This savory fish stew is based on Julia Child's recipe for bourride, the "marvelous" Provencal soup enriched with saffron and garlicky aioli sauce. But it also owes much to F.I.G. in Charleston, where chef Mike Lata layers the fish atop sauteed fennel and a bed of Carolina rice.
It came to our table in two black cocottes—the desirable cast iron oval ones from Staub, of course—with wisps of aromatic steam rising from the gilded broth. Digging in was like diving for oceanic treasure—first my fork speared succulent chunks of grouper and triggerfish. I impaled a plump shrimp, then probed for the tiny mussels and baby squid drifting nearby. Plunging further I became entangled in a thicket of pale, anise-scented fennel before coming to rest on a bed of Carolina rice, soft as sand on the ocean floor.
The broth was the stuff dreams are made of: briny, buttery and lightly suffused with garlic, it bathed the sea creatures and vegetables in a warm golden liquid, as sweetly flavorful as it was fragrant.
Was it a coincidence that almost everyone at F.I.G. was eating fish stew that night? Or that we were all grinning like loons who'd just hit the piscatorial jackpot?
The minute we got home I pounced on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two and riffled through Julia’s chapter on Fish Stews and Chowders. The matelots and marmites were alluring, but when I got to her recipe for bourride, I knew I’d struck pay dirt.
Here’s how she describes Provencal Fish Stew with Aioli—Garlic Mayonnaise: “This marvelous fish dinner from Provence is for garlic lovers only, as the big chunks of fish are cooked in a broth that is then enriched with egg yolks and a mayonnaise into which at least 1 large clove of garlic per person has been pureed. Like bouillabaisse, the fish is served on a platter and the enriched broth in a tureen, but both are eaten together in soup plates….you will want nothing else but perhaps a bit of green salad and fresh fruit…[and] a strong, dry white wine such as a Cotes du Rhone or Pinot Blanc.”
Last Saturday I finally made the fish stew. I can reveal to you that B swooned a little more with each bite. (He may also have swooned because I made a huge pot, enough for six, which we proceeded to polish off by ourselves…so greedy, but so good!)
This version is close to one you’ll find in Julia’s book, but I used a few shortcuts and added some of F.I.G. chef Mike Lata's innovations. A few tips:
The broth: Since I bought fish fillets instead of whole fish, I had no bones with which to make the broth. Instead of clam juice, Julia’s suggested alternative, I started with Kitchen Basics Natural Seafood Stock, a thin, moderately tasty brew that can be revved up with white wine, sautéed vegetables, herbs and spices. I gave it some whole black peppercorns and a double dose of fennel, substituting aromatic fennel root, stems and leaves for the carrots in Julia’s recipe. It was a natural for a Mediterranean fish soup and it added the requisite sweetness.
To simplify your life, make the broth the day before you want to serve the stew—it takes less than an hour to simmer and after it cools, you can refrigerate it until you’re ready to proceed.
The Aioli: If you’ve read My Life in France, you know that Julia spent many days perfecting her “top secret” mayonnaise. Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking provides precise measurements and detailed techniques for making different quantities of the basic, hand beaten sauce—though she says you also use a blender.
The aioli in Volume Two is made the authentic way, pounding the garlic with wine vinegar and egg yolks in a mortar and pestle, then beating in the olive oil drop by precious drop. I actually whipped up a delicious, very thick aioli base mostly in the blender. But first I had to solve a problem. Do not, I repeat, not try to make this with your favorite peppery extra virgin olive oil. You will wind up with very bitter, almost inedible mayonnaise. To make a great aioli, use a mild, “round,” buttery-tasting oil: For me that meant opening a fabulously expensive bottle from L'Hostal Cazes which I had been hoarding. Made in the Languedoc, it is a lusciously soft, aromatic oil that has just the tiniest bite--worth every golden drop!
Oh, yes: When making aioli, never puree garlic in the blender. Julia ran hers through a garlic press first and then pummeled it with a pestle. For some reason, the blender blades make the mayonnaise horribly bitter. Instead grate it on a microplane and then whisk the puree into the finished mayonnaise.
