There are certain foods into which patience is mixed and mixed and mixed ... the results are spectacular when you get it right or crushing when you don't. Perhaps that's because of the specificity of traditional technique, the thought put into the making of the dish, the multiple steps that are best timed carefully, the little trick techniques that ensure success, the nuance of textures that must be achieved, and ultimately ... the gut feelings that a sure cook understands they must listen to and act on. I had plenty of time to come up with this idea last evening. I thought of mastering soufflés, rolling and cutting pasta, constructing a finely decorated cake, perfecting a classic paella, making an exquisite buttercream, tempering chocolate, designing beautiful petit-fours, hand-dipping bon-bons, rolling the perfect pie crust, and in my case, making a perfect aïoli. All require patience and attention to little details.
The aïoli I was making had to be perfect because it was the central aromatic flavour agent in a pot of French bourride. Bourride is a fish soup consisting of leeks, onions, potatoes, bouquet garni, and big chunks of white-fleshed fish. It is in the same class as bouillabaise, however it does not have saffron in the mix or shellfish included in the final presentation. It's a simpler soup ... and since I am not French chef, it was a perfect starter soup for me to try and a new and different way of using aïoli.
Hake ... have you seen that it's been insanely cheap of late? Here in New England, it's been running about $4.99 a pound. That's cheap compared to what other fish is going for these days. At any rate, it was a perfect fish for this recipe; it's meaty and firm fleshed with large flake and it held together beautifully through the low simmering. Monkfish, haddock, cod, or halibut would be worthy candidates for this soup also ... so says Paula Wolfert. I used her recipe from Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking for the bourride. Paula also says that bourride is even improved by using more than one type of fish in the recipe. I'll hold that thought until I make it again.
The fish stock one uses is enhanced by a pretty bouquet garni - in this case parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and orange peel. Potatoes, leeks, and onion are sliced into thin coins, tossed together and simmered in fish stock until the potatoes are almost softened. then, the large chunks of fish are added and the stock is brought to a boil, the heat lowered and the fish simmered over heat for a short time, then the soup is covered and set off the heat to finish the fish ... and you make the aïoli.
A word about fish stock ... I don't know about you, but the idea of hacking up fish heads and bones and parts and simmering and straining, and all that ghoulish stuff just doesn't do it for me. Instead, I buy a product called 'Better Than Bouillon' - fish stock that a dear friend named Kay recommended ages ago. I have never looked back. I also add several drops of fish sauce to the stock to add that je ne sais quoi element of the sea ... it works for me. I suppose a purist would scoff, but thankfully, SB is no purist. That's all I'm saying on fish stock other than buy the Better Than ... product if you can find it.
Which brings us back to the Provençal Aïoli ... it took forever, but I was in the mood for forever yesterday. I mean really. I did it by hand ... smashing about ten cloves of garlic with a pestle in a bigger saucier (my mortar is too small for the cup and a half needed for this recipe). Here's where nuance comes in ... try smashing garlic bits to 'a smooth paste'. There seem to always be small smashed yet not smashed bits that make their way clear of your smashing stroke. So one needs to decide when to leave off and mix in the egg yolks. Then, I stirred (in one direction only - so says Paula!) and stirred and stirred 'until thick and blended'. Once again one must decide what does 'thick' mean? Okay, moving on. So, I decided what thick meant and adding the olive oil came next. 'Drop by drop' ... well THAT took forever! I changed stirring hands several times and even called in the reinforcements. SB took a couple turns while I shook out my arms and wondered about some poor scullery drudge getting stuck with the aïoli-making in some French castle kitchen and turning the air blue with colorful language. Then, I went back to stirring and adding drop after drop after drop of olive oil. SB asked why I didn't just use the hand blender. I had no good response. I'd have smacked him with the pestle, but I was too busy stirring ... in one direction only.
Finally, the olive oil was fully blended and the lemon juice and black pepper were stirred in ... I dipped a pinky fingertip in and took a taste. It was all worth it. This was a bright yellow, garlicky slather with just the right amount of saltiness and lemon tang. I couldn't believe how golden it was and how rich the flavour. So I spread some on a piece of toast and chomped on bites while I finished the soup.
