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Bouillabaisse : It began as...

Times Staff Writer

If there ever was a robust dish that also was endowed with elegance, it is bouillabaisse, a humble peasant soup-stew that has climbed in stature to become one of the great dishes of the world.

So great is its reputation that one would not hesitate to serve bouillabaisse to best and dearest friends at the finest party during the holiday season or anytime.

If you consult Webster’s, you will find that bouillabaisse is from the French words bouli, meaning “to boil” and abaisser, meaning “to settle.” Basically, the catch of the day--or whatever was left of the catch--was boiled in what became the soup that was eaten. There are numerous versions of bouillabaisse throughout the Mediterranean coast, where this and numerous other fish soup-stews originated.

Some bouillabaisses are flavored with a touch of fennel and orange. These flavorings are generally omitted in bouillabaisses from the Atlantic coast of France. Others are made black with squid ink and in some regions of Provence, the addition of white wine is a constant. There are some bouillabaisses served with peppery potato or bread-based garlic sauce called rouille, which is either added to the soup as a seasoning or spread on the toast served with the bouillabaisse. Michele Guerard, of slim-cuisine fame, has dubbed the sauce “rust sauce” because of its rusty-red color, even though some versions are white, or essentially colorless. Some bouillabaisses are served with fish in the soup, whereas in others, the fish is added separately.

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The presentation simply depends on the cook, and where you happen to be dining.

Along the Cote d’Azur, bouillabaisse is the star attraction of many fish restaurants. At a place called Nounou at Golfe Juan (the inspiration for the version pictured on page 1), the presentation inspires a do-it-yourself-party. It’s a meal of many parts, which are assembled by the diner.

This is how it works.

The bouillabaisse arrives at the table with only the soup in the tureen and the seafood on a platter on top of the tureen. A tray of toasted French bread slices is accompanied by a small bowl of the rouille, a saucer filled with whole cloves garlic, a small tub of butter and a few radishes and olives to nibble on.

First, diners place some of the seafood from the common platter in their soup bowls. Then they rub a clove of garlic on the toasted French bread and the toast is placed on top of the seafood. The next step is to ladle some of the soup into the bowl and sprinkle it with grated Gruyere cheese. The rouille is passed, to be added to the soup as a seasoning-thickener, if desired. Adjustments of soup and seafood are up to the diners thereafter.

The little nibbles--radishes and olives--to keep the diners’ palates entertained throughout the meal are optional. One may serve a green salad as an accompaniment or not, especially if the crudites are added to the menu. A tart tatin, made with whole apples and topped with vanilla ice cream, can also be part of the menu, as it was at Nounou. The recipes for the salad and dessert are given here for those who want to round out a menu. Any fruit tart may be served, however.

At Nounou, the bouillabaisse was served with a lovely young Beaujolais nouveau, but rose or dry white wine, such as Cotes du Rhone, or even California Chardonnay or Chablis are fine.

Although the preceding version of bouillabaisse is typical of the Provence area, most Americans are more familiar with versions of bouillabaisse in which seafood and soup are served together. According to Daniel Forge owner/chef of Beau Rivage in Malibu, the custom of serving fish in the soup stemmed from the staffing difficulties as well as lack of skill in handling shelled and bony fish. “It became easier to simply add the fish to the soup,” Forge said.

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One of the convenient features of bouillabaisse or any fish stew is that the dish does not require long cooking because fish itself should not be cooked longer than necessary, usually within minutes. Overcooking destroys the texture of fish, causing the protein to become rubbery.

The soup base can be made a day ahead, using scraps of fish heads and bones from the fish market’s dump-out bin. Since the seafood meant to be eaten with the soup is added to the base shortly before serving, and since the soup’s flavor improves markedly if allowed to meld, it would not be unthinkable to make the broth portion of the soup the day before and add a new batch of seafood meant to be eaten at serving time. You may, for this reason, want to make an extra batch of the soup to serve the following day or freeze some to use later.

Any seafood may be added to bouillabaisse, except fatty type fish, such as cuttlefish or salmon. For an authentic bouillabaisse, any Mediterranean fish such as haddock, hake, halibut, skate, sole, conger eel, fresh cod, mullets, perch, shark and others may be used. Shellfish, such as lobster, langouste, shrimp, prawns, scallops, clams and mussels, may be used exclusively in bouillabaisse or combined with other fish. (Mussels and clams with shells that do not open should be discarded.) Squid or octopus also may be used.

