Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the archive of cookbooks we have amassed over eight decades. Before our move from Tennessee, the family treasure trove of culinary literature took up the better part of a thirty-by-twenty-foot room… on tall shelves and in stacked boxes! Of course, this pre-internet horde of knowledge has been rendered quaint by the miracle of Google search, book scanning, new media, etc. An unexpected benefit to lugging this antiquated library of flattened and bound wood pulp: a respite from the ridiculously overwhelming volume of blogs and food sites we dutifully scour every day.
Ah, food on the internet. What seems one second to be an indispensable research and communication tool often turns into an unending rabbit hole of associative inquiry… distracted from distraction by distraction. Ironically, the limitations of books make them a refuge from this contemporary affliction. Lacking hyperlinks, devoid of embedded video, blank margins… we find these shortcomings very welcome after a morning futilely paddling against the roiling surf of the foodie interwebs. None of the flotsam of commerce, no desperate need to continuously “monetize” content with a sidebar full of advertisements… merely an object that was sold once for a fair sum, containing information you know you are interested in. Innocent, obsolescent, plainly uninteractive, distinctly “un-rich” monomedia.
Old cookbooks are, without a doubt, our favorite remedy to the fast-moving foodie trend circus paraded before our eyes every morning. On one break earlier this week, we were thumbing our way through a favorite—Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book—when we stumbled upon her recipe for bouillabaisse borgne, or “One-Eyed Bouillabaisse.” The kicker: poached eggs instead of fish. Strange for such a famously fishy (and fussy) stew… As Grigson explains: “The idea of the title seems to be that when you are too poor or low to afford the fish deemed necessary for bouillabaisse, you make do with vegetables and eggs.” Since bouillabaisse is thought to have originated among poor fishermen trying to make do with scraps they couldn’t sell, Grigson’s imagined cook must have been really poor.
Of course, the humble origins of bouillabaisse are hard to detect in its more gilded, fine-dining incarnations, which often call for expensive lobster or langoustine in place of cockles and mussels, and a wide variety of hard-to-source fish. Perhaps “One-eyed” not only refers to the poached egg iris in the soup bowl, but also the painful squint of a frugal shopper at the total price of fish that goes into bouillabaisse. Witness the list from one adapted-for-American-fish, 8-serving recipe: 3 pounds sea bass, 2 pounds striped bass, 2 pounds pike, four 2-pound sole or flounder, and four 2-pound Maine lobsters. Yikes! Authentic Provencal recipes are simply impossible to follow, as they all require live specimens of fish species not easily found on this side of the Atlantic. All of a sudden, landlubber’s bouillabaisse seems more and more enticing.
With all of the money we saved at the fish monger, we decided to give this traditional Provencal dish a few twists to account for the loss of flavor and texture from the emulsified fish broth usually present in “normal” bouillabaisse. We started off by rendering some lardons of good bacon (why not?) and using homemade chicken stock and white wine for an even more flavorful broth with a lusher mouth feel. *
The smoky bacon is a nice foil to the saffron, wine, and poached eggs (go figure). Any fresh peas will be delicious in this soup. For the “fresh” peas found in supermarkets, cook for approximately three minutes, as they are rather starchy within a day of being picked. Frozen peas just need to be heated through. Enjoy!
* Interesting tidbit from JOY contributor and all-around awesome food writing legend Harold McGee: bouillabaisse broth is boiled vigorously so that a healthy quantity of olive oil can form an emulsion with the gelatin-rich fish stock, producing a silky, luxurious mouthfeel. Here, we get the same effect by adding the rendered bacon fat to rapidly boiling chicken stock. Thanks science! (For more awesome food-related science, be sure to check out McGee’s seminal On Food and Cooking).
Cut crosswise into matchsticks or lardons:
¼ pound sliced bacon
Render in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crispy. Remove lardons to a bowl and lightly brown in the bacon fat:
3 leeks (white part only) or spring onions, thinly sliced
1 quart chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 cup dry white wine
2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped or one 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
6 new potatoes, halved (thinly slice one of them for a thicker broth)
1 or 2 fennel fronds
8 cloves garlic, smashed
(one strip of orange peel)
a large pinch of saffron
salt and pepper to taste
Bring to a hard boil over high heat and cook until potatoes are nearly done, about 5 minutes. Add:
1 pound green peas, fresh or frozen
If peas are fresh but taste a bit starchy, simmer for an additional 3 minutes; if using frozen peas, just bring the soup back to a simmer. Make four depressions in the soup with a spoon and carefully slide into the soup and poach for approximately 3 minutes:
4 large eggs
As the eggs poach, divide between 4 serving bowls:
4 large slices stale or lightly toasted baguette
Place a poached egg in each bowl, divide the vegetables among them, and finally spoon the broth over the vegetables. Garnish with the cooked bacon and:
Freshly ground black pepper