I had half a jar of pimientos in my fridge from the time I made pimento cheese. I wanted to do something with it, and I remembered an episode of Jacques and Julia where they made rouille and had it with fish soup. Bouillibaisse is a french seafood soup that I never really started liking or even caring about until relatively recently. I had a particularly good one while at cafe claude in san fransisco a couple years ago, but other than that, I’ve never really felt the need to make it. But I wanted rouille. And so it goes.
1. Pick your seafood: every recipe for bouillabaisse that I read called for 3 kinds of fish, 3 kinds of other fish, 2 kinds of shellfish, and lobster. Not only that, all the bouillabaise recipes called for weird fish that I don’t think I’ve ever even seen at the grocery store, like conger, monkfish, or bream. But my understanding was that, bouillabaisse, like sushi, was a fisherman’s dish and made with whatever was available, and more importantly, not sellable at market that day.
So, with that in mind, I went to the grocery store and bought some frozen shrimp and a pound of some sort of whitefish or lakefish or I don’t remember what it was exactly. It was 9.99 a pound, had a wonderful looking skin, and was a thin white meat fillet, similar to the shape of trout but bigger. And, I figured I would get some mussels later. Other recipes call for more expensive/fancy things, but that seems like the opposite of what bouillabaisse originally was.
2. Buy some saffron: the signature ingredient to bouillabaisse is saffron. I had to go and buy this. It has been at least 15, but probably closer to 20, years since I have bought saffron. I hear that Zanzibarean saffron is the best, but I made do with what I could find at my grocery store. They sell it in little vials, like crack. And at 20 dollars for this bottle, I’m not sure that crack isn’t cheaper.
The only other time I’ve bought saffron was when I was taking a home ec class in middle or grade school. I made a chicken paella. It was the first thing I ever cooked from a recipe by myself (not counting ramyun).
3. Start cooking: I chopped up 1 onion and 1 leek and started frying them up in my biggest pot with some oil. Although I have seen them used frequently on tv, I had never bought a leek before. And I don’t think I’ve ever even eaten leek before, unless it was unknowingly at a restaurant.
I had no idea how to buy a leek, but my grocery store only had a handful to choose amongst. When I got it home, I chopped it up and took a bite out of it to see what it tasted like raw. It was like a mild version of a green onion, which makes sense, I suppose.
4. Add everything else except seafood: I was trying to follow Family Style Food’s recitation of a Julia Child recipe for bouillabaisse, but that recipe wanted me to make my own fish stock from fish heads and bones and fins and stuff. That seemed way too hard and annoying. I figured, I would just make a fish soup with saffron added to it: 1 box fish stock, 1 16oz-ish can of crushed tomatoes, 3-4 cloves of mashed garlic, and one of the four mini tins of saffron. I let that come to a boil and then let it simmer for 30 minutes.
I know real bouillabaisse calls for all sorts of herbs tied together into a bouquet garni, but that is too much work. I generally skip this kind of step in recipes. I don’t think my palette is quite sophisticated enough to tell the difference when there’s fish and mussels involved.
5. Strain: Bouillabaisse is broth only – no veggies floating around. So you have to strain it. The problem is, my only strainer is about the size of a coffee filter. So, I had to strain my soup in multiple little batches. This was unnecessarily difficult, remarkably messy, and entirely all too frustrating. It was at this point that I wished that I had just made a cioppino.
6. Add seafood: After I straining, I had a nice bouillabaisse-y broth. At that point, I cut up my fish fillets into larger than bite sized pieces. Then, I added mussels. Once the mussels opened up, it was ready to eat.
I had never bought mussels before this day. I went to Whole Foods to do it. I had no idea how many mussels I would need. But apparently, you buy mussels by the sack. The guy graciously filled a plastic bag full of ice and put my mussles on top. Carrying it out of the store was like winning a goldfish at a carnival.
Rouille, apparently, is something that you spread on toast and eat with french soups, like bouillabaisse. I’d never heard of it until I saw it on tv. Pimentos were the main ingredient, which was the whole reason for this food escapade in the first place. I looked around for the recipe I saw on tv, but couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. And, the recipes I did find, I didn’t like. So, I made something up.
1. Mix: pimentos, garlic cloves, pepper, mayonaisse, lemon juice, and cayenne. I put this in a food processor.
And, having now found the original Jacques Pepin rouille recipe I saw on TV (go to around 19:30 min), I was way off. But it was good. I baked some bread, toasted it, and slathered it on top. My wife liked it, which is atypical for her and foods made with mayonnaise.
All together, the meal certainly wasn’t authentically french, but it was surprisingly good – I didn’t think it was going to turn out right since I had skipped about half of the steps and half of the ingredients. The fish I had chosen ended up being a particularly bad choice. Half way through, I told my wife she could not-eat it and it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.
The fish fell apart and picked up an unpleasant fishiness that reminded me of the Korean stews my grandmother used to torment me with as a child. One of my more stunning memories of her is when we went head-to-head over whether I was going to eat the fish eyeballs that were served to me in a strange hot soup she had made. I probably would love to eat that dish now. But I think I was like 8 at the time.
The mussels however, were divine. And this was fortunate because I had put the entire sack of mussels in my soup. And between my wife and I, we each had more mussels than we knew what to do with – a delicious problem.
The broth was just really nice. All the vegetal flavors came through nicely, the saffron gave everything a nice msg-like savoriness, and the overall broth had a pleasant fullness to it.