Bouillabaisse with Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli
It’s time for a quick trip to France via our bellies! This luxe but easy variation of Provence’s classic bouillabaisse gets its rich flavor and incredible body from a broth made by pureeing shell-on shrimp and ocean fish scraps with aromatics, tomato paste, pastis, and clam juice. Shrimp, mussels and fish fillets are added to the broth at the end so they stay succulent and tender. A simple but luscious sun-dried tomato aioli smeared on grilled bread is the ultimate accompaniment to this seafood soup.
What is Traditional Bouillabaisse?
This renowned seafood soup hails from Provence, specifically from the port of Marseille on the southern coast of France. Its origins are simple: local fishermen would bring back their daily haul, and this delicious soup was created from the catch. It can contain as many as seven different types of fish! (Don’t let that intimidate you—the beauty of this dish is how flex you can be with the variety of seafood you use.) Other regional ingredients are hallmarks of bouillabaisse as well, like fennel, saffron, and orange.
When in Provence, the stew is served in two courses. It starts with a bowl of hot broth, served alongside rouille-topped toasts (rouille is an aioli-like sauce made with egg yolk, olive oil, bread, garlic, chiles, and saffron). Then, the seafood is served as a second course, with a little more rouille on the side for dabbing on the various fish and shellfish. For the sake of ease, my version is a one-pot bonanza.
Bouillabaisse vs Cioppino
Now that we know that bouillabaisse (pronounced “BOO-ya-bess”) comes from Marseille, it’s worth comparing it to its American cousin, cioppino, which was created by Italian-American immigrants in San Francisco in the late 19th century. Much like their French counterparts, local fishermen brought in their daily catch, and that determined what went into the stew. The regionality of the seafood itself plays a big part in differentiating the two dishes, but so does the base of the soup: Bouillabaisse is made from a white fish stock with tomatoes added, whereas cioppino is made with a tomato-based broth. One other big difference? Bouillabaisse gets those crispy rouille-smeared toasts alongside for dipping in the broth!
The Broth is Key
The broth makes the magic! I start the broth by softening aromatics in olive oil, then stir in tomato paste and fennel seeds until sizzling. White wine and pastis are used to deglaze the pot and release all the tasty bits. I love using pastis, an anise-flavored spirit from Southern France, because it adds even more fennel flavor to the broth. Then, for the winning shortcut, I add bottled clam juice, shell-on shrimp, and scraps from branzino, snapper, and turbot. (Ask your fishmonger for these; note that you can use a mix of scraps from fish that are lean, delicate, meaty, oily…go to town!)
Once the fish is cooked through, which is pretty quick, the solids and the broth get blended. Yup, even the shells! The puree gets strained into a Dutch oven (you can toss out the solids now), and all of the fantastic seafood flavors will be in that pot. The only thing left to do for the complete bouillabaisse is to simmer the remaining seafood until just cooked through.
Bouillabaisse with Sun-Dried Tomato Aioli
For the broth
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small fennel bulb, cored and finely chopped, plus fronds for garnish
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup pastis, such as Pernod
- 4 cups clam juice or fish broth
- 4 large shell-on shrimp
- ½ pound ocean fish scraps, such as branzino, snapper, and turbot
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
For the Aioli
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
- 4 small Calabrian chiles, drained
- 1 garlic clove, finely grated
For the Bouillabaisse
- 2 pounds ocean fish fillets, such as branzino, snapper, and turbot, cut into 3-inch pieces
- 12 large shell-on shrimp, shelled and deveined, shells reserved for the broth
- 12 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- Grilled crusty bread, for serving
Make the broth:
- In a large Dutch oven or braiser, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the fennel, onion, shallots and garlic and cook over medium heat, stirring, until softened and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and fennel seeds and cook, stirring, until sizzling, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the wine and pastis and cook, scraping up any bits from the bottom of the pan, until nearly evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the clam juice, shrimp, fish scraps, saffron and the additional reserved shrimp shells and bring just to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat until the shrimp and fish are cooked through, about 10 minutes.
- Working in batches, carefully transfer the broth mixture to a blender. Remove the vent from the top of the blender pitcher and put a double layer of kitchen towels on top to prevent splatter. Carefully puree the mixture until nearly smooth. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve into a large Dutch oven, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard the solids.
Meanwhile, make the aioli:
- In a food processor, combine the mayonnaise, sun-dried tomatoes, chiles, garlic and 2 tablespoons of the simmering broth; puree until smooth. Transfer the aioli to a small bowl and season with salt.
Make the bouillabaisse:
- Bring the strained broth to a simmer and season with salt and pepper. Add the fish fillets to the broth, cover and cook over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Nestle the shrimp and mussels in the broth. Cover and simmer until mussels open and the shrimp and fish are cooked through, about 3 minutes longer. Garnish the bouillabaisse with fennel fronds and serve with grilled crusty bread smeared with the rouille.