Remember that the timing is crucial in maintaining ideal texture of fish. Large shellfish may require longer cooking than tender fish such as perch or sole. That is why you will find that shellfish is the first to be added to the soup base in the bouillabaisse recipes. Other fish, depending on their natural tenderness, are added progressively. Give the shellfish about five minutes before adding firm-fleshed fish such as eel or halibut. Cook another five minutes, then add more tender fish. The mussels, clams and shrimp are added during the final five minutes. All told, it should take no longer than 20 minutes for all the fish and shellfish to cook before it is served.

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All of the fish should be cut into manageable pieces for eating. The lobster can be cracked and ready to separate or cut as desired. The toast added to the bouillabaisse may be anything from croutons to sliced French bread that has been toasted plainly, or painted with oil or butter for added flavor before toasting. Allow two pieces of toast per soup plate, plus a few extra pieces for spreading with the rouille.

Cheese adds a flavor fillip to the soup. It can be any hard or semi-hard cheese, such as Parmesan or Romano cheese, as well as Gruyere.

In addition to the Provencal-style bouillabaisse and its suggested accompaniments, we also have included several recipes for classic American-style bouillabaisses and a typical fish stew-soup from Spain, as shared by Jean Leon and his executive chef, Emilio Nunez of La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills.

BOUILLABAISSE A LA RIVIERA

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1/4 cup olive oil

2 onions, chopped

1 leek, sliced

1 clove garlic

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8 cups water

2 pounds fish heads and bones

4 tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 potatoes

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Dash saffron

1 bay leaf

Few sprigs parsley

Salt, pepper

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Rouille

1 (1 1/2- to 2-pound) lobster

6 langouste

1 pound halibut or other firm-fleshed white fish, such as John Dory, pike or sea bass

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1 pound eel

1 pound sea scallops, halved or quartered

6 to 12 mussels or clams

12 whole cloves garlic

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12 to 16 slices French bread, oiled and toasted

1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Heat oil in large kettle. Add onions and leek and saute until onions are tender. Add garlic and saute lightly. Add water, fish heads and bones, tomatoes, potatoes, saffron, bay leaf and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer over medium heat 30 to 40 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Remove potatoes and set aside. Mash fish heads and other vegetables slightly, then strain into clean kettle, discarding fish bones and vegetables. Court bouillon can be prepared one day ahead.

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Prepare Rouille, using reserved potatoes. Set aside.

Bring court bouillon to boil. Add lobster and simmer over high heat 5 minutes. Add langouste, halibut and eel and simmer 5 minutes. Add scallops and mussels and simmer 5 minutes or until mussels open. Discard any mussels that do not open. Remove shellfish and fish and place on large platter. Adjust seasoning of court bouillon and pour into tureen. Ladle some court bouillon into Rouille and pour into bowl or sauce boat. Place fish platter over tureen to keep warm.

To serve bouillabaisse, rub garlic over toast. Place desired fish and shellfish in individual bowls. Ladle soup over fish. Sprinkle with cheese. Add 1 or 2 slices toast to soup. Pass Rouille as condiment seasoning for each guest to add to soup or to spread on pieces of toast to eat out of hand. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Rouille (Potato-Garlic Sauce)

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2 reserved potatoes

2 to 4 cloves garlic, mashed

2 egg yolks

4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil

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Dash saffron

Salt, pepper

Mash potatoes. Add garlic. Beat in egg yolks, oil, saffron and salt and pepper to taste using wire whisk or spoon. Do not process in blender or food processor. Stir in just enough water, if needed, to make consistency of very thick cream sauce. Makes about 2 cups.

Note: For red color, 1/4 cup mashed canned pimiento or tomato puree or 1 tablespoon tomato paste can be added to Rouille.

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ZARZUELA DE MARISCOS LA SCALA

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

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1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup fish stock

Dash saffron

1/2 teaspoon crushed dried sweet basil

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1/2 teaspoon crushed oregano

Salt, pepper

1 large tomato, diced

1 Maine lobster, split

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2 large prawns

1/4 pound scallops

1/4 pound cleaned squid, cut into rings

4 mussels

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4 clams

Saute garlic and shallots in olive oil until tender. Add white wine, fish stock, saffron, basil, oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil. Add tomato. Simmer over medium heat until wine mixture is reduced by 1/3.

Add lobster, prawns, scallops and squid rings. Simmer 5 minutes over medium heat. Add mussels and clams. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes until shells open. Correct seasonings. Makes 2 to 4 servings.

