Bouillabaisse and The Count of Monte Cristo: The Background

Calanque de Morgiou, just outside of the city of Marseilles.  Photo by Eugénie Peigné.

Like all great literature, The Count of Monte Cristo includes essential elements of life, including food and revenge.   And, the author,  Alexander Dumas, was a gourmand, like all great French.  Since I teach the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, I never felt the urge to read the unabridged version of the novel translated by Robin Buss until this last semester.  It turns out a lot of food-eating was cut from the abridged version, along with the pages and pages of enriched, tangled, meandering lines of subplot.  Take this scene, where one bad guy plies another bad guy with bouillabaisse to soften him up before another round of high-powered blackmail:

“‘Come, come, now,’ said Caderousse.  ‘Don’t get angry, dear boy! There now, I’ve thought of you: just look what a good breakfast we’ll have; all things that you like!’

Breathing in, Andrea could indeed detect the smell of cooking, its gross odours not without charm for a hungry stomach: there was that mixture of fresh oil and garlic which indicates the inferior breed of provencal cuisine, with additionally a hint of breaded fish… All this was exhaled from two covered tureens keeping hot on two stoves and a dish bubbling in the oven of an iron cooker.”

Alexander Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo.

From some of the diction in this excerpt, a reader could assume that Dumas snubbed his Parisian nose at the flavors of Southern France.  “Gross odours” is not appetite-whetting word choice.  However, Dumas seems to have been a fan of these gross odours.  He has not one, but two different recipes for bouillabaisse in his Culinary Dictionaryincluding this one he allegedly took from the legendary Monsieur Robion:

Dumas’ Rendition of M. Roubion’s Bouillabaisse Recipe

Take 6 or more varieties of fish and cut them into pieces.  Heat in a casserole 1 or 2 glasses of oil, depending on the size of the bouillabaisse you wish to make, with chopped onions, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, bay leaf, some orange peel, pepper, and fine spices.  Add your fish, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of saffron.  Cover with boiling water and boil hard for 15 minutes, by which time the water should be reduced by a quarter.  To serve, pour the bouillon over pieces of bread in the soup tureen and serve the fish in another platter. (Recipe from Monsieur Roubion, restauranteur at Marseille.)

Last year, at exactly this time, I felt hungry for bouillabaisse.  Even the abridged version of the novel is enough to evoke the landscape of the South of France, which in turn is enough to create a craving for bouillabaisse and pastis.  Probably because I often show this clip to my students every year to help set the scene of the novel:

Last year, I fed my bouillabaisse hunger by making Mimi Thorisson’s recipe from one of my Christmas presents: A Kitchen in France.  Mimi’s recipe is far more involved than Monsieur Robion’s recipe.  There are four different dimensions of the recipe.  It’s a new year, and if ever there is a time for all the pomp and circumstance of Mimi’s recipe, that time is surely now.  I’ll try out Roubion’s recipe another time, perhaps as a fancier than usual but still manageable mid-week meal.  However, there are some things I’d like to borrow from Roubion- particulary his orange peel and “fines spices.”  I will do some sort of fusion of the two recipes, and call it my own.    And we’ll see what fish I end up with from the Korean fish market on Saturday.

Mimi Thorisson’s Bouillabaisse Recipe, Adapted Slightly

The Ingredients:

  • olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • fennel seeds
  • 1.5 pounds monkfish, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1.5 pounds sea bream, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1.5 pounds red mullet, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 leek, white part only
  • 1 bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • chives, chervil, tarragon, 3 bay leaves, tied in a bundle with a leek leaf
  • 8 ounces of quartered tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/3 cup pastis
  • salt and pepper
  • 6-8 medium potatoes, peeled and cliced
  • a baguette
  • 1 large garlic clove, halved
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon Piment d’Espelette or mild chile powder

Table of Contents:

  1. The Soup
  2. The Fish
  3. The Croutons
  4. The Sauce

Chapter 1:  The Soup

Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Saute the oinions, garlic, and fennel seeds for 3 minutes.  add all the fish trimmings, including bones, the fennel, leek, half of the parsley, the wrapped herbs bouquet, the tomatoes, tomato paste, half of the saffron, the pastis, and salt and pepper.  Add enough water to completely cover the ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Blend the soup with a hand mixer.  Strain through a sieve into a large saucepan, and discard the solids. Simmer the soup for 15 more minutes and season with salt and pepper.

Chapter 2:  The Fish

In a large wide pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.  Spoon a few ladles of the soup over the potatoes, enough to cover them entirely.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Arrange the fish on top of the potatoes, and sprinkle with the remaining saffron and some salt and pepper.  Add a few more ladles of the fish soup, until the fish is entirely covered, and bring to a simmer.  Poach the fish until cooked through, 10-12 minutes.

