Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Stories of Bouillabaise
In 1973 my family took the biggest vacation that we had ever had. We were pretty middle class and in those days flying was still considered to be a luxury and was priced accordingly so we hit the road to California in a long 4 door sedan. Driving from Seattle with my sister and I in the enormous backseat, my father carrying with him tickets for Disneyland, one of our first stops was in San Francisco.
Somehow my Dad had specifically been told that we had to eat at the elderly but renowned Aliotos restaurant on the San Francisco waterfront. Open since 1925 you can still find the place alive and well where it has always been. For our family this was a very big treat and it was also the first time I've was introduced to bouillabaise.
Now since I was only 11 years old at the time my memory might be a bit hazy. Reading up on Aliotos today there is no bouillabaise on the menu but apparently cioppino is a long lived specialty of the restaurant. I might have to conclude that it was cioppino that I ate but since the two soups are so similar I can live with that. I remember seeing squid for the first time in someplace other than an aquarium and the rubbery feeling it had in my mouth. Most children would shy away from that, and I could be a very picky eater, but the experience of eating at the fancy restaurant with the gracious waiters and cloth napkins made everything taste delicious.
My other bouillabaise story occurred in the Canadian Rockies if you can believe it. When my husband and I were pretty newly married, and very young, I worked as a travel agent. My husband was a big skier and we were always looking for new travel adventures to have with my travel agent discount. I wrote to VIA rail and requested a discount on travel between Vancouver and Banff and they were kind enough to offer me half off. Since it was an overnight trip we reserved a cabin for 2 on the train.
We are so grateful for that experience now because you can no longer do it without selling some of your assets. The train still runs but it is a tourist train and is priced like the Queen Mary. Our double cabin consisted of 2 leather benches facing each other with an enormous picture window. While we were being served our lovely dinner in the dining car the porter turned our benches into wide beds, one top and one bottom, with heavy curtains that snapped shut to give you privacy. It felt like being in a Western movie! The experience of waking up to stare at the incredible view of the Rockies out my window as we click clocked along is probably not something I'll have again.
Now for the bouillabaise. Whenever my husband and I have a hankering for staying at a castle we find an old Canadian Pacific Hotel to stay in. The Empress in Victoria with it's super fantastic Bengal Room and the Chateau Lake Louise with it's spectacular view of the lake. But our favorite is the Banff Springs Hotel. On this trip as we toured it's giant halls our noses tripped over something delicious. We followed our noses to a small wine bar on the premises that normally did not serve much in the way of food. Apparently on the day we were there they had received a fresh load of seafood and so they were in the process of cooking a large batch of bouillabaise. Unfortunately for us it wasn't ready yet so we were never able to taste their concoction but I will never forget it's wonderful aroma.
So for me bouillabaise has always meant fancy and special. It also meant that I never considered making it myself. Something on the order of garlicky escargot - you only get it at a restaurant where they know what they're doing. But I ran into a recipe a year or so ago and I thought of a way that it might be done at home easily and inexpensively. I do the exact recipe except I cut it in half and the only seafood I add is Trader Joe's seafood mix ($5.99). It is frozen and includes shrimp, bay scallops, and calamari rings. I then purchase about 6 clams and 6 mussels from the fishmonger ($2.50) and throw them all in to finish the soup. It couldn't be simpler or tastier. Here is the recipe as I originally found it.
BOUILLABAISE - FRENCH SEAFOOD STEW RECIPE
1 LB Fin Fish (red snapper, flounder,trout)
1/2 to 1 LB Shrimp, lobster, scallops, crab meat, any or all
18 small Clams, mussels, or lobster claws, any or all
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lg onion finely chopped
2 shallots minced
4 cloves garlic finely chopped
28 oz can tomatoes (coarsely chopped) with liquid
2 Cups fish stock, claim juice, or chicken stock
1/2 cup dry sherry
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp each thyme, basil, saffron
Pepper to taste
Fresh topped parsley for garnish
Cut boneless pieces of fish into bite size pieces. Remove shells from shrimp, lobster, crab. Scrub clams and mussels. Saute onion, garlic and shallots in oil on low heat until lightly golden. In a large pot, put in all liquids and seasonings except parsely. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add all seafood, mix and simmer 10 minutes. Serve hot in large bowls with crusty bread and a tossed salad.