Saturday, September 30, 2023

On Cooking Southern: Bouillabaisse and Chowder

bouillabaisse-DSCN6369By Laurie Triplette
Fish or cut bait: Quit’cher procrastinating and talking it to death. Act now or get out of the way…. Either get on with the activity, or sideline yourself and become part of the process. The expression is interchangeable with put up or shut up, and our more vulgar Southern variation, s*** or get off the pot.
We landlocked residents of Oxford have limited access to fresh American-sourced fish and seafood during the winter months. And even at other times, we can only get our fresh  crawfish, Gulf fish, shrimp, crab and oysters thanks to enterprising residents willing to trek down to the Bayou and the Gulf Coast to haul fresh seafood back to the North Mississippi Hill Country.
Although suffering from a late-in-life fish and shellfish allergy, every winter I also suffer from an insatiable desire to stir up pots of savory seafood for my family. This winter was no different. The impulse hit me hard while we were all shivering in January, but there was no domestic Gulf seafood to be found in Lafayette County.
Imagine my excitement recently, when L&B Meat Market announced that they are now carrying fresh seafood to order! L&B takes seafood orders through noon each Wednesday, and receives the fish order(s) by 4 pm on Thursday that same week. But be forewarned: Fresh does not come cheap, and if you want heads and bones, you have to ask.
I couldn’t resist, though, and this week placed an order for redfish, grouper and red snapper, three of our tastiest Gulf fish. Alone or combined, these fish can be used to create some of the most flavorful dishes in our American and regional culinary arsenal.
Among those dishes are bouillabaisse, gumbo and fish chowder. But what makes a bouillabaisse different from a gumbo? And what makes a chowder different from a cream soup or just plain soup?
At first glance, the ingredients in a bouillabaisse may seem similar to a classic chowder, but the former is based on a fish stock and the latter contains cream. Bouillabaisse originally was a Mediterranean fisherman’s stew in the Provence region, most notably in Marseilles. A true Marseilles bouillabaisse combines three bony fish varieties sliced or diced — usually red rascasse, sea robin, and conger — along with shellfish and other seafood such as sea urchins, octopus and mussels in their shells.
The method of cooking a bouillabaisse requires that a fish stock be created from fish bones and fish heads; the fish stock or broth subsequently strained to remove the bony bits. Each fish in the bouillabaisse must be added separately and boiled in the strained stock before the other fish are added. Vegetables such as onions, celery, tomatoes and potatoes are boiled in the broth, and the dish is served with a sauce called a rouille, which is an aoli mayonnaise made of olive oil, saffron, garlic, and cayenne or roasted red pepper. The dish traditionally would be served in a bowl, with the broth ladled on top of grilled slices of bread and rouille, and sometimes with the fish and veggies in a separate dish.
Creoles adapted the classic bouillabaisse to suit our Gulf resources and melting-pot New World tastes. New Orleans-style bouillabaisse requires at least two fish such as red fish and red snapper or speckled trout and monkfish, and several types of shellfish such as shrimp, crab, oysters, mussels, clams, and even lobster. In recent years, some Louisiana bouillabaisse recipes went off the Creole track and have found their Cajun souls by adding sausage to the pot. To each his or her own, I always say. I think added sausage overpowers the fish flavors (which is saying a lot about flavor).
A chowder is a thick fish and vegetable soup of stew consistency. Chowder is not a cream soup, even though it usually contains cream. Chowders always contain chunky bits, while cream soups must have a smooth consistency from pureed ingredients. Chowder is seasoned with bacon and always contains diced potatoes and onions.
Chowder originated in France, where the fishermen would throw bits of their catch into a large cauldron, add some cream, and eat it with broken-up crackers. Breton settlers brought the dish to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They called it chaudière, after the pot in which it was cooked.
