Bouillabaisse - a plate of sunshine from South of France


I have wanted to make Bouillabaisse for a long time. This beautiful French fish soup or stew is a dish that I had never eaten or cooked but I've always known that I would love, so it was an automatic choice for my French food week. My sister, a great cook, has been going on about what amazing bouillabaisse she makes, so last night I finally got around to making it. Husband loved it and since it's a really healthy meal and my version of it is not too time consuming, I will be making it soon again.

Provencal fish stew with orange and saffron

I have been reading loads of recipes, articles and blog posts about this great dish. I watched a video of Martha Stewart cooking it with a chef buddy of hers. They went on forever rubbing fishbones with tomato paste, roasting stuff, marinating seafood and flambeing things with pernod. I left them to it and summarized the main points of the different recipes to a much simpler process that you don't need all day for. If you're into rubbing fishbones go for it, I'm sure it's fun and fulfilling.

I bought my fish filleted and didn't have any fishbones in the house and unlike my sister I don't keep salmon heads in my freezer. I also didn't have pernod and probably wouldn't have used it after my fennel seed disaster, but even with my shortcuts this turned out a dish I would have proudly served to anyone. Maybe even Martha and her Pernod bottle wielding friend, although they seemed a bit scary with their "I only eat this soup once every three years when I go to this particular restaurant in Antibes", but then they haven't been to this particular eatery in Ealing. "Va va voom" they might exclaim sitting around my IKEA table, "Are you sure you didn't rub the fishbones?" and forget all about that poncey restaurant in Antibes.

The other thing not to get hung up on is the fish. Originally the Provence fishermen or probably their wives made it with the leftover of the day's haul that didn't get sold. Many recipes quote some weird, ugly looking rockfish and scary sounding things like spider crabs, but if you don't have access to or stomach for that kind of seafood a much more familiar selection will do. Just have a mixture of a couple of different types of fish, I would opt for white fish although I did see salmon in some recipes, and some other seafood. I had sea bass, cod, squid, prawns and mussels, all easily found in pretty much any supermarket. It's great to have something with shells on for the dramatic look.

French fish stew with fresh bread

I was going to bake some fresh crusty bread to go with this, but instead I decided to watch a rerun of the TV series Rebecca from the nineties - nothing like a little Gothic drama on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday - so had to resort to those shop-bought half baked ciabatta rolls. Still nice, hot and fresh from the oven.

Bouillabaisse (serves 2)

Half a large leek or a whole small one
Half a yellow onion
Half a fennel bulb
1 carrot
1 celery stick
2 cloves of garlic
3 tomatoes
Zest of an orange
1 heaped tsp of saffron fronds, crushed
Large handful of fresh parsley
A few sprigs of Provencal herbs (e.g thyme, marjoram, oregano)
A small glass of white wine (optional)
750 ml fish stock (the better quality the stock the better the soup)
salt and pepper

Small fillet of cod
Fillet of sea bass
Tube of squid
12-15 king prawns
12-15  mussels
Small red onion
olive oil

Cube the fish removing bones and skin and cut the squid to rings, devein the prawns, Add fish, prawns and squid in a bowl, sprinkle with salt, pepper, olive oil and dash of lemon juice. Chop the red onion finely and add to bowl. Mix well and leave to marinade in the fridge while you get on with the broth. Clean the mussels.

Chop all the vegetables. Heat oil in a deep pan. Add leek, onion, fennel, carrot and celery with a sprinkling of salt. Saute on low to medium heat for about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and continue for another 2 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, saffron and the chopped herbs, grate in the zest of an orange. At this stage you can add some white wine if you like and let it evaporate a bit. Then add the fish stock. If you happen to have any fishbones or heads chuck them in the pan. Simmer covered for about one hour.

Bouillabaisse, a French fish, mussel and prawn soup

Blend everything with a hand blender or in a blender. (Apparently including the fish bones if you are using. If you have put in a massive fish head I would remove it at this point.) Drain the liquid into a pan through a sieve. Press the veg pulp against the sieve with a ladle to get most of the liquid out.

Check seasoning, add a squirt of lemon if you like. Depending on how much your liquid has reduced you may want to add a little bit of water.

Bring the broth back to boil, add in your fish and seafood according to how long they need to cook. For my selection of fish add the bass, cod and mussels, simmer for 3 minutes, add the prawns and squid and after 2 minutes (or when prawns are done depending on size) take off heat, remove and discard any unopened mussels and serve immediately.

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  1. I was served this straight from a small pot, placed before me. Not from the pot plated in the empty bowl.
    Impossible to eat