Friday, July 14, 2006

Bastille Day Boullaibaise

On this day in 1790 a mess of French people stormed the Bastille, a big prison that was the symbol of all the evils wrought by French kings and queens during their centuries of rule and cake-eating.

There were only a few prisoners in the Bastille at the time, most misdemeanors, like ordering vin blanc with steak and dressing badly. But it was a powerful gesture and touched off what we now know as the French Revolution, without which we would not have the Statue of Liberty or Freedom Fries. So there.

I love the French, as you well know, and am part French myself so we will celebrate. Because I will use just about any excuse for a party.

First we're going over to The Neighbor's for cocktails with the couple that lives next door to her. They have been renting the house for over a year now and we talk over the fence and say things like "We really should get together". So we finally are. I'm going to make some lavender honey to pour over crotins of chevre, which will be served with crackers.

After aperitif we'll come back home to listen to Edith Piaf and eat our traditional Bastille Day supper of bouillabaisse with lots of crusty baguette. I'm going to say "yum" now. Yum.

Here's my recipe for bouillabaisse, which I simplified from a very simple recipe in Pat Wells' At Home in Provence. Traditionally, you make a fish stock from the bones and heads of fish before you start the soup. She does this as well but I don't bother. I find that my version is fishy enough without that trouble and besides, it's gross. It makes me sing that song, "Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum". Which is fun but that's as far as I really want to go.

This is also a very straightforward soup, using only one type of fish. If you are the sort who likes lots of sea creatures swimming in your bouillabaisse nothing is to prevent you from adding those in but I like the simplicity of a good fennel infused tomato broth with nice chunks of white fish. Adapt as your tastes demand.

I also have a ritual of drinking pastis while making the soup, which does nothing in particular to the end result but adds a sense of occasion to the experience.

2 pounds of firm white fish such as monkfish, grouper, or cod
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 t. fennel seeds
Bouquet garni of parsley, celery leaves, fresh bay leaves and sprigs of thyme, bound up between the 2 halves of a stalk of celery
2 t. sea salt, or to taste
2 T. tomato paste
2 T. pastis
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes with juice
1 and 1/2 quarts water
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed, quartered lengthwise and cut into bite-size pieces
small pinch of saffron threads
grated zest of 1 orange
3 T. minced fennel fronds

Aiolï (home-made or a good store-bought version)

Cut the fish into 3 inch pieces.

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, bouquet garni, and salt. Cook gently without browning for 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, pastis, canned tomatoes, water and cayenne. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Using an immersion mixer, roughly puree the liquid. (Or run everything through the coarse blade of a food mill and return to the stockpot). Taste & adjust seasoning.

Add the fennel, cover and simmer gently until the fennel is soft 15 minutes. (If you want, you can do this way ahead of serving time).

When ready to serve, bring the liquid to a very gentle simmer until heated through. Add the saffron and the fish. Lower the heat and cook gently just until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Adjust seasoning.

To serve, using a slotted spoon transfer portions of the fish and fennel to warmed bowls then spoon the broth over the fish. Sprinkle with orange zest and fennel fronds.

Pass the aiolï at table, so guests can swirl a teaspoon or two into their soup (or slather it on their bread or, like The Child, just eat it by the spoonful).

Serve with lots and lots and lots of crusty bread with butter.

Vive la France!

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