CIOPPINO

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1 1/2 cups chopped onions

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup chopped green pepper

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1/4 cup oil

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can whole tomatoes

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 teaspoon crumbled basil

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1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon ground oregano

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

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1 cup dry red wine

1 cup water

1 1/2 pounds boneless fish fillets

1/2 pound scallops

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1/2 pound shelled, cleaned, uncooked shrimp

1 pound crab legs

Saute onions, garlic, celery and green pepper in oil in Dutch oven until tender. Add undrained tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, wine and water.

Break up tomatoes. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and boil gently, uncovered, 30 minutes. Cut fish fillets and scallops into 1-inch cubes. Add fillets to tomato mixture and boil gently 5 minutes. Add scallops, shrimp and crab legs to tomato mixture. Simmer about 10 minutes or until shrimp is just tender. Serve in large soup bowls. Makes 3 quarts.

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CALIFORNIA BOUILLABAISSE

2 pounds halibut steak

1 carrot, sliced

4 cups water

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1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 medium onions, sliced

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3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup flour

1 pound shrimp, peeled

1 cup oysters with liquid

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1 (16-ounce) can whole tomatoes, cut up

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 2/3 cups pitted black olives

2 tablespoons minced parsley

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Cut halibut into large chunks and remove skin and bones. Combine carrot, water, bay leaf, salt and pepper in saucepan. Bring to boil, add halibut and turn heat to low. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove fish, carrot and bay leaf.

In large saucepan, cook onions in oil until tender, but not browned. Stir in flour. Strain stock and gradually stir into onion mixture. Cook until thickened, stirring occasionally. Add shrimp and simmer 5 minutes. Add oysters, tomatoes, lemon juice, olives and halibut. Heat about 5 minutes. Add parsley just before serving. Makes 6 servings.

HURRY-UP BOUILLABAISSE

1/2 cup chopped onion

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1/2 cup chopped green pepper

1 small clove garlic, crushed

1/4 cup butter or margarine

2 cups tomato juice

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1 cup water

1/3 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground oregano

1 (6 1/2-ounce) can crab meat

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1 (5-ounce) can lobster

1 (4 1/2-ounce) can shrimp

Cook onion, green pepper and garlic in butter in saucepan until tender. Add tomato juice, water, lemon juice and oregano. Simmer 15 minutes. Drain crab meat, lobster and shrimp. Break into chunks. Add tomato juice mixture. Heat thoroughly. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

TART TATIN A LA NOUNOU

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1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

8 to 12 small Red Delicious apples

1 sheet frozen puff pastry patty shell

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Vanilla ice cream

Place butter and sugar in heavy-gauge pan 2 1/2 inches deep and 8 inches in diameter. Peel and core apples. Arrange apples snugly upright around edge of pan and in center over sugar mixture. Add more apples, if necessary, to keep pan snuggly fitted with apples.

Place over low to medium heat and simmer 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until sugar-butter syrup is golden caramel color. As apples cook, fit any bits and pieces of apple in gaps where apples have shrunk.

Roll patty shell out on floured board to 9-inch circle. It should be very thin. Pierce with tines of fork and place over apples. Bake at 375 degrees 20 minutes or until crust is golden. Invert on platter, being careful sides do not fall away. With spatula or broad knife, smooth surface of apples and serve warm topped with small scoops of vanilla ice cream. Makes about 8 servings.

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Note: In place of puff pastry use 6 sheets filo dough. Stack, cut into 9-inch circle and brush each sheet with butter. Stack again and place over tart to bake as directed.

SALADE A LA PROVENCALE

1 head mache

1 bunch arugula

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1/2 bunch watercress

Walnut Oil Dressing

Cheese Nuggets

Freshly cracked white pepper

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Tear mache, arugula and watercress into bowl. Add Walnut Oil Dressing and toss lightly. Arrange on serving plates. Top with Cheese Nuggets. Sprinkle with pepper. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Walnut Oil Dressing

1/4 cup walnut oil

1/4 cup Sherry vinegar

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2 teaspoons sugar

Salt

Combine oil, vinegar, sugar and salt. Shake well.

Cheese Nuggets

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2 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 cup chevre (fresh goat cheese)

White pepper

Work butter with cheese. Season to taste with pepper. Chill slightly. Form into 1/2-inch nuggets or balls. Makes 12 to 18 cheese balls.

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