Yes, it started off with a fish head in a pot; a rather large head (nearly 4 kilos) from what must have been a most formidable Pargo. And the fishhead became a rich fish stock and that stock helped turn our La Cusinga Christmas dinner into deep steaming bowls of spicy tomato-ey fish stew.
I had wanted to do something a little different for our Christmas Dinner at the Lodge and decided that a family-style, serve yourself meal would bring people a little closer together. I had searched far and wide for the local spiny lobsters, but when those were unavailable, decided that a big pot of fish stew on every table would create that sense of shared eating community.
I started off, before the fish head got involved, with a sheet pan of halved tomatoes, a couple of sliced onions and a big handful of peeled garlic cloves. I salted and peppered the tomatoes, poured a healthy dose of olive oil over them and at the last minute added a slice and very spicy chile pepper from our garden. The laden down sheet pan went into the oven at 450 degrees and roasted until the tomatoes were a crunchy brown on top.
And the fish head, oh the lovely fish head, was joined in a large pot by sliced carrots, onion, celery, a few halved heads of garlic, black peppercorns, parsley stems and bay leaves. I covered all this with water and brought it to a fast boil which I reduced equally quickly, to a very low simmer. When I make fish stock, I want the flavor and the clear stock, but don't want a lot of floating fish flesh particles. And it was for this very reason, 90 minutes later, that when I poured the rich broth through a fine strainer, I did it by just barley tilting and hardly moving the pot. Any excess movement or shaking frees the well cooked meat left on the bones and clouds the stock.
To get the base started, I sauteed still more sliced onions with still more garlic in still more olive oil. I added a few strands of grocery store saffron (to no discernable effect, it seemed later) and once the onions were well wilted, I added the roughly chopped cooked tomato mixture to them. A few quick stirs and then the fish stock went on top. This too was brought to a quick boil and then reduced to a mere simmer. I wanted this to cook together, ever so slowly for at least an hour or so.
So now it was on to sorting and cleaning the seafood that would go into this rich concoction. Undaunted by my inability to find lobsters, I had fallen back on fresh local shrimp, tiny local clams called "almejas", fresh small local squid and a glisteningly fresh filet of Pargo. The shrimp were peeled, the clams rinsed, the squid seperated head and body and then tenderized and the pargo cut into small thick slabs.
Traditionally in the south of France when Bouillabaisse is served, it comes with rouille, a spicy/garlicky red pepper mayonnaise that is spread on toasts dunked into the fish stew. In many parts of Province, the rouille is stirred directly into the stew, adding a garlicky bite to an already garlicy base. For the rouille I roasted and peeled red peppers and put them in the Cuisinart along with an egg yolk and a whole egg, roasted garlic, fresh garlic, a handful of garlic croutons (to add texture to the rouille), salt and pepper and a couple of dashes of our house-made chilero sauce (a Habanero based beauty). Once I had this pureed into a paste, I began to drizzle in the olive oil; first slowly and then a bit more quickly. The sound of the machine let me know as the sauce thickened and it came out beautifully; pale pink and full of garlic and chile bite.
Our guests were making arrival noises so we got soup on the table, quickly followed by a salad of sliced organic tomatoes and just picked organic lettuces. I had pulled some rarely used tureens from our bodega and readied them for service. The bread had been spread with garlic butter and toasted and the rouille dolloped onto it. All I needed to do was get the seafood in the individual cooking pots (for groups of four) and get it cooking.
In went the clams, the squid and some simmering tomato broth; then the shrimp and the fish pieces. I brought it up to a low boil, covered it and let it simmer. I repeated this with the other sauce pots for the other tables. Once I had them all filled I returned to the first pot and peeked in. The scent sent out by the steam was terrific. All the flavors were present even in that first whiff. I gently ladled the fish out and poured the steamy tomato-ey goodness over the top, filling the tureen. I put a handful of a mix of chopped garlic greens and parsley over the seafood mixture and returned the top to the tureen. I repeated this for the other tables and it was time to serve.
I had explained our need for audience participation and each table had ladles, spoons and bowls. The rouille toasts went out on a separate platter, the tureens hit the tables and it was time for dinner. The room got quiet as the tops were taken off and then the community eating vibe kicked in. There was nervous laughter as the first bowls were ladled full and the a lot of slurping and contented oohing and aaahing. Knowing full well what happens when I eat something like this with my family and friends, I passed around second plates of rouille toasts at each table and watched as the seafood soups disappeared from the tureens.
I don't do this style of service often, preferring to be able to create the plate design myself, but food like this is meant for a sleeves rolled up, help yourself, participatory meal and this was it.
As the tureens emptied and the guests sat back in satisfaction, I cut the almond torte for dessert, enjoying the moment and the mellow sound of a well fed dining room full of guests.