I learned the word “aesthete” from Rent. I learned the word “crepuscular” from E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan (which, by the way, is a much weirder book than I remember it being). And I learned the word “bouillabaisse” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, at the very same time as Ron Weasley:
“What’s that?” said Ron, pointing at a large dish of some sort of shellfish stew that stood beside a large steak-and-kidney pudding.
“Bouillabaisse,” said Hermione.
“Bless you,” said Ron.
“It’s French,” said Hermione. “I had it on holiday summer before last. It’s very nice.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Ron, helping himself to black pudding.
A passage that’s funny, in retrospect, because black pudding — a combination of fresh pig’s blood, fat, milk, and oatmeal, of all things — sounds much, much grosser to my American ears than a shellfish stew. Speaking of gross…
Anyhow: bouillabaisse! I still can’t spell it correctly on the first try, but I can tell you that it’s a lot easier to make than that first picture would lead you to believe. (Largely because of what appears in that second picture.) Generally speaking, bivalves may be the most idiot-proof protein there is; you pretty much just plop them into a hot, aromatic pot, drop on a lid, and cook until they open up.
They seem fancy, though, at least to this Jew — and I’m guessing that’s how they made their way into Nonnie’s cookbook. I can easily imagine my grandmother serving this hearty but exotic-seeming dish at a classy ’60s dinner party, passing out individual bowls of soup before disappearing into the kitchen and returning triumphantly with a giant platter of steaming snapper, sole and assorted traif.
Her guests would coo and oo and aww. “Oh, this?” she’d say, smirking ever so slightly. “Just a simple bouillabaisse.” Cue applause.
Bouillabaisse; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
Use 3 shellfish: lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams
Use 2 fleshy fish: bass, snapper, flounder, sole
[Interjection! Nonnie tells you what sorts of fish to use but doesn’t specify any specific amounts, which is great for someone who knows what they’re doing but super frustrating for a type-A millennial who’s never cooked shellfish before. So I read through a variety of other bouillabaisse recipes — Julia Child’s, Food and Wine’s, Emeril Lagasse’s, Gourmet’s — to get a sense for how much fish I’d need to ensure a good meat-to-broth ratio. I ended up with the following:
1 8 oz. lobster tail (because I was too chicken to cook a lobster live, even though buying a whole one would have been much cheaper)
1 dozen wild-caught Long Island clams
1 lb. PEI mussels
.5 lb. red snapper, the result of buying a whole fish and having it filleted on site
The smallest piece of flounder the fancy fish store had, because I was running out of money — which was around 1/3 of a pound
Which translated to this many plastic bags of stuff:]
1 cup onion, chopped [Or just chop a small onion; no need to measure the result in cups]
3/4 cup minced leeks [Or about half to 3/4 of a large leek, white and light green parts only]
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup oil
1 large can tomatoes [I used a standard 28 oz. can]
1 small can tomato paste
2 tomatoes, chopped [Given how many tomatoes were in that can, I decided this was probably a misprint and skipped it]
2 cups bottled clam juice [Yeah, I was grossed out by the idea of this; yes, it turns out the stuff actually tastes pretty good]
1 cup dry vermouth
2 cups water
6 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon thyme or basil
1/8 teaspoon fennel
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
Heat oil in a large pot and cook onions, leeks, and garlic slowly, until tender but not brown. [For me, this took between 10 and 15 minutes.] Add tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, wine, water, and simmer gently for about one hour. [Because it’s standard practice when soup-making, I brought mine to a boil before turning down the heat and letting it simmer.]
About 20 minutes before serving, bring soup to a rapid boil; add lobster (or lobster tail) and firm-fleshed fish. Bring quickly to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Add other fish and shellfish and bring quickly to a boil again. [At this point, cover the pot.] Cook for 2-3 minutes[, or until the mussels and clams have opened. Discard any that stay shut.]
Lift fish and shellfish out of soup and arrange on a platter. [This is kind of a pain, and you won’t be able to separate the fish from the soup entirely; the fleshy fish will fall apart, and there’s going to be broth on that platter. It’s rustic. Just go with it.] Serve soup in bowls.
The verdict: I was worried that this one wouldn’t turn out, mostly because of how effing expensive fish is. (Well, not the clams and mussels; those set me back a tidy $10.50 total, which makes me think we should all probably be eating more mollusks.)
In the end, though, it was pretty delicious — though I can’t speak for just how much more delicious it would’ve been if I’d actually made a fish stock, like Julia Child recommends, rather than using clam juice as a shortcut.
I can tell you, though, that the soup was good on its own but perked up notably by adding rouille, a super garlicky, chile-flecked sauce that can take the form of either mayonnaise or a paste made with breadcrumbs, olive oil, lemon juice, and the aforementioned ingredients. I took the latter approach, using this recipe as a guideline.
Warning: It wasn’t pretty.
But it did taste wonderful mixed liberally into a bowl of bouillabaisse — especially when sopped up with a warm chunk of homemade ciabatta. As Julia would say, bon appétit!