This post was done in conjunction with the web site Foodbuzz.com, for their monthly 24 x 24 event. The theme this month is the Gulf of Mexico and the oil spill, and Foodbuzz.com is making a donation to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for every participant in this event. I grew up in Pensacola, and my family has been a part of the commercial fishing and marine industry in Florida for generations, so this disaster really hit home for me. I’m honored to be a participant.
When I was a kid in the 1970’s, my entire family used to go clamming together. My mom and my aunts and uncles would drag their children (me and my siblings and cousins) to a clamming area next to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. We’d put on old sneakers, grab a bucket, and wander around the shallow water digging clams out of the sand and seaweed. Then we’d take the clams back to my grandmother’s house, and my mom and aunts would shuck the clams in the back yard. As they were shucked, we kids would bring the clams into my grandmother’s kitchen, and she would then cut them up and throw them into a big pot of chowder.
It was amazing chowder. I know that Boston and New England are better known for chowder and lobsters than Florida, and Maryland (my current home) is better known for crabs, but the clams, stone crab claws, and spiny lobster than I grew up eating are still my shellfish benchmark. When my mom and my nephew, Sean, visit me every summer in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., we always spend one afternoon eating a bushel of Maryland crabs steamed traditionally with Old Bay seasoning. And my mother always remarks that the Maryland crabs aren’t as tasty as Florida stone crab claws, and are also twice as difficult to eat. I don’t argue with her. I love stone crab claws, but I also love Maryland blue crabs. As long as I can have both in my life, I figure I’ve got very little to complain about.
A few years ago, I assisted a bouillabaisse class at L’Academie. It was a great class. The students made homemade fish stock, and then each student produced a big pot of authentic bouillabaisse and accompanying rouille. Gosh, I loved it. But I really wanted to do was make a big pot of rich saffron broth dotted with potatoes, fennel, and leeks — incorporating seafood that I love. I know the French can be a wee bit stressed out about authenticity and provenance when it comes to their food, but we Floridians tend to not get our skivvies in a wad over such things. If it tastes good, if it’s consumed in good company, and if it’s made with love, that’s enough.
No matter how complicated one can get with the history of bouillabaisse, when it comes right down to it, it’s really just fish stew enhanced with the star local ingredients. Luckily, the Gulf coast of Florida and Provence have a few things in common. Great seafood, great produce, and great citrus — three primary components of bouillabaisse. So, making bouillabaisse using fresh and wonderful local ingredients, even if they are not French fresh and wonderful ingredients, doesn’t seem too blasphemous to me.
My preference would be to make my bouillabaisse at my mom and dad’s house in Sarasota, with nothing but fresh Florida produce and Florida Gulf seafood. But for now, I’m making it with what is in season and available to me in Washington D.C. When I go home to see my family at Christmas this year, I plan on making this again with all-Gulf seafood. Currently, the shining star of Florida seafood, the stone crab claw, is out of season, and other ingredients (such as fresh hearts of palm and Florida sweet onions) are a rare find outside of the Sunshine state. I was able to mail order some hearts of palm, and I found some onions that are similar to Florida Sweets.
But my biggest obstacle in preparing this dish was not out-of-season seafood, but the BP oil spill that is making any Florida seafood less common, and is tainting not only the seafood itself, but opinions concerning it’s safety. Articles like this one, in the New York Times, point out that a growing number of people simply don’t trust seafood from the Gulf of Mexico anymore, even if comes from areas that are not (yet?) affected by the spill. I’ll keep eating Gulf seafood until they tell me that I can’t eat it anymore — which I certainly hope never happens.
I love making bouillabaisse, and I do not always have time to make fresh fish stock. In early June, I got a nasty summer cold. I was absolutely miserable. I spent two days thinking about curling up on my sofa and watching an old movie with a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, and I finally dragged my miserable, aching, wheezing self home after a few pit stops to get ingredients, and I fished out a frozen container of Perfect Additions Fish Stock from my downstairs freezer. I keep several containers of it on hand (I buy it at my local Whole Foods, in the freezer section). It’s excellent, and it cuts preparation time to the point that you can make bouillabaisse on a weeknight for a quick meal. That’s awesome. I’m a huge believer in making one’s own stock, and I always have frozen baggies of homemade chicken stock in my freezer. But frankly, Perfect Additions makes great fish stock, and works just fine if you don’t have the time to make it from scratch.
