It’s all about the broth, or rather the “baisse,” as they say in Marseilles, the port city of southern France, where bouillabaisse originated and was considered a poor man’s meal. The French word “bouiller” means to boil, and “baisse” means reduction. But a delicious bouillabaisse depends on the daily catch. That’s why it’s become my go-to welcome dish to serve my Midwest pals when they visit Maine and are hungry for fresh fish and local seafood!
I’m keeping an eye on economics too. Restaurants offer bouillabaisse at eye-popping fares. Fluctuating market prices for seafood often skew high. Add in the cost of other ingredients, and bouillabaisse is anything but a “poor man’s meal.” In trying to infuse the original spirit of Marseilles into bouillabaisse, the challenge is reducing it down to incredibly flavorful broth all the while reducing the overall costs to make it.
Seafood broth: 3 hours
Bouillabaisse: 1 hour
Cost: Under $100
Prepared seafood broth is currently difficult to find in the grocery store and the Zoup brand is the best. Homemade broth is a much better alternative. Often fish markets sell cooked lobster bodies at $3 for 6 bodies, and fish parts are reasonably priced. For $15 you can make 6 quarts of your own delicious broth. Here’s how:
6 quarts water
12 lobster bodies
12 ounces tomato paste
1 large fish tail and head, preferably halibut
6 ounces anchovy-based fish oil
3 tablespoons lobster paste (preferably Better Than Bouillon, $6.50/8 ounce)
3 tablespoons salt
1½ teaspoons black pepper
Fresh haddock and fresh cod cost between $8 and $11 per pound, while a pound of native mussels is $5. The hard-shell clams are often sold by the piece: $1 each. Market Basket will sell individual Jonah crab claws at $16 per pound, which translates to about $1.20 each. Commercial shrimping has been shut down in New England since 2013 because of concerns about the health of the shrimp population and warming ocean temperatures, so I use shrimp “from away,” which will run about $8 per pound. Total seafood protein cost: $70.
1½ pounds haddock fillet
1½ pounds cod fillet
1 pound mussels
16 littleneck clams (hard-shell)
1 pound shrimp, 16–20 count, raw, shell on
8 crab claws (Jonah)
¼ cup olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium-sized onion, chopped coarsely
1 leek stalk, cut in ¼-inch rings
2 celery stalks, chopped fine
½ fennel bulb, chopped medium
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 bay leaves, broken in halves
1 teaspoon thyme
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped coarsely
1 tablespoon orange zest
½ teaspoon saffron*
4 tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick (best in summer from the garden or farmers’ market)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
8 cups seafood broth (see above)
3 fresh corn cobs, cut into thirds
1 French baguette
*Saffron will always be an expensive spice. Substituting turmeric may work in a pinch.
In a 12-quart stockpot, bring water to a boil and add fish head and tail; cover. Preheat the oven to 375°F, place lobster bodies, legs up, on a large baking sheet and spoon 3 to 4 tablespoons of tomato paste on each body. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the paste begins to turn a dark color. Remove pan and slide lobster bodies into the boiling liquid; add fish oil, lobster paste, salt and black pepper. Set stovetop burner on low and leave stockpot covered for a minimum of 2 hours, preferably more: I simmer mine overnight, covered. Cool and strain with fine-mesh cloth and set aside. This broth recipe makes more than needed and the extra can be frozen for future use.
Bouillabaisse Boiling and Reduction
Heat olive oil and butter in a 12-quart stockpot over medium heat; add fennel, onion, leeks, celery and garlic; mix with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes. Add bay leaves, thyme, parsley, orange zest, saffron, tomatoes, peppers, salt and continue heating for 15 minutes, uncovered, stirring frequently. Add seafood broth, bring to a slight boil, then reduce to simmer for 30 minutes. This is a critical juncture, so taste for salinity and spice level and adjust as necessary; either add broth or spices/salt.
While broth is simmering, rinse and scrub clams and mussels in cold water. Peel shrimp shells, except for the tails, and devein. Rinse haddock and cod fillets and cut widthwise to form square pieces. Shuck corn husks and cut cobs into thirds. Lay out ingredients on a cutting board, turn up the heat to medium and set an empty, deep, 10- to 12-inch sauté or fry pan on an adjacent burner. Have a medium-size ladle and set of long tongs handy, as well as a line of soup bowls.
As broth reaches a slight boil, drop in corn cobs and wait 5 minutes before submerging haddock, cod and littleneck clams. After another 5 minutes, place the remainder of seafood in the broth, mix very gently and cover. I prefer to finish the bouillabaisse in the adjacent heated saucepan, 2 or 3 servings at a time, ensuring that my guests receive the intended variety of seafood.
After 3 minutes, ladle 2 or 3 cups of broth into the saucepan from the stockpot and, using tongs, transfer clams, mussels and shrimp. Continue heating the pan, turning the heat up to medium-high, prompting the bivalve shells to open. Reach deep into the stockpot with tongs and secure haddock and cod portions, the corn, and finally a crab claw for each bowl serving. After 3 to 5 minutes, transfer the variety of seafood into individual serving bowls, and ladle broth to top it off. Remember, it’s all about the broth.
Sides & Pairings
Maine Coast Bouillabaisse screams for a toasted, or pan grilled, French baguette, hand-torn into 4- to 5-inch pieces, and then again, longitudinally, providing a rough surface for toasty crispness and catching a garlic scrub. Traditionally these crouton/toasts would be topped with a rouille and tucked alongside the soup for a striking presentation.
A fresh garden salad, or coleslaw, is a great addition and goes well with the complex flavors of bouillabaisse.
For a great summer meal pairing, Cabernet Franc ($12/750 ml) Atlantique, a dry pale pink rosé wine from French vineyards along the Loire River, is my first choice. Another product of France that works very well is Chateau Magneau Graves, ($14.50/750 ml), a white Bordeaux with a tangy and citrus flavor. If your preference is red, Sauvion Chinon ($17/750 ml) a Loire red wine, is also a very good match with bouillabaisse.