Chapter 3: The Croutons

Preheat the oven 400 degrees.  Slice the baguette into 1/2 inch pieces.  Rub each piece of bread with the garlic, then cut into 1/2 inch pieces.  Put on a small baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss well.  Toast in the oven until crisp, 5-8 minutes.

Chapter 4:  The Rouille

In a mixer, or with a vigorous whisk, combine the egg yolks, mustard, garlic, remaining saffron (1/4 teaspoon), and piment d’Espelette in the bowl and season with salt.  Gradually drizzle in 1 cup of olive oil, a little bit at a time, whisking until the sauce is thick.  Season with salt and pepper.

Tarte Citron, the Champagne of Desserts

When I was in middle school, my mother, my sister, and I went on a road trip. I don’t remember where we were going or where we were coming from, but I remember a sign on an empty country highway that announced a roadside book sale coming up in one mile.

“Mom, can we stop? Plllleeeaaasse?”

“Oh, all right.”

On this day I had my very first cookbook buying spree. I bought six cookbooks, and one of them was De Gustibus Presents: French Cooking for the Home. Twelve different French chefs create 12 different menus for 12 different occasions.

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I have cooked many of the recipes over the years. I made Jacques Pepin’s Scallopine of Turkey Breast with Morel and Cognac Sauce for Thanksgiving of 2001, the one year anniversary of my parents’ divorce. My father, the fryer/roaster/briner/experimenter of the turkey, was gone. I took advantage of the food power vacuum and subjected my family to a three course meal taken from the pages of French Cooking for the Home. Looking over my notes from 13 years ago, I remember my horror at the cost of the ingredients. It would still be quite a few years before I began the process of learning how to appreciate simplicity in cooking and life over elaborate fanfare.

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I made the Wild Mushroom Crepes for my mom’s birthday the following year. My future stepfahter and stepsisters were there for that meal, one of the last I cooked in the house I grew up in. I made a modified version of the Thin Apple Tart for paying customers at the bagel shop. And I made the Christian Delouvrier’s Tarte Citron for extra credit in my French 102 class in college. I remember sitting around the table in my apartment with my partner and squeezing lemon after lemon after lemon. My life smelled like lemons for at least a month after making this tart. I made it again last week as part of a friend’s successful green card quest celebration. And this time around, I used a juicer.

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My tart.

 

Here’s what the books author has to say about this recipe:

This is a perfectly sublime ending to a rich, complex dinner. Once assembled, the tart requires only a minute under the broiler and then an hour to set, making it a breeze to prepare.

With a juicer, it really is a breeze to prepare. Without one, the one cup of fresh lemon juice becomes a bit like one of Psyche’s more boring challenges. Like separating different legumes into piles.

The first time around, I remember Madame Roland eating the tart and saying, “Oh la la, just like in la France!” and I gave a little bow for the class. For my more recent tart, one of the revelers declared it the champagne of desserts. A slightly bigger bow. Incidentally, a brut sparkler would be the perfect thing to drink with the tarte citron.

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Tom Eckerle’s sexy lemon tart photograph from the book.

 

Lemon Tart

You will need:

½ pound frozen puff pastry, thawed

1 cup fresh lemon juice (about six lemons)

6 large eggs

5 large egg yolks

1 cup granulated sugar

15 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a light floured surface, roll out the pastry about 1/8 inch thick into a circle approximately 12 inches around. Transfer the pastry to the tart pan. Gently fit the pastry into the pan, and cut away any excess with a sharp knife. Prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven. Preheat the broiler.

In the top half of a double boiler, combine the lemon juice, eggs, egg yolks, and sugar. Set over simmering water. Beat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture is very thick and clings to the beater. *

Remove from the heat. Using a whisk, whisk in the butter a little at a time.** Pour the custard into the partially baked pastry shell. Place under the double broiler for 1 minute. LITERALLY 60 SECONDS. DON’T MESS AROUND WITH THE DOUBLE BROILER. YOU WILL GET BURNED. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before serving.

Garnish with raspberries before serving, if you so wish. Or strawberries, or blackberries. Or fresh basil or mint.

*I made the custard ahead of time and kept it in the fridge for overnight for convenience purposes. It worked out wonderfully, so this is an option.

**Since I forgot this step and accidentally included the butter in the double boiler with the rest of the ingredients, I’m skeptical about how necessary this is.

Adapted from French Cooking for the Home.