In all of our histories we have one dish that becomes legendary. Think about it. Even if it is just a PB&J assembled at the top of a mountain after a 5 mile hike, or some other such situation. We all have one dish that we made or assembled that lives forever. In my case it was a Beef Bourguignon that I made in 1999 or 2000 while living in Alexandria. Several friends still talk about that Bourguignon to this day. In Maman's case it is her famous Bouillabaisse of 1975. I have never made a bouillabaisse. It is quite simple really, I am terrified of making it. You see it is one of her legendary dishes. Who wants to be compared to a legend?
That doesn't mean I don't want to learn how to make it...just that a recipe card wasn't going to do it for me. Before I started the writing for this blog, I started thinking about the recipes I wanted to feature. I knew that sooner or later I wanted to post about Bouillabaisse. I wanted to tell the story of 2 couples, three kids and a French Grandmother stuck together in a little two bedroom beach cottage on Siesta Key. It was 1975 and Papa had made an agreement with Governor Hugh Gregg. The Governor owned some land in Siesta Key Florida and wanted to open a restaurant, and he asked Papa to open and operate it for him. It was called The Greenhouse and in later years The Summerhouse. It recently closed after a very long run. But first it was a construction site, where two little girls and one little boy like to fish. The restaurant rose out of the ground with three walls of glass looking out into the lush tropical forest. There were dining rooms on several levels, and almost every table was on a wall of glass looking out.
Papa knew he was going to need some help so he called in one of his best friends, Andre. Andre came down with his then wife Marguerite, their son Yann, and his mother Madame Pirio. Madame Pirio had the dubious honor of keeping an eye on her grandson Yann (age 3), Jacqueline (age 4), and me (the almost grown up??? 8 year old). Papa ran the kitchen, Marguerite ran the door, Maman took the upstairs dining room and Andre took the main floor. One day I will have to tell you about waiting for the C of O, and make food that wasn't supposed to be in the restaurant dissapear. But let me just say the restaurant was a hit! The four of them and the staff they hired nearly didn't keep up with the demand.
The four of them would come home to the cottage too keyed up to sleep, too exhausted to move. Madame would be asleep in my parents room and Jaqueline and Yann would be asleep in ours. I would sneak out to see what was going on. They would open a bottle of wine and deal the cards to unwind while talking about what went right, what went wrong and what needed to be done the next day. But one day the weather was right, and there was no more room in Maman's freezer for more of the little fish we would bring home. Everyone was being lazy around the cottage and she got busy. It was Bouillabaisse time. All I can say is that it was one of those moments. I don't remember as much as I should, but for the last 37 years someone mentions Maman and Bouillabaisse and the instant response is, "...do you remember Siesta Key?"
So I talked to Maman and told her it was time to teach me. She said okay. Meanwhile it has taken more than a year to get my lesson.
On a recent trip to FL for Jacqueline's award ceremony for teacher of the year (yeah Jacqueline!), Maman decided the time was right. I have also mentioned in my writing that part of the challenge of this blog is figuring out how to measure, and time recipes for recording. I am a genius compared to trying to track Maman as she cooks! OMG! Not only do I now know who I get the pinch of this and a "soupcon" of that from...she is worse than I am. AND I apologize to all my friends who have tried to record one of my recipes as I cook it, I get it.
First she didn't want to talk to me while she was chopping and thinking about the next step. Second when I peered over her shoulder (which should have been easy as I tower over her by a good 7 inches), she would hunch over and shoo me away. What was up with that? You will have to forgive some of my guesstimate.
A great part of the fun in this lesson was having some of the philosophical discussions about the ingredients and the traditions behind Bouillabaisse.
Lets start by reminding everyone that Bouillabaisse was developed as the fisherman's stew. The boat would come in, and the "good" fish would go to market. What was left became dinner for the crew. It is also a dish from Marseilles and as a result the key ingredients and flavors come from that area. It is redolent with olive oil, onions, fennel, tomatoes and garlic. Today it is a dish that each family holds THEIR famous version near and dear, and all will tell you theirs is the best.
Maman's is distinctly hers and never the same twice...here are some of the debates:
1. She starts with a combination of leeks and onions. Many recipes you will find agree, but some only use onions. In the time I have spent in the south of France, I don't remember a lot of leeks. Everywhere else, lots. But when visiting with Tatan Yvonne, I don't remember the leeks. Maman's answer, I like to mix them. Okay, I can go with that.
2. Fresh fennel or fennel seeds. Again both. Maman had some fresh fennel fronds that she chopped up and put in the initial stages of the cooking. She wasn't happy with the final stock so she crushed about a teaspoon of fennel seeds and it made all the difference in the world.
3. White wine, or dry vermouth or Pernod. Maman normally uses white wine. This day she didn't have an open bottle. I said, "Maman, two bottles in the fridge for three ladies? I am sure we can spare a little." She wasn't convinced it was enough???? (Might I interject we didn't finish the first bottle.) I asked if dry vermouth would work. She thought that an excellent idea, she uses dry vermouth in cooking fish often. It tasted lovely here. Mid-pour though she did comment, "Papa used to use Pernod, I never liked it as well though." I on the other hand love Pernod in cooking, I may have to try it.
4. La Rouille. A rouille is a garlicy mayonnaise that binds the broth after you serve the soup. It also packs a punch in the flavor department that finishes this dish to perfection. But soooo many debates. Spicy or not? With potato or not? To add an egg yolk or not? A touch of lemon juice or not? We used Harissa for the heat, the potato and the egg yolk, and a good squish of fresh lemon. It was outstanding.
5. Now for the biggest debate: What kind of fish? There are no hard fast rules of what can go in...though there are a couple of no-no's (according to Maman).
a. Flaky delicate fishes don't work well, they fall apart. No trout, flounder, or sole.
b. Salmon, tuna, and swordfish are too heavy and oily with flavors that do not work really well with the fun stuff that starts the broth.
c. crab is not really indigenous to the south of France, not a star in this dish.
So what does go in? Firm fleshed white fishes that won't fall apart in your broth. With Maman we used Cod and haddock. You could as easily use Char, Halibut, Grouper, Snapper or Monk fish. If you brave enough to do some fish filleting table side some small whole rockfish or snapper is also a good choice.
Next shellfish or no? Keep in mind that the original was the poor man's soup. No shellfish. But today? Go for it. We used some Langoustine tails, yum. But feel free to add some shrimp, clams and mussels.
The final outcome? Amazing. Thank you Maman. Now I feel confident enough to try it at home. As a matter of fact tomorrow night, for a table of 10. Yikes! If I don't get it right? Pizza?
So. Last night was the dinner party and all I can say is; Damn! I did it. AND I didn't have to order Pizza. Even the kids ate not only the ginormous shrimp but the fish, clams, AND the garlicy croutons dunked in the broth. Amazing kids I might add that aren't picky eaters. Woo-hoo to those parents.
Notes on the above philosophical debates.
1. I used only onions, no leeks.
2. I used the fennel bulb, and the fennel seeds.
3. I went with the Pernod...sorry Maman, Papa was right, very good.
4. La Rouille. Spicy, check. Potato, check. Egg Yolk, check. Meyers Lemon juice, check.
5. The Fish. I went a little nuts. Halibut, 2 lbs. Perch, 2 lbs. Cod, 2lbs. Whole Red Snapper 1 small about 2.5 lbs. Monk fish, 2lbs. Then 10 u-6 shrimp and 18 clams. All Good.
I will do this again! Thanks for the lesson Maman!