The Saffron: In this savory stew the spice plays an important if supporting role, deepening the color of the broth to a deep gold, while heightening the briny sweetness of the fish. But you won’t actually “taste” saffron as a separate ingredient. That’s as it should be. In The Flavor Bible Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg quote Michel Richard on the subject: “It is a classic flavor to add to shellfish, but the minute you taste the saffron in a dish, there is too much.”
The Seafood: I hate to say this, but you shouldn’t even think about making this recipe unless you can get really fresh-tasting fish and shellfish. After sniffing—and rejecting—the options at two of my usual haunts, I went to Tom Robinson’s Seafood Market in Carrboro. This cinderblock shed, open just three days a week, sells only what the maestro has chosen from the daily catch along the Carolina shore—and only from his group of trusted fishermen.
A real fish market is a revelation, especially the fresh and briny smell of the fish laid out on the ice and in buckets. Among the drum, live blue crabs and speckled trout, I found gorgeous, huge shrimp in the shell, heads and feet still on, tiny mussels with shimmering black shells, as well as succulent grouper and triggerfish, the latter a tasty fish found in Southern waters. I also bought some grey flounder, probably not the best choice for a stew as the fillets are thin and tend to fall apart when cooked. But it was so pristine that I couldn’t resist and it did add its own delicate flavor to the dish. Next time, though, I’ll look for halibut, cod, catfish, haddock, or monkfish. (You’ll find all Julia’s suggestions in Volume Two.)
Whew! If you’ve read this far and are dismayed by the length of the recipe, take heart! If you make the broth the day before, you will have less than three hours of puttering in the kitchen before you serve this stew. The only real flurry occurs at the end when separately cooking the fish and shellfish in the broth, whisking in the aioli and assembling the stew in individual bowls.
Even that can be simplified by layering the ingredients in a large pot or tureen and bringing it directly to the table. Or do as Julia suggests and serve the broth and fish separately, letting your guests combine them in their own bowls.
As for me, I'm off to find those Staub cocottes before I die of unrequited longing. Six of them, I think. This is definitely not a stew for two.
Fish Stew with Saffron and Fennel
(Adapted from Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2, and Chef Mike Lata at F.I.G. in Charleston.)
Serves 6 generously
Ingredients for the fish stock:
1 cup thinly sliced fennel root, stems and feathery leaves
1 cup thinly sliced leeks
1 cup thinly sliced sweet onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
¾ cup chopped tomatoes
3 quarts fish stock (I used Kitchen Basics Natural Seafood Stock)
2 cups dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon fennel seed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
6 black peppercorns, whole
1/3 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
3-inch strip of orange peel
Ingredients for the aioli:
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 cup buttery, mild-tasting extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon grated garlic
Ingredients for the vegetables:
2 cups thinly sliced fennel root
1 cup thinly sliced leeks
½ cup thinly sliced sweet onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
Ingredients for the croutons:
10 slices baguette
1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil
Reserved ½ cup aioli
Ingredients for the rice:
1 cup long grain rice
Ingredients for the fish and shellfish:
2-1/2 pounds firm, white fish: I used grouper, flounder and triggerfish; other possibilities include cod, halibut, monkfish, haddock and catfish
1 pound large shrimp in the shell, heads on if you can get them
1 pound mussels, scrubbed
Method for the fish stock:
1. The day before you want to serve the stew: Heat a large stock pot over a medium low flame. Add the olive oil, and when it is fairly hot, add the fennel, leeks, and onion. Slowly cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Do not let them brown: If they start to change color, lower the heat.
2. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the packaged fish stock, white wine and all the other stock ingredients. Raise the heat to medium and when the liquid starts to bubble, partly cover the pot with a lid. Lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer and cook for 40 minutes.
3. Strain the stock and let cool. Refrigerate over night.
Method for the aioli:
1. A few hours before you want to serve the stew, make the aioli. In a blender combine 2 egg yolks, the vinegar, cayenne and salt. Whirr until blended. With the blender running, very slowly pour in the olive oil. (To keep the mixture from spattering, hold the rubber top over the blender.) You will probably be able to add ½ cup of the olive oil before the mixture becomes so thick that the blades stops whirling. At this point, turn off the blender and using a rubber spatula, scrape the mixture into a medium bowl.
