There are some foods so evocative of their place of origin that their smell, taste, and texture can immediately transport you—even if your only actual experience of the place in question is from popular culture. A buttery, flaky croissant that's just slightly hard at the edges with a steamy interior that pulls away from the sides like fortified cotton candy? Probably Paris. A viscous cheese fondue: hot, malodorous, and draped over cubes of stale baguette? That’s Switzerland. A big juicy hamburger piled high with lettuce and tomatoes on a proud poufy bun? Welcome to America.
And without question, the aroma of a delicate seafood stock seasoned with fennel, saffron, and orange zest that's towering with glossy mollusks will transport you straight to the South of France, to the port city of Marseilles—the same port city that Julia Child called home for a year in the mid-1950s.
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Marseilles remains proud of one particular creation—bouillabaisse. Dozens of versions of this famous fish soup exist, each one as celebrated as the original. Recipes differ in amounts of tomato, types of fish, and the thickness of the broth. While there may indeed be a difference here or there, in local restaurants the essential elements of bouillabaisse remain the same: stock, seafood, croutons, cheese, and rouille (a spread with an aioli-like consistency made of olive oil, saffron, bread, garlic, and red pepper). Waiters in old coastal establishments in Marseilles make a grand show of serving each component individually so diners can customize their portions.
The difference between bouillabaisse and any other fish soup lies in the combination of flavors beyond the seafood stock. A hint of saffron, an accent of zested orange, and a few sliced fennel bulbs and fronds bring out an essence from the seafood that would otherwise remain hidden. While they might seem simple, omit any one of these ingredients and the depth of flavor in your bouillabaisse will lose the complexity that earned it such a vibrant reputation.
My preference is a bouillabaisse with a small amount of tomato and generous amounts of fennel and saffron, so the recipe here reflects that. Feel free to experiment by adjusting the amounts of tomato, fennel, orange zest, and saffron to suit your own tastes. Ultimately, a balance of ingredients is the most important factor, as you're aiming for a soup with flavors like a symphony: all in tune but with each instrument only minutely recognizable.
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped 1 small bulb of fennel 1/4 cup fennel fronds (plus a few extra for garnish) 1 pound fingerling potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces 2 bay leaves 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in 1 tablespoon warm water for at least 5 minutes 9 cups seafood stock (homemade if possible, Bar Harbor if not) 1 tablespoon orange zest 1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled 1/2 pound mussels, scrubbed and any beards removed 1/2 pound small hard-shelled clams, scrubbed 3 pounds white fish fillets (such as red snapper, striped bass, grouper, and/or cod), cut into 2-inch pieces 1 1/2 tablespoons coarse sea salt 1 tablespoon Pastis (such as Pernod), optional Parsley, chopped for garnish Rouille spread over baguette crisps, recipe below
For the rouille and baguette crisps:
1 cup cubed baguette, most of the crust removed 3 tablespoons water 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and divided 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 tablespoons bouillabaisse broth or seafood broth Baguette 2 large peeled garlic cloves Extra-virgin olive oil