In Praise of Bouillabaisse

Article excerpt

In these dog-sled days of winter, few foods present the palate with a finer promise of warm weather to come than thick, rich soup or stew.

A bouillabaisse, for instance: that sunny-weather dish native to the port city of Marseilles in the south of France.

Because of their fierce reliance on fish peculiar to the area, especially rascasse - the prickly scorpion fish - purists consider a bouillabaisse without it culinary blasphemy. Others (usually beyond Marseilles) say this is nothing less than snobbery. One can argue about this fish or that, but there's little debate that a true bouillabaisse must include the characteristic complexity of flavorings imparted by fennel, saffron, and orange peel. Non-purists - those of us who won't be vacationing on the sunny Riviera this season - can construct a flavorful bouillabaisse from fish available locally. (An excellent adaptation by food doyenne Patricia Wells follows.) Ms. Wells suggests using any of a number of white-fleshed fish including cod, monkfish, striped bass, and grouper. Other recipes combine red snapper, sea bass, haddock, eel, perch, and flounder. Those in a liberal frame of mind (purists need read no further) might add shellfish such as shrimp, scallops, or lobster. Bare in mind that bouillabaisse is a humble fish dish invented on the beaches of Marseilles by fishermen who used mostly trash fish, (there's that ugly rascasse again) considered unsuitable for market. Rather than the traditional spicy-hot rouille, Wells suggests a milder garlic mayonnaise known as aioli - to accompany the bouillabaisse. French bread, mesclun salad, and a simple dessert would round out a satisfying meal redolent of the sea. And, if there is no hot sun in southern France to bask in quite yet, the warming glow of saffron-scented bouillabaisse may be enough to have you humming the Marseillaise. Bouillabaisse with Aioli 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil 1 plump head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled 1 teaspoon fennel seeds Bouquet garni: a generous bunch of parsley, celery leaves, thyme, and bay leaves tied in cheesecloth. …