Bouillabaisse (Provençal-Style Fish Soup) with Croutons and Rouille

Yay! We made the cut in round 2 of Project Food Blog! This is my entry for challenge #3: host a luxurious dinner party.

There I was, one warm summer night about eleven years ago, eating one of the most luxurious meals of my life – a basket of ham and cheese sandwiches.

My friends and I were backpacking across Europe (as college graduates tend to do) and had stopped in Nice to visit some family friends of Kristen’s. Patricia and her three sons, ridiculously generous hosts that they were, moved into Patricia’s boyfriend Gerard’s house to give us free reign of their own apartment, and more importantly, their washer and dryer. We spent those few sun-drenched days wandering the streets of Nice, reveling in clean laundry, soaking up the sun at the beaches, and eating home-cooked dinners back at Gerard’s house on the hills – pretty much my definition of a perfect vacation.

I didn’t know what to expect for dinner that first night, not having had much experience with French food, let alone French home-cooking, at the time. I remember watching the glow of the sun fading and Gerard asking us to settle around the big wooden table in his backyard. I remember wine pouring into glasses, silverware passing around the table, and Patricia emerging from the kitchen with a big bowl of salad and a basket of nothing more than perfectly grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. I remember us Americans trying to thank Patricia, finding the word repas in the dictionary, and she shushing us because repas means more like “feast.” Ham and cheese sandwiches apparently did not qualify.

We sat around that basket of sandwiches for hours, munching on their buttery, crispy goodness, sipping on a seemingly-unending supply of wine, chatting about everything and nothing. Even after the sandwiches were all gone and the wine bottles were emptied, we lingered around the table, licking our salty fingers, looking up at the stars, not wanting the night to end.

I’ve gone to more dinner parties and thrown many of my own since then, but that meal of simple sandwiches still sticks in my mind after all these years. I’m realizing what I adore most about all the dinner parties I’ve loved is that same delicious feeling I felt in Gerard’s backyard, the desire to linger, to hang onto a wonderful night, refusing to let it go. So when we were tasked with hosting a dinner party/double-birthday bash at Nathan’s parents’ place last weekend, that’s the same feeling I was hoping to recapture.

Now then, when you come over for dinner, maybe you’ll understand why I may not be serving you lobster and caviar or preparing anything close to resembling a seven-course repas. I may very well offer you a humble bowl of bouillabaise and a slice of cake. But what I will guarantee is that we can linger as long as we please, even after the last of the clam shells has been emptied and the last drop of wine has been drunk.

Because to me, that is the essence of a truly luxurious meal.

Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Foods.

We used four whole red snappers and asked our fishmonger to clean and fillet the fishes for us, but giving us back the heads and the bones for the stock. The original recipe calls for two pounds of assorted fish fillets (rockfish, ling cod, halibut, etc) and separately, three pounds of fish bones/heads from white-fleshed fishes for the stock. Depending on your fishmonger, one of these might be the easier paths and easy is never a bad thing.

You can pick your favorite shellfishes (~1 lb) to use in the soup such as shrimp, mussels, and/or small clams. We chose some small New Zealand clams because they looked good at the fish market. I suggest doing something similar and see what looks fresh at your fish market.

For the fish stock:
3 lbs of fish bones and heads (see headnote)
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 carrot, sliced thickly
1 small fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
3 tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
1 small head of garlic, cut in half
extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp whole black peppercorns
¼ tsp fennel seeds
¼ tsp coriander seeds
a few sprigs of fresh herbs (e.g. fennel tops, parsley, thyme)
1 bay leaf
a pinch of saffron threads
2 cups white wine
1½ quarts water

For the soup:
2 lb fish fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces (see headnote)
extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (e.g. fennel tops and parsley)
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 lb small clams, rinsed then kept in a bowl of water so they spit out their sand (see headnote)
1 medium onion, diced finely
1 leek, white part cleaned and diced
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
a pinch of saffron threads
4-5 medium tomatoes, blanched to peel, seeded, and diced

For the croutons:
half a loaf of French bread (slightly stale is ok)
olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

For the rouille:
1 large red bell pepper
3 garlic cloves
a pinch of cayenne pepper
1 egg yolk
½ tsp water
1 cup olive oil

Make the fish stock: Rinse the fish bones/heads and if necessary, chop into pieces that will fit into a large stock pot. Heat the pot over medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the fish bones and saute for 2 min. Add all the vegetables and spices and cook for a few more minutes, until the vegetables start to soften. Pour in white wine and bring to a boil. Let boil for another couple of minutes, then add water and a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and immediately turn heat down to simmer gently. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Simmer uncovered for about 45 min. Strain and set aside.

Marinate the fish (while stock is boiling): Put fish fillet pieces in a large bowl and add in enough olive oil to coat the fish. Add chopped fennel/parsley, garlic cloves, and a generous pinch of salt. Mix and set aside.

