Sarahs Nightmare

Firstly, a little elaboration on the title of this dish, which is, in truth, a variant on the French classic, Bouillabaisse. My charming and adorable sister-in-law, Sarah (who as you will recall, recently came to visit along with the rest of Pauls immediate family earlier this year), has some strange eating habits. I was shocked into quiet submission when, after we had served the Turkey Supper (a not insubstantial meal) and it had all been eaten and everyone was contentedly patting their engorged stomachs, she loudly started demanding chocolate! "I simply must have something sweet after each savoury meal..and something crunchy too...I'm sorry, that's just the way it is!" and with that, she started rapping the table with her cutlery, like some Dickensian character demanding "more chicken!" I scuttled off to scour the cupboards in desperation, anything to quieten down the persistant rapping of her fork and knife on the wooden table. Eventually I found my secret stash of chocolate coins, still safely contained within their little orange net, and meekly handed them over to her: "Wwill th..this be OK for you, Sarah...I mean, Mrs Erickson?" Apparently it was, as my chocolate coin net soon fluttered, empty, to the ground.
Furthermore, my plans for cooking the Burmese Prawn Curry were scuppered due to Sarah not eating marine wildlife in any shape or form. She has a pathological hatred of anything that utilises H2 in front of O as a means of survival. As I enjoy cooking with fish, this struck off quite a few menu options for that week, but by the end of the holiday I could wait no longer: we all went out for a meal at a local pub, the Rising Sun, and I ordered the Moules et Frites. Poor Sarah had to tolerate me sitting next to her, picking the juicy orange mussels from their glossy black shells. But they were good. Really good. Sadly, I couldn't tempt Sarah.
Perhaps my being denied seafood (but seriously, as a host, you cannot serve food to your guests that they cannot - will not - eat. That is not the point of your role, you are there to provide a fun environment, good conversation and good food, theoretically at least) has made me crave it more than usual.
Long have I wanted to make, or at the very least try, that French Provencal classic, Bouillabaisse (interestingly, the derivision of the word Bouillabaisse comes from the verbs, to boil (bolhir) and to reduce (abassair) - assumedly coined because of the cooking process of simmering the soup to reduce, thereby intensifying the flavours) so I decided to treat Paul and myself to some decent seafood and make my own version of it: hence Sarahs Nightmare was conceived (after a somewhat prolonged explanation).
The roots of this dish are ancient. Bouillabaisse is mentioned as far back as Roman Mythology when Venus fed some of the fish stew to Vulcan to lull him to sleep. Meanwhile, she had a naughty flirtation with Mars.
Traditional Bouillabaisses can contain as many as eleven different types of seafood, ranging from firm fish (i.e. Eel, Monkfish, Cod etc), to Shellfish (soft-shell crabs, prawns, cockles), cooked in a fish stock flavoured with tomatoes, orange, fennel and various herbs to produce a full-bodied soup/stew. It is traditionally served as two separate entities: the soup (which is often poured over bread) and the richly flavoured fish.
For my simplified version, I used just one white fish - Monkfish - which is meaty and substantial with a delicate flavour of the sea, some Mussels (for no other reason than I love how they look in a dish) and some Squid (it was reduced to 80p. I know what you're thinking "eww, reduced seafood." So be it. Your cries of indignation have fallen upon deaf ears.). You can make this dish as expensively lavish or tastily frugal as you wish. I wouldn't recommend an oily fish as the clean purity of flavour is the key here.
With regard to the fish stock or fumee, this isn't absolutely essential but my husband bought some shell-on prawns for a dish he's cooking (more on that in a future post, no doubt), and it seemed a shame to waste the shells so I made a delicious batch of stock. It really does make a big difference to the final flavour but fish or even chicken stock cubes would work at a pinch.
The finished article is a soup whose flavour is as complex as a Jean-Luc Goddard film: a faint hint of anise, a haunting scent of orange and the rambunctious tomatoes, bolstered by the tiny potatoes and delicate fruits de la mer. I added the Chorizo to give it a softly spicy element which worked extremely well with the tomatoes and mussels.
For the Fish Fumee
2.25 Ltrs Cold Water
Half a Fennel (I used the tough outer leaves here and tender middle in the soup)
Sprig Thyme
1 Onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 Carrots, topped, tailed and cut into quarters
A couple of Peppercorns
Some Fish Bones, a lump of cheap white fish or some shell-on prawns which are usually quite cheap.
Put the water in a large saucepan with all the ingredients except the fish and simmer for 20 minutes, skimming off scum as it rises to the top.
After 20 minutes, add the fish and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Drain the stock through a seive into a clean saucepan. It should be fairly cloudy but not fouled up. Discard the vegetables and fish scrag ends.
Simmer down some more if you require a stronger concentration of stock. This will make approximately 1 and half litres. You will only use half a pint for the soup so you can freeze the rest.

