This marvel from Marseille, bouillabaisse with rouille, is sunshine in a bowl. No wonder it’s one of the brightest stars in French cuisine. It pairs broth-poached seafood with a fiery sauce of cayenne chilies, roasted bell peppers, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice.
In his enjoyable guide to French regional cooking, Floyd on France, Keith Floyd points out that fish stews are deeply loved throughout that country. He emphasizes his point by offering recipes for nine provincial varieties, but — and I’d say rightly — he puts bouillabaisse with rouille right up front.
A marriage made in heaven — bouillabaisse with rouille
The French word for rust — rouille — is what gives this accompanying sauce its color-coded name. Rouille is traditionally served with bouillabaisse because they really do make the perfect couple. And it’s their diametric contrasts that bind them together in such a sensational pairing.
This is a dish that proves, beyond all doubt, the truth of the adage — opposites attract. Put these two together, and they lift one another to a higher level.
On the one hand, you have a saffron-enriched broth with a base of onion, fennel, tomato, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, dried orange peel, and olive oil. The seafood — fillets of white fish, plump shrimp tails, and half-shell mussels — is carefully simmered in the broth until it’s just cooked through. That scant simmer means each seafood element keeps its own distinct flavor and texture.
Those subtle, oceanic flavors of the bouillabaisse are then brightly lit by the deep, rich, smoky heat of the rouille with its roasted bell peppers and cayenne chilies. The balancing contrast with the seafood become even more clearly delineated by the rouille’s rusty color and its creamily thick smoothness. That consistency comes from a combo of the rouille’s thickening breadcrumbs, and the body-building effect of slowly adding generous amounts of olive oil during the sauce’s final mixing — in a manner similar to making mayonnaise.
And the wonders keep on coming
Even though this is a seriously enjoyable and impressive dish, it’s surprisingly easy to make. It might be from the top drawer of French cuisine, but there’s nothing at all complicated about its preparation, its cooking, or its presentation.
And time-wise? About an hour, all told. Yep, that’s right. You can easily have this on the table — with some fine, crusty baguettes — in around sixty leisurely minutes.
It might be hard to believe, but there is a final, perhaps equally pleasant surprise. This is not an expensive dish. It was originally prepared as a way for the fisherfolk of Marseille to relish the less money-making, marketable components of their catch. And they became astonishingly good at doing just that.
Now, there are so-called deluxe bouillabaisse recipes that call for a few whole lobsters and equally high-end white fish like sea bass. For me, these variants miss the whole magical point of a dish that is essentially about transforming fairly ordinary seafood into something that is truly extraordinary.
A word about the non-oily, white fish fillets
I used two varieties — hake and firmer-fleshed monkfish. That gave me an appealing mix of textures and flavors, but a similar combination of relatively inexpensive and readily available white fish will be just dandy. If you can find fresh fillets, so much the better, but I very happily used frozen.
Bouillabaisse with Rouille
For the rouille
- 6 cayenne chilies fresh and red, roughly chopped, seeds and all
- 4 red bell peppers leave these whole — they’re going to get a hot charring, and only then be skinned and deseeded
- 1 cup breadcrumbs from a stale-ish baguette would be grand, but any good quality white bread will be fine. I used part of a day-old ciabatta loaf — because that’s what I had to hand. Just dandy.
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 2/3 cup olive oil
For the bouillabaisse — all the seafood I used was frozen — and just barely defrosted
- 1 pound monkfish fillets cut into bite-size chunks
- 1 pound hake fillets Alaskan pollack or similar will also be fine. I chose skin-on fillets because the skin adds flavor that I don’t want to miss out on. Cut the fillets into bite-size chunks.
- 1 pound shell-on shrimp or prawn tails — medium-sized, the nicely plump ones I used were about 3 inches long
- 1 pound half-shell mussels
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled, and chopped into ¼ inch dice
- 3 leeks topped, tailed, and sliced into 1/8 inch rounds. Use as much of the crisp green parts as you can.
- 1 fennel bulb medium-sized, chopped into ¼ inch dice — stalks, fronds, and all
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 ripe tomatoes skinned and roughly chopped, seeds, juice, and all. The pair I used each weighed about 4 ½ ounces.
- 4 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron
- 1 slice dried orange peel For this, I cut from a fresh orange a piece of peel about 4 inches long and 1/3 inch wide. I then microwaved the peel on high for about 90 seconds to dry it. Easily done.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 fish stock cube
- 6 cups boiling water
Making the rouille
- This begins by roasting the whole bell peppers under a hot grill / broiler, so their skins start to char and blister. They then get sealed in a plastic bag to steam in their own heat. Once they’ve cooled enough to handle, it’s really easy to scrape off their skins.
- So, set your grill / broiler to high. When it reaches temperature, lay the peppers on a baking tray, and let them roast under that high heat for 15 minutes. You’ll need to turn them a few times as they roast to get a fairly even, dark char all over their surfaces.
- Once they’re darkly charred and still hot, remove them from the grill / broiler, and quickly seal them inside a plastic bag. Because they’re still hot, they’ll steam themselves in the bag. After 5 minutes of that steaming, take them from the bag, and scrape of all the charred skin.
- Halve the peppers lengthwise, cut away the top stem, and deseed them. Good, peppers done.
- Add the prepped peppers to your food processor together with all the other rouille ingredients except the olive oil. The oil only gets added a little later. Blitz until you a have a smooth, red paste.
- Now set the processor to a low speed, and very slowly — and I mean very slowly — pour in the olive with the processor running on low. If you add the oil too quickly, you’ll find it won’t blend fully with your rouille paste. So, you should reckon on taking at least 90 seconds to slowly trickle in the oil. Take it that slowly and the oil will become completely combined with paste — excellent, rouille done.
- Turn the rouille into a pretty serving dish and set it in the refrigerator while you make your bouillabaisse. You’ll find that the rouille thickens a little more during this time — and that’s just what it’s supposed to do.
Making the bouillabaisse
- If you want to, you can begin this while the peppers are steaming away in their sealed bag.
- You’ll need a big pot that can easily hold all the bouillabaisse’s ingredients. I used a large, cast-iron Dutch oven / casserole pot.
- The first thing is to make the base for your broth. So, set your big pot on a medium heat and add the olive oil. Let it heat for a minute, then add the onion, leeks, fennel, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and salt. You’re now aiming to soften everything in the pot with some slow stir-frying for about 5 minutes. The emphasis here is on softening the mix, rather than trying to add any color to it.
- Now stir in the chopped tomatoes and their juices, and let the pot come up to a bare bubble. As soon as that happens, add the boiling water, saffron, dried orange peel, stock cube, and pepper. Drop the heat to low, and let the broth simmer slowly on that low heat for 30 minutes.
- Time now to start poaching the seafood. Turn the heat to medium and add the firmest-fleshed white fish — mine was the monkfish. As soon as the pot comes back to its slow simmer on that medium heat, add the other white fish — mine was the hake — together with the shrimp / prawn tails, and the mussels. Once the pot starts to simmer again, drop the heat to low. Your bouillabaisse is very nearly ready. Check for saltiness, and perhaps add a little more salt according to your taste.
- Let the pot slowly simmer at a very gentle bubble for 10 minutes. Done. Turn off the heat and give the pot a couple of gentle stirs. Take some care with those few stirs so as not to break up the seafood. All that’s left to do now is to warm some biggish soup bowls — then you’re ready to serve.