Warning: Spoilers everywhere!
Season 2, Episode: What Is Dead May Never Die
What Is Dead May Never Die! Yes, yes, but it can't be all death and drowning - pirates gotta eat too, right? Other than pirates and an occasional 'make the Iron Islands great again' kingsmoot, we don't see too much of the Ironborn culture but I like to imagine that a people so tied to the sea would also have an amazing sea based culinary tradition. When people think of the Iron Islands, do they say - "The Ironborn are insane, but the seafood there is AMAZING!" I'd like to hope so. At the very least, they must know how to make a good soup. So this week, we celebrate the Drowned God with 'a mess of fish' simmered in a delicate tomato broth. It's time for Bouillabaisse! Bless THAT with salt!
The first time I had bouillabaisse I was staying with a friend's family in their renovated farmhouse in the south of France. When we arrived, the kitchen was only partly finished so we improvised with a tiny, tiny charcoal grill and 2 electric hot plates set up on the outdoor patio. For two weeks, 5 adults and 2 small children ate very, very well with this very basic set up. One day my friend's mother, Annick, returned from the marché with a bag full of fish, ripe tomatoes and a food mill. She spent all afternoon preparing bouillabaisse for our supper that evening, which we ate on the outdoor patio under a summer sunset with fresh baguettes, salads, cheeses and as usual, a great amount of local wine. It was the perfect meal. I was, and am still, smitten with the magic of that evening.
I had accepted that something as magical and as French as bouillabaisse was surely too difficult for a mere home cook like me when I came across a recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything for a One-hour Bouillabaisse. ONE HOUR?! I had my doubts...but then again, Mark Bittman was my dude. His cookbook is basically my kitchen bible. Even if it wasn't authentic, it was still going to be very good. And it was. Really really good. Perhaps not my friend's French mother using a food mill in France authentic, but still it's easier than I expected and incredibly delicious. Et voila, this is now my go-to recipe for a seafood fete, in summer, eaten outdoors, with a crowd of friends.
Bittman states that in spite of the aura of mystery surrounding 'bouillabaisse' it really just comes down to "...a mess of fish cooked in broth." This is a good mantra to keep in mind if you start to get overwhelmed. This recipe is relatively simple, so everything depends on the quality of your ingredients. A good fish stock is key, preferably homemade or the best you can buy - I get an excellent one from my local fishmonger (Fish King, if you're in the LA area.) The stock will make or break your soup. And of course, great quality seafood. Use a combination of your favorite seafood - white fish, like cod, snapper, halibut; mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops - and if your fish shop just happens to have beautiful fresh Santa Barbara shrimp on hand (as they did this time around) well, sometimes you just have to splurge.
But what makes this recipe so French and so good, is this combination: Orange zest, fennel seed, tarragon and a splash of Pernod (or Pastis). Pastis is the glass of something that you order when you happen to find yourself in a small medieval village with cobblestone streets at 2 in the afternoon; you stop at a small cafe by the courtyard, sit at a little table under the awning and sip this lovely milky colored Pastis over ice as you watch old men play Bocce under the shade trees (true story). Pastis is that golden French mid-afternoon sunlight, bottled and poured out in a glass. You may not like anise, detest licorice, but a little bit of this in your bouillabaisse is what brings the Frenchy magic. Trust me. (Don't worry, if you follow this blog, we will be using it again.)
One other thing, Bittman's recipe does not blend the broth, but in honor of my first French bouillabaisse and the memory of Annick cranking that food mill by hand, I blend my broth (with an immersion blender) before adding the seafood back into the broth. Blending emulsifies the components nicely and for me, makes for a more refined and flavorful broth. Served with bread grilled with olive oil and garlic and a dollop of rouille, this soup delivers the very best the Drowned God can offer.
adapted from How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
6-8 servings; about 1 hour cooking time (really.)