Am I wanting you to look at a soup ladle? No. I'm wanting you to look at the creamy sheen of the consistency of the finished soup. Look in the bottom left corner at the sheen that the aïoli gives the stock - it's not a super thick soup, but it's smooth and slippery on your tongue. A cup of the finished aïoli is mixed with two more egg yolks. The hot fish stock is slowly mixed into the aioli to make a liaison and then the liaison is returned to the fish soup and gently heated to thicken the soup just a bit.
All that was left to do was to slather some of the aïoli on a toasted piece of bread (look how golden!), mound up some of the fish and vegetables from the soup, pour on some of the broth, and pour a big glass of cold Sauvignon blanc ... and wish the lighting was better for the last photos. Alas ...
The taste was spectacular. the fish is perfectly done, still moist and firm, the soup is rich and smooth, there are hints of the herb beneath the strong garlic and lemon of the aïoli ... and then you hit that piece of bread at the bottom of the dish. It was a very good soup.
Bourride ... make it some time!
Clay Pot Bourride
a Paula Wolfert recipe
Serves: 4 for a main meal, 6 as a first course
2 lbs. assorted thick white fish fillets (cod, halibut, haddock, hake, monkfish are good choices)
Sea salt and black pepper
4 c. boiling water
2 heaping tsp. Better than Bouillon fish stock base
10 drops fish sauce
1 c. dry white wine
12 oz. Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced into rings
2 small leeks, white parts sliced into coins
Bouquet garni – five sprigs fresh thyme, 5 sprigs fresh parsley, 2 bay leaf, four slices orange peel
1 c. Provençal aioli
4 egg yolks
Slices of French baguette, toasted
Making the Soup:
- Rinse and dry the fish fillets. Cut them into 2 x 2 inch chunks, salt and pepper them, and set them aside in a cool place.
- Bring the water to a boil and add the fish base and fish sauce, stirring well to make a stock. Lower the heat and simmer, adding the dry white wine. Cover and keep the stock just warm.
- In a deep clay pot, toss together the onions, leeks, and potatoes. Lay the bouquet garni in and pour the fish stock over top. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for about ten minutes over medium heat.
- Remove the herbal bouquet and slip the pieces of fish into the soup, burying them to cover them completely. Bring the soup to a boil (uncovered), then lower the heat and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes.
- Cover the pot, remove from the heat and let the fish finish cooking with the residual heat.
- Prepare the aioli.
- Mix 1 cup of the prepared aioli with the 4 egg yolks in a deep bowl and stir until smooth.
- Transfer the fish and vegetables from the soup to a warm bowl and place the bowl where it will remain warm.
- Now whisk some of the hot fish soup broth, a couple tablespoons at a time, into the egg/aïoli mixture to make a liaison sauce. When you have whisked about half the broth in, slowly pour this mixture back into the soup pot with the rest of the broth, whisking constantly.
- Place the soup over low heat and stir until the broth thickens just slightly.
- Return the fish and vegetables to the soup and warm over low heat, being careful not to let the soup come to a boil (it will curdle if it does).
- Spread a toasted baguette slice with some of the remaining aioli and place the slice in the bottom of a soup bowl. Spoon on some of the hot fish and vegetables and top with the broth.
- You may garnish the soup serving with chopped parsley and a lemon slice … or not.
- Serve with extra toasts and the rest of the aioli.
Makes 1½ cup
2 tbsp. chopped garlic cloves (about 8 large cloves)
½ tsp. sea salt
2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
1 c. extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
- Using a deep ceramic dish and a pestle, add the chopped garlic. Smash the garlic pieces to a smooth paste.
- Add the egg yolks and stir with the pestle until thick and blended.
- Drop by drop, add the olive oil, stirring vigorously in one direction. Stirring must be continuous and care must be taken to add the olive oil slowly, incorporating the oil between additions.
- The finished aioli should be smooth and medium-thick.
- Season to taste with the lemon juice and black pepper.