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Originally published Monday, July 30, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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Seafood as the stock answer

How to Cook Everything: Mark Bittman shares how ingredients from the sea can make for a delicious soup stock. Recipe: Bouillabaisse

The New York Times

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You can make any soup with water instead of stock, but the soups that drive you wild usually have a beautiful stock as their base. This is doubly true of bouillabaisse, which should start with a stock so delicious that you can barely imagine improving on it.

That's easy to produce, actually. The hard part is finding the ingredients, because over the years we've seen two changes that have made that task more challenging: the near disappearance of the fishmonger and the pre-filleting of fish. Not only is it difficult to find someone to ask for fish bones, it's difficult to find someone who even has them.

But there are tricks. One is to grab them when you see them, and make the stock incrementally, which is not a big deal. Another is to use shrimp shells, which work beautifully. A third is to accumulate (or beg) lobster bodies, which make fantastic stock. In any case, you combine whatever you have with some aromatics (thyme branches, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, peppercorns) add water and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes. Cool, strain and freeze if you like.

Earlier this summer, I found a fish market that would give me or anyone else free lobster bodies, practically a life-changing event. I quickly made a vat of stock (six bodies, a gallon of water), followed by a risotto. (Risotto with lobster stock is killer.)

From then on, every time I bought fish, I squirreled away a little piece in the freezer: one squid, the belly flap of a striped bass fillet, a piece of halibut, a lobster claw and so on. The day I decided to slay some people with kindness, I defrosted those bits and my stock and headed to the fish market, where I bought mussels, clams and a couple of scallops for a bouillabaisse.

From here the process is dead easy. You have to make one accompaniment: croutons. A second, garlicky mayonnaise called rouille, is optional. (It's like the gremolata served with osso buco; yes, it's traditional, but it's also overkill. Still, it's a nice form of overkill.) To make rouille, incorporate garlic, cayenne to taste and a bit of roasted pepper into homemade mayonnaise, or just stir very finely minced garlic and roasted pepper, along with some cayenne, into your store-bought mayo.

Saffron is also optional (I can't make a $65-an-ounce ingredient mandatory), but it's really good. The same goes for Pastis, the anise-flavored liqueur, which delivers an extra fennel-y kick.

It's important to be both flexible about your fish choices and smart about your cooking. The choice hardly matters, though I would argue for a big assortment. For years, it was asserted that you could not make a real bouillabaisse, whatever that is, without rascasse, which means you might as well give up now. So I say use what you have, as no doubt the inventors of bouillabaisse did. I don't think dark-fleshed fish works well here, but other than that I can think of no limitations. (Someone gave me two sea urchins yesterday; I used their little meat as garnish.)

When I say be smart about your cooking, I mean this: If you put a thin, delicate piece of flatfish in at the beginning of the cooking, its flavor will survive but its substance will not. Save the most delicate stuff for last, and consider, as I suggest with the scallops in the recipe here, simply putting ultra-fast-cooking fish in the bottom of the bowl, and allowing it to be cooked by the heat of the soup.

You can pretend it's avant-garde cooking, but really it's just sensible.

BOUILLABAISSE

TOTAL TIME: 1 hour, with prepared lobster stock

YIELD: At least 4 servings

Good olive oil, as needed

4 to 8 thick slices good bread

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped

1 carrot, trimmed and chopped

1 medium new potato, peeled and chopped

1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped

¼ teaspoon saffron, optional

3 cups lobster stock

2 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice (canned are O.K.)

Salt and pepper

1 to 1 ½ pounds chopped boneless fish and shellfish, preferably a variety

8 littleneck clams

8 mussels

2 sea scallops

2 tablespoons Pernod or other pastis, optional

Chopped fennel fronds, for garnish

Chopped basil or parsley, for garnish

Rouille, optional

1. Heat oven to 200 degrees; brush bread liberally with olive oil, and bake on a sheet, turning once, until golden and crisp. Set aside.

2. Add enough olive oil to a Dutch oven, deep skillet or shallow pot to make a thick layer (don't skimp) on the bottom. In it, cook onion, garlic, celery, carrot, potato, fennel and saffron until glossy. Add stock and tomato and bring to a moderate boil; cook until thick and stewy rather than soupy. Season to taste; it should be so delicious that you don't even care whether you add fish.

3. Lower heat to a simmer, and, as you add fish, adjust heat so that the liquid continues to bubble gently. Add fish in order of how long they will take to cook. Monkfish, striped bass and squid are fish that might require more than a few minutes, so add them first. About five minutes later add clams and mussels, holding back any fish that has been cooked or will cook in a flash. When mollusks open, add remaining fish. Cut scallops into quarters and place in the bottom of 4 bowls.

4. Add pastis if you're using it; taste and adjust seasoning. Ladle hot soup and fish over the scallops, distributing clams and mussels evenly. Garnish and serve with croutons and rouille, if you're using.

NOTE: To make rouille, add ½ cup finely minced roasted, peeled and seeded red bell pepper, 2 cloves finely minced garlic and cayenne to taste to either homemade or store-bought mayonnaise.

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