The onset of winter changes something in me. Maybe it’s because, after months of stifling heat, it’s time to break out chunky sweaters, fire pits, and whiskey. Or maybe I know the holidays are just around the corner and this year I have a brand new baby to showcase the joy of the season. Anyway, I love the slow calmness that cool weather brings. How it enchants simple things like the changing leaves or the smell of burning wood in the air. The change in pace also affects my own cuisine: lately I can’t help but cook thick stews, time-consuming stews and silky soups.
One dish I like to prepare when it gets cold is a hearty bouillabaisse. While a bowl can often cost a lot of money in a restaurant, it’s more affordable at home and evokes its origins as a humble Provencal fisherman’s stew made from scraps of fish too undesirable to sell.
The magic of bouillabaisse does not lie in the value of the fish or the preparation technique, but in the fusion of its ingredients. Like a carefully crafted spell, they alchemize to create something soulful that is worth tasting.
Traditionally, bouillabaisse is made from different types of firm white fish, cockles, clams, and the occasional pieces of lobster or shrimp. Fortunately, living the south means I have access to some of the finest seafood the Gulf Coast has to offer. Since the ports of Marseille, where the stew originated, are a bit far away for me, I get creative with the ingredients I get my hands on.
In this south-inspired bouillabaisse, tender pieces of catfish are substituted for Mediterranean fish like red snapper or turbot, while local shrimp and lump crab add a plump sweetness. The stock is enriched with fleshy gulf oysters and is given an unmistakably salty punch with a generous addition of small-necked clams and mussels. The dish is enhanced by tiny ribbons of saffron swirled into the burnt orange broth. Throw in a few slices of a toasted baguette (extra points if you rub garlic on them) and abracadabra, you have a warm bowl of magic in your hands.
Southern bouillabaisse recipe
Olive oil, as required (approx. ¼ cup at the beginning)
1 onion, chopped (approx. 1 ½ cup)
2 carrots, small cubes (approx. 1 cup)
2 stalks of celery, small cubes (approx. 1 cup)
4 cloves of garlic, sliced (I prefer the texture this way, but they can also be chopped or minced)
3 sprigs of thyme
1 small fennel bulb, sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
5-7 small Yukon Gold potatoes, halved
¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper, optional (plus more to taste)
¼ teaspoon saffron, optional but highly recommended
4 cups (32 ounces) store-bought seafood broth
2 cups (16 ounces) of clam juice
¾ cup of crushed tomatoes
12-15 mussels, bearded
10-12 small neck clams, scrubbed, rinsed, and rinsed
Save 1 glass of fresh gulf oysters, juice and check for clams
1 catfish fillet (about 1 pound), cut into 1-inch slices
8-10 prawns, shells left
1 cup jumbo lump crab
Salt and pepper to taste
4-8 thick slices of good bread
Step 1: Put the olive oil in a Dutch oven and heat it over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, fennel, potatoes, crushed red pepper flakes, and saffron. Cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Step 2: Add the broth, clam juice and mashed tomatoes and bring them to a boil; cook until broth is thick and slightly reduced, about 20-25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Step 3: Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and add the mussels, clams, and oysters along with the oyster juice. Cook for 5 minutes. Add catfish and prawns and cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the crab meat and let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Step 4: Remove the thyme stalks from the broth, then season to taste and season. Add more red bell peppers if you want a more flavorful broth.
Step 5: Garnish with fennel fronds and serve immediately with a few slices of crispy French bread.
Ryan Shepard is an Atlanta-based food and liquor writer. She loves Mexican food, bourbon and New Orleans.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer and stylist and lives in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa