- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Even we grill guys need a break from fire. That’s how I found myself in the French port city of Marseilles last year, looking for what is perhaps the dish least likely to ever be cooked on a grill.

Bouillabaisse, of course, is the legendary fish stew from the south of France. It is eaten all along France’s Mediterranean coast but the spiritual, if not literal, birthplace is Marseilles.

Bouillabaisse was born in the craggy fiords around Marseilles, home to such strange sea creatures as rascasse (scorpion fish) and grondin (gurnard). Purists argue that true bouillabaisse — the intense, concentrated, fish-perfumed yet not in the least bit fishy soup — can only be enjoyed in the Marseilles region, where these small, ugly, bony rock fish are found.

Legend has it that bouillabaisse originated as a poor man’s soup, made with whatever catch the fisherman was unable to sell at the market. (Legend has not bought a bowl of the stuff recently. Today, we pay $80 or more for bouillabaisse for one.) Over the centuries, the leftover catch has been codified into a precise list of sea creatures, and the absence of any will put the authenticity of the soup in jeopardy.

But according to Marseilles chef Gerald Passedat, equally essential for the unique flavor of bouillabaisse is a series of flavorings that grow on land, either in the immediate environs of Marseilles (fresh fennel and the supernaturally red tomatoes for which Provence is famous), or along the trade routes that lead to its ports (oranges and saffron).

Mr. Passedat is the chef and third-generation owner of a charming hotel and Michelin 2-star restaurant called Le Petit Nice Passedat (www.petitnice-passedat.com). To stay at the Petit Nice Passedat is to experience the glory that was Marseilles before the arrival of urban congestion, high-rise housing projects and the destruction of the old town and old port during World War II. Some of the guest rooms jut sharply over the Mediterranean, offering waterfront views of the infamous island prison, Le Chateau d’If. Were the dining room any closer to the sea, you’d have to dine in your swimsuit.

Mr. Passedat’s high forehead and swept-back hair give him the raffish aristocratic look of Hugh Grant or French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. His cooking combines the vivid flavors of Provence, the psychedelic whimsy of Spain’s Costa Brava and the cruise missile culinary precision of a Michelin-starred restaurant. He can foam, mousse and jelly with chefs half his age, but he can also bring great thought and reverence to a traditional dish such as bouillabaisse. Clear, modern thinker that he is, he can conceive of ways to make this great dish even better.

Which brings us to the third thing that gives bouillabaisse such a singular place in the pantheon of the world’s fish stews: the distinctive method of cooking. According to the Dictionnaire de l’Academie des Gastronomes, the dish takes its name from the Provencal words bouia (literally “to boil”) and baisso (“to lower”), as in to boil the broth down to concentrate its flavor. The dictionary also tells us why it’s so important to eat bouillabaisse in its birthplace. “In Provence you’re feasting on sunshine; in Paris you’re simply eating a platter of fish.”

This leads us to an authentic bouillabaisse’s final distinguishing feature: it’s always served as two courses. The first course is the soup — a bowl of fish, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices and above all, sunshine distilled into a broth that’s as thick as bisque. The traditional accompaniments are croutes (rounds of fried bread), a fiery garlic and red pepper mayonnaise called rouille (“rust” sauce, literally) and a grating of Gruyere cheese.

The fish itself comes afterward, on a platter on which a maitre d’ — more skilled in such matters than you or I — separates the delicate fillets from the irksome bones. Sometimes potatoes cooked in the same broth are served with the fish. If they are, ask for a double portion.

Tradition dictates that the fish be cooked in broth, which mightily enhances the latter, but boiling or poaching, to my grill-loving American palate at least, is about the least interesting way there is to cook fish. Boiled fish has the texture of, well, boiled fish, and here Mr. Passedat’s full genius appears. Like his compatriots, he boils massive amounts of baudroie, chapon, gallinette and other traditional Mediterranean fish to build his broth. The fish he serves with the bouillabaisse is cooked on a plancha, a griddle with ridges that in America would be known as a grill pan.

