Anise, Sea Spray & Marseille

Like I’ve said before — when it comes to dinner, we’re a theme family. And often a theme evolves around random happenings on my shopping route.

Reading all the various comments to my recent post on oyster bars got me in the mood, of course, for oysters. So at my Wednesday farmer’s market, I picked up a dozen oysters from the (somewhat) local aquaculture guys as well as, among other things, a head of frisee lettuce, two duck eggs and a fennel bulb. I remembered that I had a nice chunk of stinky cheese in the fridge, and thought perhaps I had the makings of a French night, some night soon.

Frisee

Frisee

I eyed some beautiful fresh sardines at the Japanese market later in the day. But there was rain in the forecast, and sardines are a food best eaten fresh off the grill. So I passed. A short while later, at the supermarket, I bought some shrimp with the heads on to make stuffed shiitake mushrooms for an Asian dinner I had in mind for some future evening. They were a great deal, so I bought an extra pound. And my mind turned toward shrimp bisque.

When I was a pre-teen, I spent a summer in Europe with my family. Half the trip was spent in the south of France, in Montpellier, which served as a launch point for various destinations in Provence, on the Riviera and in Spain. I remember consuming strange and eye-opening seafoods in places like Nice, Grasse and La Grande Motte — my parents still retell in vivid detail the story of their shock as my little sister and I dug into a large bowl of fruits de mer that resembled a tide pool. And I remember Marseille being a dirty, vaguely intimidating city. We weren’t there long, and that was more than long enough.

I would like to revisit it today. I would head to the fish market and shop. And then I would tuck into a gritty seafood restaurant on the waterfront for a bowl of fish soup — much the same way I settled into a stall off the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for a breakfast of sashimi and beer at 7 a.m. (When in Rome…) That would be the first of many days in that city, immersing myself in all things briny and of the sea.

I like to sometimes recreate the dining experiences of cities at home — Venice, Italy; Havana, Cuba; Tokyo… and yes, spontaneously, Marseille. My wife’s mother likes to drink pastis — a liqueur native to Marseille — as an aperitif. I like it too, so I picked up a bottle one day for the liquor cabinet. On the designated French evening, I added half a fennel bulb to my shrimp bisque, which gave it a lovely taste of anise. Inspired, I added some pastis to the soup. It tasted like the south of France, like Marseille, and I had my theme. In addition to the bisque, we had a crusty bread with some runny burgundy cheese, a dozen oysters with ginger mignonette and frisee aux lardons — frilly lettuce with pancetta and vinaigrette — and alternated between wine and pastis in our glasses. If it would be some time before I could live out my fish fantasy in Marseille proper, perhaps a good ol’ theme evening could redeem the city for now.

I’ve already got a shrimp bisque recipe on the blog. But it’s more a straightforward East Coast number. And like many of the best things in life, two is better than one.

*   *   *

Bisque de crevettes
serves 4

1 lb. medium to large shrimp, with heads on
1 onion
1/2 bulb fennel
1 bay leaf
1 leek, white part only
2 medium potatoes, peeled
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup pastis or other anise-flavored liquor
1 cup cream
salt & pepper to taste

Place shrimp, onion, bay leaf and fennel in 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove shrimp, cover and continue to cook for 20 minutes more. Let soup cool.

Separate the heads of the shrimp from the tails and discard. Remove shells from tails, make a slit down the back with a paring knife, and rinse under cold water to remove veins. Set tails aside.

Strain the soup broth through a fine sieve, discarding vegetables. Wipe out pot and return soup. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and add the peeled potatoes and the leek. Cook for 20 minutes and remove from heat. Let cool.

While the soup is cooling, make a beurre maníe by combining the flour and butter into a paste. Set aside. Using a fork, shred the shrimp tail meat into two or three pieces per tail. Set aside.

