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Bouillabaisse – classic French seafood soup

As I’ve mentioned before, since the folk at The Fresh Fish Shop set up a stall every Thursday at Park Farm Shop in Falmer (East Sussex), we’ve been eating a lot more fish. I must have visited the stall 10-15 times now and they’ve never failed to provide beautifully fresh, quality seafood.

So, I thought I would finally try to make a dish that I’ve always wanted to make…but had never plucked up enough courage to attempt nor felt comfortable enough in being able to get the highest quality ingredients. This dish deserves to be treated with the utmost respect – absolutely no skimping on ingredients or the time you take over each process. I am of course talking about this classic French seafood soup – bouillabaisse.

Wanting to get this absolutely right, with no corner cutting, I turned, as I often do, to the Great British Chefs website – and I was delighted to find a recipe from Tom Aikens, one of my favourite chefs and someone I trust to provide the highest standard of recipes.

The recipe

Be prepared, this recipe takes time and effort…and you’ll need a lot of ingredients – some from specialist outlets, ie good fish suppliers. But, trust me, it’s well worth it.

You will need a lot of seafood. Not just the fish that is served up in the plate, but probably more importantly, for the broth you’ll create as the basis of the soup.

Tom’s recipe calls for 1kg of fish bones. This is not something you’ll find in your local supermarket of course. But…most fishmongers will be happy to pull together a big bag of bones for minimal cost…and often for free (like mine).

So, I was delighted when James at The Fresh Fish Shop stall agreed to come along with a bag of bones the following week. I also thought it an idea to order some fish heads too (they provided salmon heads) – just for that extra bit of flavour when making the broth.

When I went to pick up the bones and heads from James, I was shocked when he pulled out a huge, very heavy bin bag – definitely well over 1kg!!! He explained that the shop had received a freshly caught halibut that morning that they’d filleted for the stall…and thought that I might like to include some halibut steak in the bouillabaisse while using the carcass from which they came. Great idea.

Halibuts are big – I hadn’t quite realised how big. When I unpacked the bag in my kitchen, I only just about had enough room on my kitchen island for the skeleton. And it was still whole so I had a big job on my hands to cut it up into pot sized pieces.

But I relished the challenge. And knowing I had more than enough fish bones for the bouillabaisse recipe, I was happy that I’d be able to make some spare pots of fish stock to store in the freezer.

The broth

The first stage in making the broth is pretty simple.

Cook the vegetables and herbs for a few minutes, add the fish bones (and salmon heads in my case) and tomatoes, then cover with water. Once at a simmer, remove the scum, add the tomato paste and saffron then cook for 1.5 hours – aiming to reduce the liquid by about a third.

The second stage isn’t quite so simple…and, unless you’ve done this before, frankly feels a little odd. You basically get a stick blender and blend the mixture including the bones (I removed the heads, don’t worry!) until you have a smooth sauce. For me, this did feel a little odd as apart from tiny fish…you don’t eat fish bones as a rule.

But don’t worry, the next stage cleared up any fears about consuming fish bones!

Once blended, you not only pour this through a fine sieve, pressing the solids with a ladle to extract all the liquid…but you then pour through a fine chinoise (this time without pressing) – twice! So you can rest assured that all solids are removed. Be warned, passing it through the chinoise does take time, especially as you’re not pressing it through this time. But, it’s worth being patient to ensure as smooth a broth as possible.

The final stage is adding the lemon juice and butter (see improvements later), blending again, check the seasoning …and, once again, passing through a sieve for one final time.

The rouille

This is very similar to making mayonnaise from scratch – whisk together the egg yolks, seasoning, lemon juice, saffron and cayenne pepper – slowly add the oil, whisking continuously, then stir in the garlic.

If you haven’t made mayonnaise (or indeed a rouille) before, don’t worry too much as, if things go a bit wrong (for example it curdles), there are plenty of ways to rescue it. The key is to add the oil slowly – a slow steady stream or drop by drop. Make sure your ingredients are at room temperature – never ever keep your eggs in the fridge! And if something does go wrong, there are plenty of remedies available on the internet – youtube is particularly helpful here.

The tomato concasse

This is basically peeled and deseeded tomatoes, chopped into small chunks. It both looks pretty and adds additional flavour and texture to the dish.

Given this is such a special dish, I’d advise taking care to cut the chunks into similar size and shape. And if you’re not sure about the best way to peel and deseed tomatoes, take a look at this great Leiths step-by-step guide.

This recipe calls for just one plum tomato. Personally, I wanted more concasse so I would go for at least 2-3 next time – possibly leaving a small plate on the side for your guests to add more as they please.

Adding the seafood

This stage is all about heating up the broth and cooking the fish.

This is where I strayed from Tom’s recipe. I was relying on what I could get hold of from The Fresh Fish Shop stall…and I also wanted to add my own touch of added shellfish. I wasn’t convinced about the addition of sardines – maybe too overpowering up against the other seafood? And I didn’t add any salmon given I’d used salmon heads for the broth.

So I used some of the halibut that came from my original halibut carcass, monkfish, hake, scallops (see later), mussels, prawns and langoustines.

This step is pretty straight forward as long as you stagger adding the seafood taking care on the varying cooking times for each element.

Plating up

Once the seafood is cooked, add the fresh herbs  – basil, tarragon and chives. This dish is beautiful so, for a bit of theatre, I’d recommend bringing the pot to the table then serving into individual soup/pasta plates, with crusty bread, the rouille and concasse on the side for people to help themselves.

My take

This is a stunning dish. And truly delicious. It does take time and there’s effort needed in each stage – so you’ll need to be prepared for that.

Personally, I’d add less butter in the final stages of the broth…and I wouldn’t use as much tarragon as Tom suggests. I’m also not sure if I’d use scallops again (my own addition) – they were a little too much in a dish that didn’t need that added richness. But one thing I would add more of – tomato concasse. That was a delicious and a very fresh addition to the dish, helping to cut through some of the richness.

The wine

This Tom Aikens recipe on the Great British Chefs site recommends either a light and crisp white wine, champagne and sparkling white wine…or a full bodied and ripe white wine.

I’m a great fan of Fiona Beckett’s Matching Food and Wine website, so I checked what she recommended and went for a Picpoul de Pinet, “splendid with seafood and shellfish”, a perfect match for this splendid dish!

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