2. Using a whisk, vigorously beat the mixture as you slowly drizzle in the rest of the olive oil, a teaspoon or 2 at a time. Be sure that each addition is incorporated before you add more or it may separate.
3. When all the olive oil has been added, you should have about 1-1/4 cups of the aioli base. Divide it into two parts: ½ cup and ¾ cup. Whisk 1 teaspoon of grated garlic into the ½ cup portion and store in the refrigerator in a covered bowl or plastic container. This portion will be served at the table with slices of toasted baguette.
4. Whisk the 4 remaining egg yolks, one by one, into the ¾ cup portion. Be sure that each yolk is thoroughly blended before adding the next. When all the yolks have been added, whisk in the remaining 2 teaspoons of grated garlic. Store in the refrigerator in a covered bowl or plastic container. This portion will be whisked into the fish stock before serving.
Method for the croutons:
1. Cut the baguette into 12 medium slices—there should be 2 pieces per person. Arrange on a baking sheet.
2. In a 300 degree oven, toast the slices for 15 minutes. Remove and turn the slices over. Lightly brush the untoasted sides with olive oil. Toast for another 15 minutes until the slices are crisp.
3. Remove and set aside on a plate to cool.
Method for the rice:
1. Combine the rice with 1-3/4 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes until the rice is tender.
2. Fluff the rice and set aside, partly covered with a lid.
Method for the vegetables:
1. About an hour before serving, heat a large skillet over a medium low flame. Add the olive oil and when it is hot, add the sliced fennel, leek and onion. Cook slowly until the vegetables are soft and translucent, 6 or 7 minutes. Lower the heat if they start to change color—do not let them brown.
2. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Method for the fish and shellfish:
1. Put the strained stock in a large pot and bring to a rolling boil. While you’re waiting, cut the fish fillets into large pieces, 2 to 3 inches apiece. Devein the shrimp by cutting through the shells with kitchen scissors and rinsing with cold running water. Do not remove the shells—and if you are lucky enough to find shrimp with the heads on, leave them.
2. When the stock boils, add the pieces of grouper, flounder and triggerfish and cook for 6 minutes until firm. (Julia says until “springy but not squishy to the touch.”) The stock may not return to a boil for 3 or 4 minutes, but that’s OK. The fish will cook in the hot liquid. Once the stock boils, reduce the flame to maintain a cheerful, but not violent, bubbling.
3. When the fish is cooked, remove with a strainer and place on a large plate. Add a ladle of the hot stock, cover and set aside.
4. Bring the stock back to a boil and add the shrimp in their shells. Cook for 3 minutes, or until they have turned pink and are completely opaque. Remove with a strainer and add to the plate with the fish.
5. Ladle about 1-1/2 cups of the hot stock into a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the mussels and cover. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any that have not opened their shells. Put the mussels on the plate with the rest of the seafood and return the stock to the pot.
1. Return the stock to a boil, then turn off the heat. Measure out 1-1/2 cups of the liquid.
2. Put the reserved ¾ cup aioli in a large heat proof bowl and slowly drizzle in the hot stock, whisking constantly. Once the aioli and stock have been combined, add them back to the large pot of stock and whisk well. (To keep the stock warm, you can hold it over the lowest flame, but do not let it bubble even slightly or the eggs will curdle.)
3. To assemble: Unless you are the lucky owner of some cast iron cocottes, you’ll want to warm your soup bowls. Bring a kettle of hot water to a boil. Line up your soup bowls and pour in the boiling water to warm them. (Obviously don’t do this if you are using your grandmother’s antique bone china—hot water will do.)
4. When the bowls are warm, pour out the water. In the bottom of each bowl, place about 1/2 cup cooked rice and top with ½ cup cooked vegetables. On top arrange a generous quantity of cooked fish, 3 to 4 large shrimp and 5 or 6 cooked mussels. Ladle 1-1/2 to 2 cups of the hot, aioli-enriched stock into the bowl, but do not completely submerge the seafood: Some of the shrimp, mussels and fish should be visible above the surface.
5. Serve at once with the toasted croutons and a communal bowl of the remaining ½ cup aioli for dipping. A well-chilled bottle of dry white wine and a green salad with a fairly acidic dressing are the only accompaniments you’ll need.