back to its color. Though once again there are many interpretations, a rouille is classically an emulsion made in a mortar and pestle with garlic, olive oil, brad crumbs, saffron and peppers. It is very rare though to find one made without the addition of an egg yolk in the style of a mayonnaise. Indeed, this is how mine was made (and not with a mortar and pestle).
In this rendition – and I have done many variations over the years - we have a seared scallop (again fuel for the French to hate Americans… as I wrote above, it’s all supposed to be boiled). Octopus, mussels and the strawberry grouper are all close enough to form. The strawberry grouper was wrapped in zucchini and plastic wrap, rolled up, and tied. This along with the other 2 ingredients were simmered in the broth. The plate is then finished with blanched and peeled teardrop tomatoes and fork crushed potatoes seasoned with olive oil. The broth is then poured into the bowl table side.