Place the cooled soup in a blender and puree, including the potatoes and leek, until smooth. Return to soup pot and heat over medium to a simmer. Stir in tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste (soup will probably require at least a teaspoon to a tablespoon of salt). Add beurre maníe, pastis and cream, stirring to incorporate, and continue simmering until thickened, another 10-20 minutes. Toss in the shrimp just before serving.

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Conor Bofin
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 07:40:36

    I have spent a deal of time in the south of France too. I love the casual yet top quality food that abounds. I like the idea of adding the pastis to the soup. I must pick up a bottle when I am down that way again later in the year.
    Best,
    Conor

    Reply

  2. pal-O
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 12:45:56

    Once again you had me at Oysters. Saveur’s latest edition had a little blurb in the New Orleans section about Felix’s. I know there is a trip to JazzFest in your future with a few days and nights careering around the Vieux Carré & beyond sampling food & drink adding the Crescent city to your quiver. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Apr 05, 2013 @ 13:44:47

      Oysters, jazzfest, N’awlins, food & drink and Pal-o … these are a few of my favorite things (Coltrane-style) and a convergence I see in my future.

      Reply

      • pal-O
        Apr 05, 2013 @ 23:37:32

        We’ll know the right time and the lineup for the JazzFest on the time we make it happen will be spectacular . . . if nothing else the Gospel tent is always a good place to land descending on “The Mighty Clouds of Joy” . . . I feel my feet starting to move just thinking about dancing with an Oyster PoBoy in my hands! “Cast off they bed, rise up and shake it my brother!”

      • scolgin
        Apr 05, 2013 @ 23:47:03

        Amen, brotha Pal-o!

  3. Marie -Michelle Hewett
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 15:42:43

    Pastis is a common addition to fish, fish soups and bouillabaisse from Marseille to Nice.
    For oysters I recommend a fabulous place in Ventura “The Jolly Oyster” strictly shuck your own and only two choices of oysters, bring your own champagne, bbq is available for cooking, bring your charcoal, picnic area, directly on the beach, a truly fabulous place and the best prices. They also have clams, bring your own knife to shuck (if you forget or spur of the moment visit, they sell them too) 911 San Pedro St. Ventura CA 93001 at San Buenaventura State beach entrance. Exit Seaward from 101. http://www.thejollyoyster.com I have no personal interest in their business except for the fact that I delight in their oysters, they come directly from their farm and the Brits who own the oyster farm are great.

    Reply

  4. Marie -Michelle Hewett
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 17:40:47

    what a surprise! as expected, naturally.

    Reply

  5. Mom
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 18:38:52

    I love this recipe! I often add Pernod to shrimp which is a similar flavor I believe. I talked Andy into buying a bottle when i was there and it’s still 7/8 full I think. I go through them quickly. That place in Ventura sounds wonderful. Our Hog Island oyster place in Tomales is so full of Asian techy yuppies from Sf that they have valet parking and a place at the picnic tables requires a reservation 6 weeks in advance. So much for local hideaways.

    Reply

  6. Michelle
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 23:07:08

    No matter how much I would love right now to be transported to the South of France (literally or figuratively), I can’t stomach the pastis. (As a drink, that is. The bit in your bisque sounds nice. I guess I shouldn’t have just thrown away the end of a bottle that had been sitting on the bar for ages.) That’s ok, I’ll just have another glass of rosé. 🙂 I’ve always wanted to visit Marseille. But every time we’ve been nearby, we’ve chickened out before driving into the city.

    Reply

  7. Marie -Michelle Hewett
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 05:03:25

    Marseille is definitely a tough place with a lot of immigrants from North Africa and many other places but it is undergoing somewhat of a revival as an art city

    Reply

  8. glennis
    Apr 06, 2013 @ 15:31:16

    I love love love love shrimp bisque. Well, actually, I love lobster bisque, but shrimp bisque is what I can usually manage…! The pastis is a good idea – I usually put a dollop of sherry in it, but I think we have a crusty old bottle of Ricard in the back of the cupboard I can find.

    Reply

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