Updated: Sep 4, 2018
Wrinkled noses, pitied sighs, fallen smiles: these are the reactions I met most often when telling people, "je vais à Marseille."
"Marseille is not France," they'd tell me, either with each word landing like a punch or with obstinate eyerolls. Even after arriving, my gently-speaking Airbnb hostess explained the city's grit, roughness, friction. "It is difficult to live here."
Hear me out: visit anyway.
A frenetic energy is punctuated by hard lines, but no hard and fast rules. Look around and you'll just as soon see a topless woman as one in a hijab, French graffiti as Arabic, rosaries dangling from wrists as inverted cross tattoos. Stand in just the right spot in Le Panier and the classic French whimsy of an accordion will sigh into one ear while drums reverberate Moroccan rhythms into the other. Oh, and this is all while familiar aromas of basil and oregano make you wonder which winding street will lead to the Italian pizzeria.
I will give the naysayers this much: if dropped in the middle of Marseille and made to guess where you are, you'd guess wrong. Tell me, is that not awesome?
No, Marseille won't put up any fronts for you. It won't take long to feel like you're a year into the relationship, no illusions about the city's ticks or bad habits that might make things hard down the line. But we are all much more than the hard stuff, and this city is no exception.
Marseille builds on itself. The streets resemble tree rings; the history—and I mean both the grand type of history and the tiny histories each individual leaves behind—is built up on the streets and buildings. The city is constantly adding to its collection without ever quite erasing who or what came before. Less of a melting pot and more of a stew, each element manages to remain distinct, but still bound in harmony by some externality. Couldn't tell you what that is, exactly. Maybe the desire to live on the ocean, or in a historic city, or in a place that doesn't demand you erase a single thing about where you were before. Whatever it is, it works.
"Quel est le plat par excellence de Marseille?" The quintessential Marseille dish? In keeping with the theme of complexity, the answer was overwhelmingly: bouillabaisse. The traditional Provencal fish stew was once the fisherman's answer to market-day leftovers, and today is a wildly expensive, two-part meal, largely served at restaurants for which you need a reservation.
The silky tomato broth is flavorful enough to eat on its own, but with garlic croutons made with one of my favorite techniques for getting big flavor into simple ingredients, a selection of sea creatures, and a spicy, tangy topping (simplified from the bread-thickened original), it becomes an I-can't-believe-I-made-this kind of dish.
Even simplified, this dish requires a good deal of preparation and multitasking. Highly recommend getting your mise en place—all your cutting and measuring—done before getting started.
Bouillabaisse (feeds 5-6)
Time: 1.5-2 hours
For the Croutons
1 baguette, sliced into 1 inch cubes
1/2c neutral oil (canola, sunflower)
1/2 shallot, sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 sprig fresh thyme, rubbed between your fingers to release the oils
For the Soup
2 yellow onions, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
1/8c dry white wine
4 tomatoes, peeled (see step 3)
4 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 pinches saffron
2 bay leaves
zest from 1 lemon
1-2 pounds fish trimmings (heads, tails, bones, shells—ask the fish guy!)
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried tarragon
4 sprigs fresh parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons Kosher salt or 1 tablespoon table salt
For the Rouille
1/2c mayo (if you're in the States, preferably Duke's, the be-all-end-all of mayos)
1 clove garlic, crushed into a paste
1 pinch saffron
1/8 tsp cayenne
salt & pepper to taste
For the Fish
1 small filet of lean, firm-fleshed fish per person (cod, sea bass, haddock, tilapia, grouper, mahi mahi)
6-8 shrimp per person
5-6 mussels per person
1 clove garlic, minced
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place 1/2c neutral oil in a small saucepan on medium-low heat with sliced shallot, crushed garlic, and thyme. Leave to steep for 30-40 minutes. If it starts to sizzle, turn down the heat slightly. Oil should become very fragrant.
3. Peel your tomatoes: place small pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice with just enough cold water to cover. Using a sharp knife, make shallow X's on the bottoms of your tomatoes. When boiling, submerge tomatoes for about 40 seconds and then plunge into ice bath. Use your knife to easily peel away the skins. Discard skins and set tomatoes aside.
4. Add 2 glugs of neutral oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat over medium-high heat. Roughly chop onions, carrots, and the white portion of the leek. When oil is shimmery and loose, add to pot. Cook until onions are golden brown and there's a bunch of brown goodness (aka "fond") built up on the bottom of the pot.*
5. Deglaze pot with white wine and cognac, scraping up any bits of brown stuck to the bottom with a wooden spoon. Cook until nearly dry. It shouldn't smell like alcohol at this point.
6. Add crushed garlic and stir just until you get the first garlicky whiff, then squeeze (yes, squeeze) the tomatoes into the pot and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.
7. Add fish trimmings, lemon zest, dried tarragon, dried thyme, bay leaves, saffron, and 7 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 40 minutes.
8. While soup is simmering, toss cubed baguette with steeped oil. Spread baguette out evenly on a sheet tray and pop into 350 degree oven for 25 minutes, tossing 2-3 times during cooking process.
9. After 40 minutes, blend soup with a traditional or immersion blender until thick but not chunky. Strain through a fine sieve into a medium-sized pot, pushing every bit of liquid through with a wooden spoon. We only want the broth at this point, discard the leftover pulp.
10. Place back on heat with fresh thyme and fresh parsley sprigs and reduce liquid by 1/3. You should clearly be able to see the line on the side of the pot where your soup started to gauge the reduction.
11. While soup is reducing, make your rouille. Mix mayo, garlic, lemon juice, saffron, and cayenne in a small bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. 12. Once reduced, remove from heat and season to taste. The amount of salt will vary, but start with two tablespoons kosher salt or 1 tablespoon table salt. Keep adding bit by bit and, most important, tasting until the flavor “pops!” One of the big secrets to restaurant cooking being so mind-blowing is that they almost always add more salt than think you need.
13. Place soup back on medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Add your fish, cook for one minute. Add your shrimp, cook for 3 minutes. Remove fish, which should be flaky, and shrimp from broth and set directly into serving bowls.
14. Heat a glug of oil over medium-high heat until shimmery and loose. Add chopped garlic and stir just until you can smell it, and immediately add 1/2c cognac, followed by mussels. Stir so mussels are well coated. Cover pot and steam mussels for 7-10 minutes or until they open, stirring once or twice. Discard any that don't.
15. Place 5-6 mussels, 6-8 shrimp, and one filet per person in each bowl. Ladle broth over, sprinkle croutons, drizzle rouille, and garnish with fresh parsley. Serve immediately.**
*Note: If you notice the fond building up too much, add a splash of water, wine, or stock and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to loosen it all up. I honestly tend to try to build it up on purpose, because it makes everything so, so tasty.
**Alternatively, you can easily make the broth, croutons, and rouille 1-2 days ahead of time and just leave the preparation of the fish and shellfish for immediately before serving.