This is how I make my bouillabaisse, with ingredients from my home in Florida if I can get them. It may not be authentic, and in the case of something like bouillabaisse that may ruffle some feathers. But when I was sick last month and sitting on my sofa watching Bringing Up Baby, I was curled around a steaming bowl in less than an hour, and it was mighty good.
I eat Florida Gulf seafood as much as I can. I fear for the future of Gulf seafood. I hope that BP oil spill has not compromised the supply. At one point in the 1980’s, my family decided that the Tampa Bay had become too polluted to clam off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge anymore. Now, when I drive across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, usually on my way to or from the Tampa International Airport when I visit my family, I always gaze wistfully at the area where we went clamming when we were kids, holding buckets and kicking the sand with our old sneakers to find buried clams. I miss it.
Make a big pot of bouillabaisse (or whatever you want to call it if you are a stickler for authenticity) with whatever bounty you appreciate. Whether it’s New England lobster, Pacific Northwest salmon, or California Dungeness crabs. If there is one thing that this BP disaster has taught me, it’s to never take for granted the food that I grew up eating, assuming it would always be there. The food that reminds me of home, of my grandmother’s kitchen, and of good times shared with those I have loved best in this world.
Florida Gulf Bouillabaisse
makes 4-5 servings
4 tbs. good olive oil
3-4 chopped Florida Sweet onions if you can get them, leeks if you cannot
1/2 cup diced Florida hearts of palm, or fennel if you cannot get hearts of palm
1/2 cup diced potatoes (unpeeled is okay), from Florida if possible
pinch of saffron
2 containers Perfect Additions fish stock, thawed (reserve a couple tablespoons for rouille)
1 can no-salt-added canned, diced tomatoes (I find this to be important for the freshest tomato flavor, and to keep the acidity down)
1 lb. cleaned Gulf shrimp
1 lb. scallops, rinsed
10 small clams, rinsed
2 lbs. firm-fleshed Gulf fish (flounder or snapper are both good), chopped into bite-sized pieces
10 stone crab claws, or 1/2 lb. crab meat if stone crabs are out of season or unavailable
zest from one orange
1 tbs. Key Lime Juice (or plain lime juice if you can’t get key lime juice)
a few tablespoons of fish stock
fresh, white bread
4 cloves garlic
1 piece roasted red pepper (about 1/2 a pepper)
1. In a soup pot or Dutch oven (I use an enamel Dutch oven) heat olive oil over medium heat (don’t get too hot, if it’s smoking it’s too hot).
2. Add onions or leeks, fennel or hearts of palm, and potatoes, and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occassionally, until all veggies are just soft, but still hold their shape. You are not sauteeing the vegetables. You don’t want any color on them. If they are starting to brown, turn down the heat.
3. Add saffron and bay leaf and stir. Add fish stock and tomatoes. Simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes (if you are really hungry) to 45 minutes (if you can wait). Just before serving, turn heat up to high, and bring broth to a hearty boil.
4. Add fish and clams (and fresh stone crab claws, if you have them). Place cover on pot and boil until clams open. Turn off heat and stir scallops and shrimp into still hot broth, stirring in hot broth until they are just cooked through by the residual heat.
5. If using crabmeat instead of stone crab claws, place a large spoonfull of crabmeat in the center of a large bowl. Spoon soup around the crabmeat, distributing fish and shellfish evenly between bowls.
6. Drop a large dollop of rouille into center of bowl (to stir into broth while eating). Sprinkle each bowl with orange zest. Serve with a sliced baguette on the side.
In a mini food processor, grind the white bread into fine crumbs. Add all other ingredients except stock. Process, adding just enough stock to make a smooth paste.