The onset of winter shifts something in me. Maybe it’s the fact that after months of enduring oppressive heat, it’s now time to break out chunky sweaters, firepits, and whiskey. It could also be that I know the holidays are just around the corner, and this year, I have a brand-new baby girl to introduce to the joy of the season. Either way, I love the slow deliberateness that the cool weather brings. How it makes magic of simple things like the changing leaves or the smell of burning wood in the air. The change of pace also influences my own kitchen: lately, I can’t help but want to cook thick stews, time-consuming braises, and silky soups.
One dish that I love making when the weather grows cold is a hearty bouillabaisse. While a bowl will often cost you a fair amount of money at a restaurant, making it at home is more affordable, and recalls its origins as a humble Provençal fisherman’s stew made with scraps of fish that were too undesirable to be sold.
The magic of bouillabaisse isn’t in the value of the fish or the technique used to prepare it, but in the melding of its ingredients. Like a carefully crafted spell, they alchemize to create something soulful and worth savoring.
Traditionally, bouillabaisse is made with several different kinds of firm white fish, cockles, mussels, and occasionally bits of lobster or shrimp. Thankfully, living down South means that I have access to some of the most beautiful seafood the Gulf Coast has to offer. Since the ports of Marseille, where the stew originated, are a little far for me, I get creative with the ingredients I can get my hands on.
In this Southern-inspired bouillabaisse, tender catfish chunks are substituted for Mediterranean fish like red snapper or turbot, while local shrimp and lump crab add a plump sweetness. The stock is fortified by meaty gulf oysters and gets an unmistakably briney punch from a generous addition of littleneck clams and mussels. The dish is elevated by tiny ribbons of saffron that are swirled into the burnt-orange broth. Throw in a few slices of a toasted baguette (extra points if you rub them with garlic) and abracadabra, you’re holding a warm bowl of magic in your hands.
Southern Bouillabaisse Recipe
Olive oil, as needed (about ¼ cup to start)
1 onion, chopped (about 1 ½ cup)
2 carrots, small dice (about 1 cup)
2 celery stalks, small dice (about 1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, sliced (I prefer the texture this way but they can be minced or chopped as well)
3 sprigs of thyme
1 small bulb fennel, sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
5-7 small Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced in half
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional (plus more to taste)
¼ teaspoon saffron, optional but strongly encouraged
4 cups (32 ounces) store-bought seafood stock
2 cups (16 ounces) clam juice
¾ cup crushed tomatoes
12-15 mussels, debearded
10-12 littleneck clams, scrubbed, rinsed and purged
1 jar of fresh Gulf oysters, reserve juice and check for shells
1 catfish filet (about 1 pound), cut into 1-inch slices
8-10 shrimp, shells left on
1 cup jumbo lump crab
Salt and pepper to taste
4-8 thick slices good bread
Step 1: Add the olive oil to a Dutch oven and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme, fennel, potatoes, crushed red peper flakes, and saffron. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
Step 2: Add the stock, clam juice, and crushed tomatoes and bring to a gentle boil; cook until the broth is thick and slightly reduced, about 20-25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Step 3: Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and add add the mussels, clams, and oysters along with the oyster juice. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the catfish and shrimp and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add the crab meat and let sit for 10-15 minutes.
Step 4: Remove the thyme stems from the broth, then taste and adjust seasoning. Add more red pepper if you want a spicier broth.
Step 5: Garish with fennel fronds and serve immediately with a few slices of crusty French bread.
Ryan Shepard is an Atlanta-based food and spirits writer. She loves Mexican food, bourbon and New Orleans.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.
Recipe tested by Louiie Victa