Why the quotation marks? Because there technically isn’t any such thing as “Bouillabaisse Sauce.”
It is what I call a “sauce after the fact,” i.e., abstracted from a complete pre-existing dish à la Alfredo Sauce, Buffalo Sauce, au jus, etc. That being said, the classic Mediterranean French seafood stew called Bouillabaisse readily lends itself to such an abstraction– just omit the fish, and use it as a sauce for fish. I have found this combination especially delicious with wild-caught Striped Bass (my favorite fish in the world) and it is hard to go wrong by adding shrimp or chunks of lobster to the leftover sauce you’ve saved and refrigerated.
Bouillabaisse (either the sauce or the finished stew) proffers a seductive and complex interplay of multiple flavors– mainly tomato, garlic, fennel/anise, orange, saffron, garlic, and something spicy hot. (I like Sriracha Sauce.) Everything else plays a supporting role.
To make the sauce, gather and prepare to deploy the following:
1 14.5 oz. can Petite Diced Tomatoes
2 smallish (or 1 large) stalks of celery, diced
2 smallish (or 1 large) carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 smallish (or 1 large) yellow onion, chopped
1 Fennel Bulb, chopped like the onion (consider saving the fronds for garnishing)
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced (include according to taste)
Pinch of Saffron
Pinch of Herbs de Provence
8 oz. bottle of clam juice OR your own strongly-flavored shellfish stock
1 glass of dry and crisp white wine
1 small white potato, peeled and cut into 1” cubes
Extra Virgin olive oil
Dash of Sriracha (to taste)
Dash of Pernod (optional)
Salt as needed
A bit of tomato paste as needed
In a 3-quart saucepan or larger, sauté onion, fennel, and carrot in just enough grapeseed oil until translucent. Add celery and garlic and sauté some more. When all veggies are sufficiently soft, add the diced tomato, wine, and clam juice (or stock.) If the liquid level seems insufficient, add just enough water to rectify. Simmer to integrate for a few minutes, then add the zest from the clementine rind, and then its juice. Add a wee pinch of saffron, no more than ¼ tsp. (Saffron is extremely expensive; good thing that a little goes a long way.) Add a tiny dash of Sriracha (you can add more later.) Add 3-4 potato cubes and simmer on low heat.
The potato cubes act as both a thickener and a timer– when they can be mashed, the cooking is done, and fork-mashing them into the sauce will thicken it just enough. Stir in a splash of Extra Virgin olive oil, and then its time for a final flavor check– if you want it more “tomato-ey,” stir in a tad of tomato paste. Want more spice? Easy fix. More “licorice” flavor? Carefully add a few drops of Pernod. Same with salt. After a final and gentle unifying simmer, this sauce is ready for action.
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Bouillabaisse is one of those dishes that generates surprisingly vociferous discussion regarding the authenticity of multiple competing versions. For a highly detailed discussion about the dish-defining correct fish, check out this NEW YORKER piece from six decades ago–
Above: Wild Striped Bass w/ Bouillabaisse Sauce that I recently made for AndyS., OlgaY., and myself.
Below: Photos of supposedly Classic Bouillabaisse show the breadth of the variations out there. To me, the trick is figuring out what they have in common.