Monday, February 15, 2010


One intersection of my lifehacking and cooking efforts happens with my decision to follow through on things I've long said I will do. In the case of this weekend's Valentine's celebration with L and several friends, this included finally making bouillabaisse. It is something I've said I would do for several years, but every time I almost did it, I backed off. Not this time.

I did my usual recipe digging and found that bouillabaisse, like paella, is one of those dishes that has few rules other than the the base ingredients. In my research, though, I kept coming back to a version of Julia Child's original recipe. It is a simple matter of building the stock and then letting the rest of the ingredients come together as needed and based on what you have available to you. And then, of course, there's the rouille.

Once I'd settled on the recipe, the next step was plotting out the ingredients. Bouillabaisse can be a pricey affair — unless you happen to be family of someone who harvests shellfish and catches fresh fish. Since the numbers from dinner could have ranged from 6 to 12, I had to shoot a little high on the ingredients. Since I also had to aim for convenience and time-efficiency, the source would be Whole Foods. I started with a half pound of mussels, a dozen littleneck clams, a dozen extra large shrimp with the shells on, and two-thirds of a pound of scallops. By and large, the shellfish were in beautiful shape, though I did end up pitching about a quarter of the mussels. For the fish, I opted for tilapia and cod, almost two pounds total. They had the right consistency and flavor and were beautiful cuts without being as expensive as other options.

I made a few other substitutions along the way. For the sake of time and since truly beautiful tomatoes are hard to come by right now, I opted for a large can of diced tomatoes. I also skipped the step when fish skeletons are stewed and used a mix of my own fish stock, a quart of Whole Foods' fish stock, and a quart of water to cut the intensity. The other tweaks I made to the base recipe included a healthy splash of Cointreau and about a quarter cup of Sauvignon Blanc. I also decided to rest the broth off heat between the initial near-boil and bringing it back to heat and adding the seafood a couple hours later.

Bouillabaisse was a muse a while back, but not something I'd ever cooked. As such, I didn't know about rouille — the little side sauce that creates a bit of magic when dolloped in bowls and slathered on fresh, crusty bread. Most recipes use water- and lemon- soaked bread as the base for the paste, but Julia's recipe had a variation using almonds. Since we'd be heavy on the bread anyway, I decided to try the almonds as an alternative. By the time I was working on the rouille, I also had word that the crowd would be 12, and I decided to double the recipe. I roasted two peppers using Alice Waters' oven-roasting technique, added my own dried chili from last summer's market. The puree quickly turned a bright orange — aided by a touch of saffron — and I began adding the olive oil per the recipe. At a taste, the flavors were rich and explosive, but L thought it tasted a bit heavy on the olive oil. It was a perfect opportunity for a little kitchen training for the kid, a chance to explain that you countered the fatty flavor of the oil by adding more lemon, more salt, and a bit more of the chili to sharpen the flavor. Another couple minutes running in the food processor, and the rouille was ready to put aside.

After a quick interlude for Valentine's Day celebrations and a glass of Linden Vineyards excellent 2005 Claret (another story for another time), we migrated the food next door for the actual dinner party. The celebration was kicking in, and it would be another hour or so before I'd go through the final steps. At that point, ti became a game of time — adding the shrimp, then the clams and mussels, then the scallops and finally the fish sliced into inch-wide strips at intervals so the soup could be pulled off the fire and served minutes after the last fish was added. Timing hasn't always been my strong suit, but it worked this time.

At final listing, the menu stacked up as follows: cheese fondue with vegetables and bread, a pear/walnut/gorgonzola salad, the bouillabaisse with bread baked fresh by our host, a champagne rose petal sorbet also made by the host, chocolate fondue, and home-made eclairs. The wine flowed, the kids had their own celebration, and it was declared one of the best (and most decadent) food celebrations any of us could remember.

There's something magical to sharing a meal with people. When done well and in the right company, all sorts of boundaries can drop and time stops for a brief, wonderful period. When you step away with full stomachs and the touch of sweet and bite of savory still lingering on your lips, a light just seems to shine on the rest of life.