The night was a little cloudy and very windy. Rounding the corner of 11th and Walnut is the cozy Amante Coffee, with its Italian espresso machines, and then the distinct smell of herbs and butter hits the nostrils. Despite the chill, flowers are still in bloom on the patio of Brasserie Ten Ten this evening, and for a moment it’s easy to pretend that it’s springtime in Paris instead of fall in Boulder.
But I don’t waste a moment yearning to be in the City of Lights — though my memories of its streets are fond — because tonight is date night, and I’m about to eat one of my favorite dishes at the downtown French bistro with one of my favorite people.
Bouillabaisse is really just stew, but instead of beef and potatoes, it’s filled with hearty fish and… well, sometimes potatoes. Brasserie Ten Ten calls it “traditional Provençal seafood stew,” which is to say it originated in southern France, most specifically Marseille. While the dish may seem rather upscale in contemporary culture, history says it was created to give fisherman something to eat when they came into port; instead of making food with the expensive fish they could sell at the market, they would use rockfish and shellfish to create stew. (Granted, Greek mythology also says that Venus fed a type of bouillabaisse to Vulcan, so we could also say it’s a stew fit for a god. I enjoy the fact that it can exist as both a simple dish and an exquisite treat.)
As with any food with a long history, the broth of bouillabaisse is made numerous ways but traditionally includes potatoes, loads of garlic, onions, tomatoes and olive oil seasoned with a bouquet of garni (thyme, bay leaves and sage tied together), fennel, saffron, salt and Cayenne pepper. The fish includes shellfish and any kind of hearty fish (Julia Child would insist it mustn’t be oily!) that can be found locally. In traditional bouillabaisse, the fish are added one at a time and brought to a boil (bolhir, part of the word bouillabaisse, means to boil in French; abaissar essentially means to simmer) In Marseille, the broth is served first in a soup plate with slices of bread covered in a mayonnaise-based sauced called rouille, and then the fish is served separately on a large platter.
At Brasserie Ten Ten, the bouillabaisse is served broth, fish and bread all together in one lovely dish. Across the top of the stew are two thick cut slices of baguette with a healthy spread of rich orange-yellow rouille (given its color from saffron). From beneath the bread poke out antennae of shrimp, surrounded by a perimeter of mussels. Digging into the warm broth is a hearty white fish and beautiful chunks of tomatoes, still firm enough to chew when you take one in with a swallow of broth.
While I didn’t have bouillabaisse while I was in France, I don’t think this version of the dish would disappoint Julia (though she may have suggested, lovingly, that they serve the fish and the broth separately). What mattered most to Julia, it is said, is that the flavors of the broth showcased those specific herbs and vegetables, and that the fish be lean and firm and the shellfish gelatinous.
I think Julia would be pleased indeed.
Brasserie Ten Ten. 1011 Walnut St., Boulder,