Fish stews—bouillabaisse, cioppino, chowder, bisque, fish head soup, and so on—are some of my favorite meals. Don’t let the authenticity police scare you into passing on such hearty and satisfying fare. These dishes are meant to be simple, to let the ingredients speak for themselves, even when we gussy them up with pretension.
In Marseilles, partisans have been arguing over the ingredients and presentation of a proper bouillabaisse for as long as anyone can remember. Ignore the guy who tells you you’re doing it wrong if you don’t use a freakin’ rascasse fer chrissakes. (The rascasse, also called a scorpionfish, is a Mediterranean species often used in bouillabaisse…in southern France.) Nor do you need to serve it in two courses, with rouille.
The point of dishes like bouillabaisse or cioppino is to use whatever is fresh and on hand. In fact, I’d bet the origin of these dishes is probably less palatable than many would like to believe. The fish were probably those left unsold by the fishmonger or on the verge of being…shall we say…less than perfectly fresh. Perhaps they were bycatch on the boat, the sort of fishes that wouldn’t earn the fishermen any money. Into the stew pot they went, along with whatever else was lying around: onions, garlic, tomato, maybe a fennel bulb.
Since it’s the 21st century and most of us won’t be cooking this dish on board a fishing vessel at an ungodly hour in between sets, we needn’t worry about making use of deck flotsam. We should try to find the best, freshest fish available wherever we live. I happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, not on the Mediterranean, so it makes sense to use local Puget Sound shellfish and cold-water finned fish from the North Pacific. I was in Cordova, Alaska, last week for opening day of the Copper River salmon season. Instead of bringing home a box full of sockeye or king like everyone else on my Alaska Airlines flight, I nabbed me some halibut, which yielded four beautiful fillets and a carcass begging to be used for stock. (The salmon was too valuable as income for my hosts to give away.)
A mix of fish makes a more interesting bouillabaisse. Along with the halibut, I added Alaskan rockfish, Penn Cove mussels, and shrimp. Other choices in my region might include lingcod, Pacific cod, pollock, flounder, Dungeness crab, manila clams, and spot shrimp. You could use salmon, but the strong and distinctive flavor would overwhelm the other ingredients. My nods to tradition included fennel, saffron, and orange zest, though I didn’t bother with leeks or Pernod (though a licorice fern infusion could have given it that extra touch of anise flavor).
You can use store-bought fish stock or clam juice, but a homemade stock is best—a good excuse for buying that whole fish at the market and saving a bunch of money by filleting it yourself and using the scraps for stock.
1 (or more) white-fleshed fish carcass (enough to fill bottom of pot)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 or 2 celery ribs, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
1 handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
Cover fish carcass (in this case, halibut) with water. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add onion, carrot, celery, white wine, bay leaf, thyme, parsley. Simmer together another 20 minutes, until fish flesh is easily separated from the bones. Add more water if necessary. Season and strain. Yield: 1 quart.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine (or splash of Pernod)
2-3 cups tomatoes, cut up
1 pinch saffron
1 pinch hot red pepper flakes
2 tsp orange zest
1 quart fish stock (see above)
3-4 lbs assorted white fish fillets cut into pieces and shellfish
1 handful parsley, chopped
In a pot, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté onion and fennel until softened. Deglaze with a splash of white wine. Add garlic, tomatoes, saffron, pepper flakes, and orange zest. Raise heat to medium-high and cook together a few minutes. Stir in 1 quart fish stock and bring to low boil. Add fish fillet pieces and cook several minutes (depending on thickness). Note: if using a mixture of firm fish and softer fish, add in stages to allow even cooking. Lastly, add shellfish and cover. When the shellfish are cooked, stir in parsley and remove from heat. Ladle immediately over crusty bread (optional: toast bread and rub with cut garlic). Serves 4.