The memorable tastes of bouillabaisse are rich and heavenly. I have worked my way through countless but always joyful tureens of bouillabaisse. In Golf-Juan the Tètou restaurant makes a wonderful bouillabaisse, and the proprietor, Jacques Marquis, Monsieur Jacques, may wax about the fragrance of the broth perfumed with leeks, fennel, and saffron and rich with fish like rascasse, the scorpion fish essential to this famous fish boil of Provence. In Marseilles, an extraordinary bouillabaisse can be found at the Miramar restaurant, while in Cap d'Antibes they say you must not miss the bouillabaisse of the Bacon restaurant.
First, you must find the rascasse (scorpionfish) or other member of the Scorpaenidae family. Scorpion fish are sometimes sold fresh in ethnic fish stores, but one is likely to find, at times, excellent rascasse substitutes in North Atlantic and Pacific Scorpaenidae such as blue-mouth, redfish (ocean perch), rockfish, and sculpin. Other excellent-tasting fish with similar flesh textures will also work well, fish such as wolffish (ocean catfish), striped bass, sea bass, red snapper, grouper, wreckfish, tautog (blackfish), and tilefish. Without getting into too much detail, one reason the rascasse tastes good is its diet among the rocks of the deep waters it inhabits. After much experimenting, I believe the taste of scorpion fish can be approximated by using a combination of redfish (ocean perch), the fish closest in taste, or wolffish (ocean catfish), grouper, red snapper, or dogfish (Cape shark) in a one-to-one ratio for the amount of rascasse called for.
Some connoisseurs believe that it is impossible to make an authentic bouillabaisse without fish from the Mediterranean. The famous English food writer Elizabeth David wrote in her French Provincial Cooking that "It is useless attempting to make a bouillabaisse away from the shores of the Mediterranean." I have never been attracted to this kind of food snobbery, it limits the culinary imagination and isn't true. I disagree that one cannot hope to make bouillabaisse outside of the Mediterranean. It can be done, I have done it, and this is the recipe. But, admittedly, you must know your fish, choose carefully, and search for a quality fishmonger--one with a Mediterranean or Asian clientele who demand only the freshest fish, including one-day old air-freighted fish from the Mediterranean or west coast of Africa. On the other hand, you can make an excellent bouillabaisse without any Mediterranean fish, but this is harder because you must choose fish that bear close resemblance in taste and flavor to Mediterranean fish. I will try to give you the basic information to do this in the recipe.
There are many recipes for bouillabaisse, including one that features the addition of thinly sliced potatoes, as they make it in Toulon. There are many "keys" or "secrets" to success, and I will tell you mine.
Bouillabaisse should not be made for fewer than eight people. Because a great variety of fish is required, you will need at least that many people to get the bare minimum of fish. As I mentioned before, you should have both oily and white fish.
Another trick for success is to boil the broth furiously so that the olive oil will emulsify with the broth and not float on top. Once the broth is boiling furiously, you begin to add the fish. This, I believe, is the trickiest part of a good bouillabaisse. If your fish are too cold, they will lower the temperature of the boiling broth too much. The fish should be left at room temperature for 20 minutes before adding them to the broth. Put the fish in one at a time, allowing a few seconds for the broth to adapt to the temperature change.
Making bouillabaisse is expensive and it is work, but I never shy away from preparing it because the flavors are memorable and conversation stopping. You must choose a minimum of four fish from the white-fleshed group and at least two from the oily--the greater variety, the better. Do not use fragile white-fleshed fish such as flounder or sole because they will fall apart. Ideally you should buy the fish whole and fillet them yourself, saving the head, tail, and carcass for the stock. My recipe calls for about 15 pounds of whole fish, half of which will be the weight of head, tails, and carcasses.
Traditionally bouillabaisse is eaten as two courses. First the broth is poured in bowls with some sauce rouille spread on the croûtes. Afterward, the fish platter is served, often with thinly sliced buttered potatoes.
There is some mystery about the fish that go into a bouillabaisse. Here I provide the authentic Mediterranean fish with their French or Provençal names which a Provençal cook would use when making a bouillabaisse. It may seem unlikely you will ever cook a bouillabaisse in Provence, but in the rare chance that you are in a pleasant little village such as Juan-les-Pins, and you have a stove, this is what you would look for in the market. Some of these Mediterranean fish can occasionally be found in ethnic fish stores on the east Coast of the United States.
For the bouillabaisse recipe, choose 8 to 10 pounds of firm white-fleshed Mediterranean fish (choose four from this group) such as scorpion fish (rascasse), gurnard (grondin or galinette), wrasse (rouquier, roucaou or roucan), John Dory (Saint-Pierre), weever (vive), red mullet (rouget de roche), monkfish (baudroie or lotte), pandora (pageot rouge), Spanish bream, (pageot blanc or bezuque), and rainbow wrasse (girelle), and 4 to 5 pounds "oily" Mediterranean fish (choose 2 from this group) such as conger eel (congre or fielas), moray eel (murene), whiting (merlan), bass (loup de mer), or mackerel (maquereau or auriou).