Chowder became a popular dish for practicing Catholics when they had to refrain from eating meat on Fridays. It’s still popular during the Christian Lenten season (the season when modern Catholics must still avoid meat on Friday).CLAM chowder is the American version that spread from Canada using the rich clams so plentiful along the New England coast. Clam chowder spread down the entire Atlantic seaboard to Florida. Each region along the coast developed its own variation.
The tomato-based clam chowder commonly called Manhattan Clam Chowder actually was called New York Clam Chowder in the 1890s. It consisted of a clear fish broth containing chunks of tomatoes with other veggies such as celery and carrots. Portuguese settlers in Rhode Island popularized the tomato base substitution, and even today, a Rhode Island Chowder version is popular and differs from Manhattan style because it contains no carrots or celery.
During the 19th century, various meat and chicken chowders became popular in various regions across America, always containing the telltale bacon, cream and potatoes. Corn chowder (or corn and chicken chowder) is the traditional Southern variation found away from the coast.
What makes gumbo different from a bouillabaisse or a chowder or plain ol’ soup? It ALWAYS starts with a rich roux, that basis of all things good and Cajun and Creole. Creole gumbo’s characteristic ingredients are roux-based broth containing the Louisiana trinity of celery, onions and bell peppers, and any number of different meats and seafoods.
Gumbo originated among Creole upper classes as a stew-like soup containing the finest shellfish ingredients. Then came the merging of French, Spanish, Indian and African cultures and foods in the lower Louisiana and Caribbean region. Cooks began adapting recipes to what was available, and adding thickeners such as okra and filé powder made from dried and ground sassafras leaves. A magical stew-like sauce, gravy, or juice evolved, thicker or thinner according to locale, and always served over a starch — rice  nowadays, but originally sometimes over cornmeal mush.
The word gumbo derives from several African dialects, and the very word (gumbo) has become synonymous with the attribution of comingled cultures or ingredients. Think about it.
As Stanley Dry writes in his A Short History of Gumbo for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), “gumbo” is derived from the word meaning okra in several Bantu dialects. (See quingumbom grugombo, gumbo, gombo, ngombo, ngumbo, gomboaud, ochinggombo.)  Filé powder came from the Choctaw Indians and several other regional tribes, and is used as a thickener, usually in place of okra. The dark roux used in gumbo came from the French tradition, but is much darker than that used in classic French cuisine.
Dye claims that okra and tomatoes often are paired in gumbo, and in his experience, “gumbos containing tomato are more common on the eastern side of Bayou Lafourche than they are farther west.”
The issue regarding whether or not to add tomatoes to gumbo is a treacherous one. Tomatoes often are paired with okra, but personally, I wouldn’t be caught dead adding tomatoes to my chicken and sausage gumbo, even though it contains okra. On the other hand, I gotta have ‘em in my catchall seafood gumbo!
But more on this conflict later…. This week we will focus on recipes for Bouillabaisse and Manhattan-Style Clam Chowder. Catch more on gumbo next week, just in time for Mardi Gras.
bouillabaisse-croppedDSCN6357My recipe includes a Provence-style rouille (pronounced roo-EE) which is a garlicky mayonnaise that is composed of breadcrumbs or potato with garlic, egg yolk  and olive oil and usually saffron, and that can contain chili peppers. The rouille can be made ahead and is good up to 4 days (leftovers are tasty on other meats). I recommend making up a bouillabaisse when feeding a crowd in order to incorporate more than two different types of fish and shellfish in the recipe. This truly is a case of “the more the merrier!” To freeze any leftovers, first remove any remaining whole shellfish from the broth because it will become rubbery if frozen. Simply add new shellfish when reheating from frozen.

Bouquet garni
Bouquet garni

Fish Stock:

Fish bones and heads

Bouquet garni (2 bay leaves, sprigs of thyme and parsley)

1 sliced onion

2 qts water

Prepare fish stock by simmering fish heads and bones with 1 sliced onion and Bouquet Garni in 2 qts water until liquid reduces by half. Strain, discard bones and garni; reserve liquid and bring back to a slow boil.

1 medium russet potato

2 large egg yolks

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, crushed into paste

Cayenne pepper

3 T extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp sea salt

Strand of saffron, OPTIONAL

Boil the russet potato in salted water until soft. Remove and drain, transfer the potato to a blender or food processor. Puree the potato and with machine on, add the egg yolks, minced garlic and cayenne pepper and optional saffron. Puree until smooth, and add the olive oil in a steady stream until just blended. Season lightly with salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.

1/4 c olive oil

3 medium to large onions, chopped

2 green bell peppers, chopped

2 potatoes, pared and sliced (Yukons or large reds work best)

2 T salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 c diced fresh or canned tomatoes, drained

2 large carrots, pared and cubed

1 quart boiling fish stock (chicken stock if unable to make fish stock)

Multiple 1-inch chunks of fresh fish totaling about 2 c

   (non-oily white fish such as red fish and red snapper)

1/2 lb shrimp, shelled and deveined (10-oz pkg of frozen cooked shrimp will work)

1/2 lb fresh crabmeat, OPTIONAL

*1/2 lb mussels, scallops, or clams, OPTIONAL

Juice from one lemon

1 to 2 c white wine

Fresh parsley, minced, for garnish

1 baguette of French bread, sliced and toasted

Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven, sauté onion, add green peppers, potatoes, and carrots. Cook for several minutes. Add the salt, garlic, bay leaf, tomato paste or tomatoes, and boiling fish stock.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add fish fillet chunks. Cook 10 more minutes. Add the shellfish and wine, and simmer for 15 minutes. Squeeze lemon juice into the broth and stir.  NOTE *: Remove any unopened mussels from the cooked dish; the jury’s still out regarding food safety.
To serve the bouillabaisse, slather a slice of the bread with a generous dollop of rouille and place it in the bowl. Ladle the bouillabaisse broth on top and add some of the fish and shellfish. Garnish with chopped parsley. YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.
VARIATION: For an authentic-tasting Provencal-type bouillabaisse, add fennel, about a teaspoon of saffron, and a bit of dried orange peel.
manhattanclamchowder-DSCN6373At first glance this recipe resembles a bouillabaisse. But this unique version of clam chowder differs from a bouillabaisse in that it contains ONLY clams, and is built with chicken stock or broth rather than fish stock. NOTE: The recipe calls for fresh clams, but around here, fresh clams are not often available. I have experimented with canned clams, and they’ll do in a pinch, although overnight refrigeration of the finished chowder allows the flavors to blend.

4 slices of salt pork, or thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes

2 T extra light olive oil

2 or 3 stalks of celery, diced

3 medium-sized onions, diced

1/2 c bell pepper, diced

2 medium carrots, diced

2 bottles of clam juice

2/3 c all-purpose flour

28-oz can of crushed tomatoes

15-oz can of petite diced tomatoes

1 tsp minced thyme

1 bay leaf, crumbled

1 clove of garlic, chopped

Pinch of crushed red pepper

6 medium Yukon potatoes, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes

2 qts chicken broth (organic or homemade)

4 (6.5 oz) cans of chopped clams, in their juice

3 T minced parsley

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

Heat olive oil in large skillet and add the cubed salt pork or bacon. As the meat begins to brown, add and sauté celery, onions and peppers until the veggies are transparent but not browned.
Sprinkle flour over this and mix smoothly. Stir in clam juice along with tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, and potatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking.
Stir in chicken broth and cover. Simmer until vegetables are thoroughly cooked, about 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the clams and parsley. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Allow to sit for about 30 to 45 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Reheat, but do not boil, for 5 minutes. YIELD: About 2 quarts.
BETTER VARIATION:  Substitute canned with 2 to 3 dozen fresh clams, scrubbed, rinsed and drained. Put clams in a large stockpot or Dutch oven with a half-cup of boiling water. Cover pot, set it over heat until the steam opens the clams. Remove clams from shells and chop to use. Save all broth and use in the recipe instead of bottled clam juice.
Laurie Triplette is a writer, historian, and accredited appraiser of fine arts, dedicated to preserving Southern culture and foodways. Author of the award-winning community family cookbook GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’, and editor of ZEBRA TALES (Tailgating Recipes from the Ladies of the NFLRA), Triplette is a member of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ),Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)  and the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SOFAB). Check out the GIMME SOME SUGAR, DARLIN’ web site: and follow Laurie’s food adventures on Facebook and Twitter (@LaurieTriplette).