I’ve been making my own northwoods bouillabaisse for a few years now, savoring the fish that Minnesota has in abundance, extracting from these fish, almost all of which are the ones most anglers throw back as too small, a rich and flavorful stew that, while not bouillabaisse, is as rich and satisfying as a trip to Marseilles to indulge in the real thing. That’s an advantage, I guess, of having children for whom the sheer excitement of catching a fish surpasses the need for a mountable trophy – we shamelessly keep the small sunnies, crappies, rock bass and smallmouth bass that look like muskie bait, turning them into the stock that is the foundation for my northwoods bouillabaisse.
Like gardening, part of the pleasure of a good fish stew is catching the fish yourself, and the pleasure is heightened when they’re caught on Burntside Lake in northern Minnesota, a ten thousand acre lake that is cold, clear and deep. We fish off a little point and stand with the water lapping our feet and loons swimming by; fir and pine trees line the shore, islands dot the lake and fade into a grey distance that evokes elemental Milton Avery and Chinese ink drawings.
When the fish are biting we put a nightcrawler on a hook and let it fly, a ¼ oz sinker dragging it to the bottom where rocks abound. If we avoid the numerous snags it’s not long before there’s a gentle tug, that thrilling feeling of an imminent strike. And sometimes a good sized bass will inhale the hook and a jolting yank on the line immediately awakens the senses for the beginning of a chance to land a big one.
My stew is a simple one, and I change it as new herbs or ingredients seem good to add. I start by scaling and gutting all the fish. If any of the fish are large enough I also cut out the fillets and put them aside. Usually I have only a few meaty fillets, but when I fry these in butter and bacon fat they add a lot of richness and flavor to the stew.
Cover the fish in water and bring to a boil, skimming off all the scum that surfaces. Usually when I’m up north I have limited ingredients, so I usually add only an onion, carrot, and maybe a bay leaf to the stock. Cook for thirty minutes to an hour and strain. If any obvious chunks of fish are visible and easy to get at, I usually use a fork to pry them from rib cages and other bony areas. In a wide sauté pan, I like the 3 qt size because of the wide surface area for evaporation, I add garlic and onion to olive oil, butter, bacon fat or a combination of those delicious cooking fats. For this stew I almost always sauté the onions over a high flame, usually because I’m hungry and don’t want to wait for lunch. Next, I add a tomato, usually just one to begin with, and I crush it and let it be absorbed into the onions. Keeping the pan really hot I slowly add a few more tomatoes by ones and twos, breaking them apart with my wooden spoon (is there any kitchen tool as wonderful as a wooden spoon? It is primitive and prehistoric and essential) and watching them sizzle, adding another when the now-emerging sauce is reduced to almost no liquid. While I’m sautéing the onions I add basil, thyme, parsley and a few pinches of sea salt, and then I add anise seed and saffron, keeping some semblance of a traditional bouillabaisse. I let this get really thick and fragrant and then I start adding ladlefuls of fish stock, one at a time, keeping the flame hot and adding the next ladleful only when the previous one is almost completely evaporated. The longer I’m willing to cook it the richer it is – on the first night it’s always the thinnest, but as I save some for each subsequent night the resulting stock, when chilled, becomes thick like rubber.
Because I always eat lunch with my wife, I add stock and continue to reduce it until there’s enough for two bowls. As I near the end of the reduction, I sauté the fish fillets in butter over high heat, browning and crisping them with a bit of salt and pepper. A little leftover penne is another good addition at this time, and so are chunks of potato. Pour into a big bowl, place the fried fillets on top, and enjoy.
birch and grasses alone on the snow, grey sky indistinguishable. the flat world falls into the edge of time, lifeless, dull wedge of horizon and soundless ...