Cooking Lessons: Bouillabaisse

The very first time I had seafood stew was in my early 20’s. I ordered it at a French restaurant in the U.S. under the name “bouillabaisse”. I didn’t love it. The broth was bitter and the whole dish smelled like stale urine to me.

It was a while before I dared to try that dish again. The next time I tried it was on vacation in France.

Dark toasted, crusty bread was served first on its own plate. Moments later a pot arrived at the table. As the lid lifted, steaming streams of fennel, saffron, and a hint of salty sea rolling off morning waves struck and stirred my hunger.

Carefully the contents of the pot were ladled into a shallow, pristine white bowl. Spoons full of black mussel shells, white fish pieces, red sauce, dark green herbs, bright orange carrots, and golden potatoes were applied like paint on canvas.

The taste and texture of every ingredient in that bowl were varied and divine. It wasn’t like a soup or stew where everything cooks together to make mushy bits that all taste like each other. It was a flavor medley and every bite was a sensual experience.

I had to use a combination of my fingers and flatware to pick out mussels, cut fish into smaller portions, and spoon up broth. With a final bite of bread I scraped clean the last lick of liquid making the bowl a blank canvas once more.

I tried several times to make that dish after coming home. But frankly, I used to be an over-cooker. I also thought I had to follow complicated recipes. I didn’t understand how easy it was to cook quality ingredients and let those naturally rich flavors speak for themselves.

Honestly, back then, I don’t think I knew that the ingredients were supposed to taste good on their own — without additives like bouillon cubes and salty or sugar filled condiments. Thankfully, my culinary life took a turn and I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with chefs watching them whip up amazing meals in minutes.

Cooking Skills

A Belgian chef taught me to make the very simple meal of moules frites (mussels and fries). Finely chopped savories like shallots or garlic, carrots, celery, and a tad of butter caramelized doused with white wine make the broth. The mussels, added last, cook quickly in that broth bath and the trapped steam rising from that lush liquid concoction. The entire process takes less than 20 minutes, including washing vegetables and chopping. The mussels only take three minutes.

The hardest part was timing the fries to be done when the mussels were ready. For that, I cooked fries several times separately to figure out how long it took so I could plan when to start the fryer and put in my first batch. You could also just serve the mussels with toasted bread.

Not long after that, another chef showed me how to pan sear herbs in butter, brown fish on both sides for color, and deglaze the pan with a cup of aromatic stock, white wine, or even a mix of orange and lemon juice. Then, you finish by poaching the fish in the pan liquid.

Later, I learned to make various types of stock using all the leftover vegetable tops and whatever high mineral-rich, gelatinous, and collagen-containing animal or fish parts collected from other dinner preparations.

Making Bouillabaisse

As it turns out, those very simple skills are most of what you need to know to make a proper Provence-inspired bouillabaisse. The only truly tricky part is using those skills at the right time so everything finishes together.

To do that, I suggest you make the stock in advance. Chop all the veggies and aromatics before you start to cook. Lightly brown the veggies then top with stock to cook to al dente, not mushy! Add aromatics like garlic, fennel, and saffron just before the seafood goes in so it melds with the broth but doesn’t cook too much and lose the fragrance.

Meanwhile, slightly undercook each kind of fish, crustacean, and mollusk separately. Fold them gently into the vegetables and stock. They’ll finish cooking in the hot broth.

The last 3 minutes of cooking is when all the individually prepared fish types go into the broth. Then for a few brief moments, they all mingle together in a pot before the eater meticulously deconstructs the dish bite by bite, using fingers and flatware, and a crust of bread.

It’s a bit like making a sand castle before the tide comes in – a fleeting but utterly enjoyable act of creation. Like building a sand castle, this task also doesn’t require complex instructions only a few basic seafood preparation skills and a little creativity.

Once you make a simple version using perhaps shrimp, mussels, and one kind of fish, you can also branch out to different variations with more kinds of seafood. Also, try adding some Spanish chorizo or a mix of milk and eggs, cooked over low heat to cream and drizzle over a winter version of this lovely seafood stew.

Also, since we live inland, I rarely have access to enough fish parts to make a proper fish stock. Instead, I use duck or pork stock that I always have on hand in my freezer. (Yes- that would be blasphemy in France. But here on my homestead, I’m the chef!) And since I grow vegetables year round, my mix of vegetables vary. I like to add kale and collards in winter and tomatoes and peppers in summer.

Cooking Lessons

The lessons we learn preparing wholesome meals in the kitchen translate readily to our everyday lives. For example, in all areas of homesteading, learning one small task, then another, and eventually combining those multiple small tasks you know how to do together to accomplish a complex task is relaxing and satisfying. Trying to tackle a complex task before you know the basics, by contrast, is unnecessarily stressful and often ineffective.

Whether in the kitchen, around your homestead, or in other areas of your life, starting simple and working toward more complex activities is great way to expand your skills without all the stress and unnecessary hard work too often (incorrectly) associated with homesteading living.

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