Make the rouille (while stock is boiling): Roast the pepper either in the broiler or gas stove until the skin is completely charred. Put in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for 10-15 min. Peel off the blackened skin, remove the seeds, and puree in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Using the side of your knife, mash the garlic cloves with salt into a paste (you can also do this with a mortar and pestle). Transfer to a bowl and add cayenne, egg yolk, and water. Whisk until combined. Add in olive oil, a few drops at a time in the beginning then increasing to a slow trickle, whisking the entire time. You need to be slow with the olive oil here to create a nice and smooth mayonnaise, so be patient. Once you have a creamy mixture, add in the pepper puree and stir. Taste and adjust for salt. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Prepare the soup base: Heat a heavy pot over medium heat and add in 3 Tbsp of olive oil. Add onions and cook for 5 min, until onions start to soften. Add leek, fennel, and saffron. Cook for another 8-10 min, until vegetables are soft, stirring often to keep vegetables from browning. Add a large pinch of salt and the tomatoes. Cook for another 3-4 min. Pour in strained stock and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 more min. Taste and adjust seasonings. At this point, you can turn off the heat and let the soup base sit until you’re ready to serve dinner.

Make the croutons and finish the soup: Preheat oven to 375F. Cut the bread into thick slices and brush with olive oil all over. Lay the oiled pieces on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 10 min, until golden brown and crispy. Immediately rub croutons with garlic clove and arrange on a plate.

Bring the soup base to a simmer and add the fish. Cook gently for 3 min, then add in the clams. Cook at a gentle simmer until all the clams open their shells. Taste the soup and adjust for salt.

Ladle into bowls and serve with croutons and rouille to pass at the table.

Yield: 6-8 servings
Time: 1-1.5 hrs prep + 1 hr simmering stock


  1. 6 October 2010 at 12:06 pm

    It’s amazing how simple dishes like the sandwiches can remain etched in our memories and how great company and surroundings can elevate it to different level. Thank you for sharing your memories and inviting us to your special dinner. Everything looked amazing !

    • angi said:
      6 October 2010 at 7:05 pm

      Thanks for reading, Sharlene! I definitely have not looked at ham and cheese sandwiches the same way since. ^_^

  2. Ruby said:
    6 October 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Wow – good on you for tackling bouillabaisse! I live in Provence for a year, tasted my fair share of them, but never have been brave enough to attempt making it. Yours looks fab – good luck!

    • angi said:
      6 October 2010 at 7:06 pm

      Thanks Ruby! Funnily enough, I actually didn’t have bouillabaisse when I was in Nice – crazy, I know! But that just means I need to go back and try the real thing, right? ;)

  3. Kath said:
    6 October 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Now that is my kind of dinner party! You have my vote!

    • angi said:
      6 October 2010 at 7:06 pm

      Thanks Kath!

  4. christellar said:
    6 October 2010 at 8:07 pm

    BRAVO! This post is the highlight of my day. Wonderful story, great recipe and the picture of the snapper has me drewling profusely! Very very well done!

    • angi said:
      6 October 2010 at 11:45 pm

      So sweet of you to say, Christel – thank you! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who loves photos of fish heads. ;)

  5. Winnie said:
    7 October 2010 at 12:08 am

    I love your entry. A simple, yet delicious meal is indeed a luxury :)

    • angi said:
      7 October 2010 at 4:18 am

      Thanks for reading, Winnie! I like luxuries that I can afford every week ;)

  6. 7 October 2010 at 1:18 pm

    wow this looks incredibly rustic and gorgeous, i need to make this myself! or no wait, i just need to go to france… :)

    • angi said:
      7 October 2010 at 6:36 pm

      Take me with you! :) Thanks for reading!

  7. Dana said:
    7 October 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Everything looks gorgeous! This certainly screams elegance and luxury! Great job with this challenge :)

    • angi said:
      7 October 2010 at 6:37 pm

      Thanks so much, Dana!

  8. Barbara said:
    8 October 2010 at 3:38 pm

    Beautiful presentation and wonderful photos and if I were your guest this would spell luxury for me!

    • angi said:
      8 October 2010 at 9:22 pm

      Thanks so much, Barbara!

  9. jen cheung said:
    10 October 2010 at 1:23 am

    Congrats Congrats going onto challenge #4!!! Must be exciting for you! Good luck and all the best. Happy Thanksgiving to you! You’ll be getting the next vote from me :) Your awesome!

    Have a happy thanksgiving!
    jen @

    • angi said:
      10 October 2010 at 6:36 pm

      Thanks Jen – I just put up the post for the next challenge. Hope you like it and Happy Thanksgiving to you!

  10. Rich said:
    1 November 2010 at 6:05 pm

    First of all, I’m impressed by your storytelling abilities! I’ve got to admit, when it comes to food blogs, I typically skip to the photos and the recipe, and not much else, but that was a really great anecdote – especially considering it was more about grilled cheese than boullabaise! And it’s funny – one of my greatest meals ever was in France, too, though in Paris, and it was just a couple of baguettes with some cheese and jelly and burgundy. Incredible.
    All that to say, great post!

    • angi said:
      1 November 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Rich, your comments always make me smile – thank you! Your greatest meal in France sounds so wonderfully French and so absolutely perfect. Hurray for bread and cheese! :)

  11. saBEE said:
    30 December 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Came across this posting today as I was preparing the Alice Waters recipe…
    Thank you for the inspiration of luxurious meals!

    I look forward to delving deeper into riceandwheat.

    • angi said:
      7 January 2011 at 5:57 pm

      Thanks for reading, SaBEE! Your bouillabaisse party sounded absolutely lovely. :)

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