I’ve streamlined Mr. Passedat’s bouillabaisse recipe in one significant way: I’ve replaced the fish stock with bottled clam broth. First of all, few of us have the time to make fish stock from scratch — even if we did, it’s impossible to find the right fish. Second, by the time you’ve added the fennel, orange juice, garlic and leeks, you’ve pretty much overpowered the delicacy of the fish broth, anyway. I’ve made bouillabaisse with clam broth plenty of times, and I can tell you, it’s terrific.

There are two other possible breaks with tradition. Normally, the broth for bouillabaisse is put through a food mill, so you don’t actually get to bite into pieces of tomato, fennel and other vegetables. You can certainly strain the soup if you like. I personally don’t mind using my teeth.

As long as you’re heating up the grill pan, you might consider cooking the fish on a real grill.

A not strictly traditional but unbelievably delicious bouillabaisse

teaspoon saffron threads (use threads, not powder)

Water

1 large orange

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and finely chopped

1 leek, washed, trimmed, and finely chopped

1 shallot, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 bay leaf

4 luscious red ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons Pernod, Ricard, pastis or other anise-flavored spirit

1/4 cup dry white wine

6 cups bottled clam broth

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

FOR THE ROUILLE:

3 cloves garlic (must be fresh), minced

3/4 cup mayonnaise (preferably Hellmann’s)

1 teaspoon saffron and water (from above)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or hot paprika, or to taste

FOR SERVING:

1 small or large baguette (French bread), cut crosswise into -inch thick slices

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil, or as needed

1 cup finely grated Gruyere cheese

FOR THE FISH:

2 to 3 pounds delicate white fish fillets, such as halibut, striped bass, snapper, cod or, even better, a mixture of all four

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Place saffron threads in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon hot water. Let soak for 5 minutes and set aside.

Using a vegetable peeler, remove 3 strips of orange zest (the oil-rich outer rind), each about 2 inches long and inch wide. Set aside. Juice orange, discarding seeds, and reserve the juice.

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over high heat. Add onion, fennel, leek and shallot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add garlic, oregano, bay leaf and orange zest. Cook vegetables, stirring often, until just beginning to brown, 3 to 6 minutes more.

Increase heat to high and stir in chopped tomatoes. Cook, stirring often, until tomato juices have nearly evaporated. Stir in tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Stir in anise-flavored spirit and wine and boil for 30 seconds.

Stir in 2/3 of saffron and water mixture, orange juice, clam broth, 2 cups water and potatoes, and briskly simmer over high heat until potatoes are just tender, 6 to 8 minutes. At this point broth should be incredibly rich and flavorful. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To make the rouille, place garlic, mayonnaise, remaining saffron and water, and cayenne or hot paprika in a mixing bowl and whisk to mix. Correct seasonings, adding cayenne or hot paprika and salt to taste. Place rouille in a mixing bowl.

To make the toasts, lightly brush bread slices on both sides with 2 tablespoons oil. Bake on a baking sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven or toaster oven or toast on the grill until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer toasts to a basket or bowl for serving.

At this point, you have to decide whether to cook the bouillabaisse in the traditional manner or on the plancha or grill.

For the traditional method, stir fish into the bouillabaisse and cook over high heat until the fish is cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. (When fish is cooked it will be white and will break into clean flakes.)

It’s traditional to ladle the broth into bowls for serving as a first course. Spread a little rouille on a couple of toasts and float them on the bouillabaisse. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Then serve the fish and potatoes separately as the main course, with any remaining rouille on the side.

For the plancha or grill method, serve the broth with toasts, rouille and cheese as a first course, as described above. Save a few tablespoons of broth for spooning over the fish.

Heat the plancha or grill to high. Lightly brush each piece of fish on both sides with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Brush and oil the plancha surface or grill grate. Grill the fish until cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side, turning with tongs. Use the same test for doneness as above.

Serve the fish on a platter with a little of the broth spooned over and remaining rouille on the side. Makes 6 servings.

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