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A few times a year I try to prepare recipes that I have never previously attempted in my life – sometimes because I lacked certain equipment, or ingredients, or nerve.  Yes, I have been intimidated by everything from Chopped Liver to Paella, MaPoDofu to Pheasant Wellington.

I found a gorgeous Paellera (a paella pan) at a church basement sale 2 days ago, and as I work up the courage to make paella in the near future, I decided to rev-up my engine by making Bouillabaisse for the first time.  I don’t know why I waited this long.

This recipe is adapted from the New York Times International Cookbook, which was gifted to me by a friend many years ago.  As I started fishing around for recipes (no pun intended) I finally settled on this recipe source, and incorporated parts of Bouillabaisse I & Bouillabaisse II.  I didn’t have any clams or mussels; however, I did have about a pound of good frozen cod, so I used that as well as some cooked and peeled frozen shrimp as a starting point.

I will record the version I adapted, but it is important to look at the original recipes, because they represent authentic approaches.  My attempt is a home-cook’s improvisation with ingredients at hand.

1 to 1-1/2# striped bass, black bass or other white, flesh,non-oily fish, about one & a half inch thick steaks

2 T olive oil

1 T butter

1 large onion, chopped (about 2 c)

1 large stalk celery, chopped

1 bay laurel leaf, dried or fresh

1 generous tsp saffron

salt & freshly ground pepper

1 cup tomato puree, plus 1 more generous cup or so of tomato pulp

generous pinch of dried thyme, or slightly more if it is fresh

1 big clove minced garlic

Tabasco sauce, several good strong dashes will do

4 c good fish stock (it can be found in some supermarkets, or you can make it w very little trouble, using fish bones, shrimp shells, etc)

about 18 shrimp (I used a 70-90 count/pound)

big pinch of anise seed, finely ground to dust

2-3 T chopped parsley

Over medium heat add the olive oil & butter to a deep, heavy vessel, adding onion, celery, garlic, salt, pepper, ground anise seed,and crumble the saffron well into the mix.  Bring to a boil, adding 1 cup of tomato, thyme and Tabasco.  I didn’t have fresh tomatoes, but I did have some very good home-canned tomatoes, so I used that – you will be using at least 2, and perhaps almost 3 cups of tomato in total.  Allow everything to simmer for 1/2 hour, after adding the fish stock, and reducing the heat to low.

After this has had a chance to mingle and the fragrances marry, and your kitchen starts to smell really good, lay your fish over the stew, cover and continue to cook gently for another 8-10 minutes.

About 5 minutes from the end of cooking add your shrimp (or other shellfish, and cook according to convention, which would otherwise be about 10 minutes)

Follow by strewing in chopped parsley, and gently incorporating, using the spoon to separate and flake the cooked fish into generous pieces that will fit onto a spoon.  If you use white wine (that would probably be about 1/2 c) and Pernod (an anise flavored liqueur- probably a Tbsp) you could add these during cooking.

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Serve with croutons – or as I did with hot buttered toast, from homemade bread.  This may not be the most faithful rendition of bouillabaisse evar, but making this helped me lose my fear of making it again.

A world famous dish can be created in your kitchen, and the grocery bill doesn’t have to be huge.  I took short cuts, but if you can lay hands on some clams, lobster or mussels – they would go in the pot, too.  The only really costly item is saffron, and there aren’t much ways around that.  It’s an overarching characteristic of the dish, in color & flavor.  You can almost eat bouillabaisse just by breathing it in.

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risotto with prosciutto, peas and mushrooms

That was yesterday evening!  OK, so there are a huge number of foods that I have never made in my life, which in each case means that I am waiting patiently until the right time, a special occasion or inspiration arrives–or I am possibly intimidated by trying to make a familiar/famous dish (you know, like osso bucco, Cherokee bean bread, paella, souffle, tamales in banana leaf, creme caramel, etc).

I have cooked lots of things over the years that I have been pleased with- bunches of recipes from Julia’s cookbooks, reproducing a correct, authentic red chili the way the Tohono O’odam ladies taught me one summer in California.  Cooking greens, making authentic old Moravian recipes (Christmas cakes, lovefeast buns, sugar cake) and even making homemade tofu from scratch with dry soybeans.

So Risotto, a simple seafood risotto, was what I finally worked up the nerve to cook last night.  It was mostly about 45 minutes of constant stirring of arborio rice in chicken broth, which is what all the recipes say, and it’s what you see on TV if you happen to catch someone on a cooking show making risotto.  It was very exciting to see the risotto take shape on top of my stove, and even though it was almost an hour of careful, nonstop stirring and cooking, it is worth the effort.

I got the inspiration because I was at the grocery store and I picked up a packet of arborio rice , which I have done dozens and dozens of times in the past.  But I looked at the price, realized it wouldn’t put a bad dent in my food budget after all, and then I got a small packet of frozen, mixed seafood for about three or four dollars.  All reasonably affordable.

Here’s how I made it:

4 cups stock (I used chicken)- heat it and keep it simmering the whole time.

12 oz by weight of arborio rice

2 Tbsp good olive oil

2 Tbsp butter

1 onion chopped

1 clove garlic minced into atoms

2 bay leaves

grating of the zest of 1/2 a fresh lemon

a grating of nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup of a white wine, or you can substitute a little apple or white grape juice with a  spoonful or 2  of cider-, or white-wine, vinegar if you don’t use alcohol.

big handful of chopped fresh parsley (probably 1/4 to 1/2 cup)

2 cups fresh or frozen peas

1/3 cup heavy cream (you can use half and half, or even milk if you want)

small bag (1 pound) frozen, previously uncooked, ready to stir-fry mixed seafood).  This will probably be a mixture of scallops, shrimp and calamari.

-a couple of good handfuls of grated or shredded good Parmesan cheese

Chop your onion (I used a medium onion) and let it sweat over medium heat in a very large heavy skillet with a couple of Tbsp of olive oil, along with the bay laurel, and a pinch of salt (that helps the onion cook) and quite a few grinds of black pepper, the lemon zest and the nutmeg.  Begin adding liquid, beginning with your wine or apple juice/vinegar, after you have added the garlic a few minutes into the process.  Add the 2 Tbsp of butter.

Stir everything well together and begin adding your hot stock to the rice.  You will now start stirring this dish almost without stopping for nearly the next 1/2 hour.  Maybe not quite that long.  But basically, you add the hot stock by the cupful or ladleful, and keep stirring gently over medium-low heat for a good 20-24 minutes.  Just turn on some good music, clear your thoughts and focus on making this gorgeous rice.  Why did I ever wait this long to make it??  Meanwhile heat another good heavy skillet to stir fry your seafood- the frozen product I had said that you can stir fry it in 3 minutes or under, right from the freezer.

During the last 4-5 minutes, add a couple cups of shelled green peas- tiny spring peas would be best, but any frozen pea will do the trick.  Now stirfry your seafood as you continue to stir the risotto.  Congratulations, you have now run out of hands to stir things with.  The only important thing to keep in mind with your seafood, above all, is not to overcook it- everything will turn to rubber and you will spend more time chewing your risotto than it took to cook.

After a few minutes, you can add the cooked seafood directly to the rice (there will be some cooking liquid that comes from the seafood- simply add the whole thing, along with a handful of Parmesan (maybe 1/4 cup to start) and a 1/3 cup of cream or milk.  Keep stirring, and finally when everything seems to be a big creamy, bubbling mass, throw in the parsley.  Correct seasoning, maybe add a little more Parmesan and you have made a simple, proper risotto.