Fish: Quantities are vague. I used a small piece of Monkfish, cut into 3cm chunks, some mussels and maybe 4 prepared Squid, cut into rings and utilising the tentacles too. You could use any meaty white fish: cod, hake, haddock and omit the shellfish and squid in favour of prawns or the fish of your choice. I wouldn't recommend Salmon or, obviously, smoked fish!!
Small Salad Potatoes, such as Charlotte. We used 8 for the 2 of us but you could use more, less or omit altogether.
1 Onion, peeled and chopped finely
2 Cloves Garlic, peeled and finely chopped
The remaining Fennel, cut in halve, cored and sliced thinly. Retain the frondy bits until the end.
4 Plum Tomatoes, peeled and chopped. Do you know how hard it is to get Plum Tomatoes here? Downright impossible is how hard. Therefore I used tinned with no adverse side effects.
40g Chorizo, cut into thin slices, maybe 3cm long
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
Slither of Orange Peel, about 4cm long
Salt and Pepper
Half a Pint of Fish Stock, boiling
A pinch of Saffron (I know its expensive but if you're going to fork out for decent fish, then you may as well buy a small packet of this too - it really makes all the difference to the final flavour)
Peel and boil the potatoes until cooked through but not falling apart. Drain and keep them to one side covered in cold water to avoid discolouration.
Gently heat the olive oil in a saute pan (or large frying pan) with the finely chopped onion. Sweat down, taking care not to colour the onions too much.
Add the garlic and gently fry for a further minute or so. Throw in the Chorizo and allow the Paprika to ooze out of this spicy sausage and flavour the onions and garlic and inevitably the rest of the dish.
Add the fennel and cook for another 2 minutes or so.
Pour over the tomatoes, orange peel and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to the boil for a couple of minutes.
Add the saffron to your boiling Fish Stock and pour this over your tomato, onion and fennel mixture. Bring to the boil once more, turn down and let simmer for 7-10 minutes, or until the Fennel is virtually cooked. Taste for seasoning at this point and add more if necessary.
Once the Fennel feels soft to a knife point, add your white fish. Submerge in your softy spicy sauce and once it has turned white and looks flaky (no more than a couple of minutes), add the mussels and squid (or shellfish of your choice). Also throw in the potatoes just to warm them through.
Serve in large bowls, sprinkled with fresh parsley, the fennel fronds and some crusty, rustic bread.


Shaun said...

Freya, love - Eric, too, loves seafood. Any seafood. Bouillabaise is one of his favourite dishes, but we rarely make it because I really don't like shellfish. I don't think my problems with seafood are as well-rooted as Sarah's, but I do draw the line at shellfish because I do have had allergic reaction to it, which is ironic considering I'm from a nation of islands. Your version looks great, all the textures and colours. Good on you for making your own fumee!

Kathryn said...

Ha ha - Sarah's nightmare. Is Sarah reading? Someone who likes a piece of chocolate after dinner is my sort of person!! Seriously the bouillabaisse looks fantastic. The colours are brilliant. And you used fennel! Wow! I used to hate bouillabaisse (was scared of all the textures) but was force fed it a lot in France and got used to it... more than 10 years ago now... Well done!

Writing At The Kitchen Table said...

Hi Shaun,
I think you're well within your rights to be iffy about seafood if you have an allergic reaction to it...the broth on its own was delicious though! It did look very colourful, the photo didn't really do the dish justice but digital photography isn't my strong point!

Kathryn, I hope Sarah reads this, I'm sure she'll be amused (hopefully!!) by my over-exaggerated description of her!!
Hope you start feeling better soon!

Love, Freya x

Saffron said...

this dish is so colourul and tasty. I can smell the aroma of parsley!
You've got a very odd sister-in-law!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Freya,

That isn't how I remember the story going! Too funny! :o) Your bouillabaisse looks great, seriously. It's very colorful and pretty. I'm sorry you were deprived of seafood while we were there, but I'm glad it tasted all the better when you were finally able to eat it again! Take care...


Writing At The Kitchen Table said...

Hi Saffron! The Parsley was delicious stirred into the broth! My favourite herb too!

Sarah!! Glad you got to read the article! I emailed you today but my mail got returned as SPAM!!! Drop me a line if you get a spare minute!
How was the airplane food?
Love, Freya

Sarah said...

Hi Freya!

Do you prefer to communicate over your blog or through yahoo? Either one works for me. Try emailing me at or One of those should work.

For now I'll just write you here. I forget about the time change - it's about 2:15pm here! The airplane food was fine; we actually got quite a bit of food. Pretzels for a snack and then chicken or pasta for dinner. I got the pasta and Mark got the chicken, but we liked the other's better and traded. The chicken came with marinara sauce and rice, and the pasta had some sort of cheese on it. I can't remember the name of the cheese, but it was one that I had just heard while in England with you and Paul...maybe Gorgonzola? We had a salad which was also in the same container as the salad dressing and fruit, cheese and crackers, a yucky dinner roll, and some fluffy chocolatey dessert which was okay. Then we got another snack before landing. It seemed like a lot of food, but I don't fly very often so maybe that's the norm for longer flights.

I have a cold right now, probably from getting up at 5am last Wednesday! No, not really. :o) I hope you and Paul have a great evening!


Writing At The Kitchen Table said...

Don't you start posting food articles on here as well! I give Paul one window of opportunity and look what happens! He's taken over the blog just like the American Crayfish took over our British Rivers!!!
Seriously, hope you feel better soon though and I'll forward the email that I sent earlier on to you!
Love, Freya