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.

Axis Deer Stew

The other day my dad gave me three white paper-wrapped packages of frozen venison.  After I transformed the two packages of ground venison into chili, I told my dad about it.  “You know, Annie, that venison isn’t regular deer meat.  It’s Axis Deer.  Mr. Lester killed it.”

“What’s Axis Deer?”

“Look it up.”

So I did.  Axis Deer are native to India and Sri Lanka.  Someone imported them and introduced them to Texas in 1932.  I couldn’t find who this someone is, but there are now wild free-roaming Axis Deer can be found and killed all around Texas.  According to Mr. Lester and popular hunting wisdom, Axis Deer is the best-tasting venison around.

 

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Artist rendering of an Axis Deer.

 

My last paper-wrapped package of deer meat was cubed.  And this is what I did with it.

 

Ingredient List with Annotations

 

3 Sprigs of Rosemary

I knew from the thrown-together chili that rosemary works with venison.  Also, I think there is a poetic justice in cooking rosemary with deer.  Here in Texas, we are overpopulated with deer.  In some places, like in the Hill Country outside of Austin, we have too many deer with no natural predators and not enough resources to feed them all.  The deer are starving.  Many a flower garden has been sacrificed to the hunger of the deer, but they always leave behind the rosemary.  Rosemary is one of the few plants that are desirable to us and undesirable to deer.  It seems fitting that the deer and the rosemary come together in the end.

1.5 cups Pinot Noir

Every time I make a stew, I always grapple with that profound question:  should I add Guinness, or should I add wine?  I love both of these in a stew, and each of these ingredients adds its own particular richness and depth.  I chose red wine because the higher acid content is helpful in breaking down the toughness in meat.  And wild game usually has more muscle than your average farm cow.  Plus, I wanted to drink red wine on that day.

5-6 Turnips, peeled and cubed

I love turnips so much.  On those days when life seems bleak, the world seems dark, and the sun isn’t shining, I can remember that I live in the same world as a turnip, and life is worth living again.

.5- 1 Cups Harissa

When I was throwing together the thrown-together chili, which turned out better than most of my premeditated, tactically-executed recipes, I threw in a small can of harissa that had been living in my cupboard for at least 7  months.  The harissa was absolutely brilliant in the chili.  I can see why all those hip British chef types get so excited about it.  This ingredient is definitely optional.  You can substitute any spicy ingredient you like for it (cayenne pepper? sriracha? Tabasco? Valentina?), or you can omit it altogether and have a nice, calm, sane venison stew.

4-5 Cloves of Garlic, chopped

Or more, I mean, whose counting?

1 pint Mushrooms, diced

By the time the stew is finished, all the texture will be simmered out of the mushrooms.  However, the addition of the mushrooms adds to the savory flavor and Vitamin D content.

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1 Can of Beans, rinsed

The beans were my preferred thickener on this day, with this stew.  I had some black and white beans simmering, so I ladled a few ladlefuls in.   You can use any beans you want or have around, or you can use a flour slurry as a thickener.  (Flour dissolved in water and added to the stew.)

2 Bay Leaves

Also known as laurel, this tree also thrives in the wild landscapes of Texas, just like the Axis Deer.

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Arugula

I love stews that are cooked forever, but I love them more when they are contrasted with some sort of fresh green or vegetable when I eat them.  I had some arugula lying around, but I have also used fresh parsley, fresh cilantro, fresh basil, chopped kale, or chopped spinach to sprinkle over the top of the stew before I eat it.

1 Pound Axis Deer, chopped

Or lamb, or beef.

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1 Onion, diced

3 Carrots, sliced

Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper

Chicken or Beef Broth (optional)

Chunk of Lemon (super optional)

 

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Finished stew.

 

Saute the onion for 7 minutes or so in the olive oil.  Add the garlic and mushrooms, and saute for another minute or two.  Add the wine, rosemary, lemon, beans, turnips, carrots, harissa, and bay leaves.  Add enough broth or water to cover all the ingredients with an inch or so to spare.  Bring the stew to a simmer, and then simmer gently on low heat for three hours or so.  If you wish, add the arugula or other green thing to the top just before serving.