electronic Gourmet Guide

Court Bouillon

by Steve Holzinger

I have strong recollections of my grandmother's cooking. I spent the summers of my youth on the Chesapeake Bay. My brother and I hung out on the pier in search of the once plentiful Maryland Blue Crab. with fish heads and chicken bones we would tempt the crabs to the surface. At the end of the day, sunburned but exhilarated, we would take our harvest to Gramma and she would break out the Old Bay Seasoning, boil the water, in a very simple manner, producing the greatest gastronomic experience of my youth. I can still remember the sweet, succulent, flesh of the crab and the spicy, hot seasoning on my sunburned lips. To this day, I strive for simple, fresh flavors in my cooking that are representative of the Maryland Blue Crab boil.
—Gary Holleman, Corporate Chef, Indian Harvest

Gary is a chef's chef, and a great guy as well as author of the book Food and Wine Online, and host of the ChefNet BBS. When I got his response, I was reminded of a time on the sparkling clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, some 35 years ago, where I could pull a dozen or two crabs out of the water in little or no time. I boiled them in a court bouillon with Old Bay Seafood Seasoning. Everybody used it for shrimp or crab boil, although some folks threw in a handful of flaked red chili peppers "for good luck." I remember a bar in Biloxi, Mississippi where they had a bucket of shrimp, head and tails on, right off the shrimp boat, boiled in sea water with Old Bay and more than one handful of chiles thrown in. For one dollar, you got a paper plate, which entitled you to fill it as often as you liked, and throw the shells and heads on the floor!

My next memory of Old Bay's seafood seasoning was some ten years later, in Baltimore. I worked across the street from the McCormick spice company, who make a pretty good crab boil themselves. Whenever we wanted to eat crabs, we would go to Gordons, a Baltimore landmark. I wonder, is it still there? In Gordons they put newspapers over the plain wood tables, gave you a wooden mallet, and brought platters of steamed crabs to crack. Beer by the pitcher, she-crab soup, and real Maryland crab cakes. When I die, and go to Heaven , first, I want to eat crabs at Gordons.

Next stop on memory lane is 1976, when I was chef at the Shelter Island Inn, on Peconic Bay in Long Island. Shelter Island mussels are big black fat mussels that come from mud flats on the islands coasts. Under the black of the shell, there is a silvery undercoat that shines through. A bushel of mussels should weigh about 50 pounds, but Shelter Island mussels clock in much heavier, because you get a free half bushel of smelly mud. The taste of these mussels and the plumpness is superb, and I sold lots of them as Moules Mariniere, on a bed of Linguini, or as an appetizer. crabcake

It was Gary's memory, which he sent to me via the Chef's list, that got me thinking about these favorite foods of mine, because they illustrate the point of this article, Court Bouillon and Fish Stock.

A court bouillon (literally "short boil") is an acidulated vegetable stock. The vegetables are cooked with aromatics for a short time to create a flavorful vegetable stock, which has an acid like vinegar or lemon juice added to it. The main purpose of using a court bouillon to cook things in is to preserve their flavor. Instead of leaching the flavor out, as would happen if you used plain water, the osmotic pressure of the vegetable stock keeps flavors in the food being cooked. In addition, the acid firms and whitens the white flesh of fish or poultry. For shellfish like crabs and shrimp, I like to add Old Bay Seafood seasoning. I also use it for lobsters, which I simmer (never boil) for about twenty minutes for chicken lobsters (1 pounders).

For larger lobsters, that get tough if you try to broil them all the way, I half cook them in the court bouillon first, and then finish under the broiler. This works for lobster tails as well. Lobster tails are not true lobsters, they are spiny lobsters, (in French, ecrivisse), and often appear somewhat toughly as Surf, in Surf and Turf, a menu offering that proves that two rights can make a wrong. mussels

Sometimes you want to use the court bouillon as a stock after cooking, because what you are cooking is delicate in flavor, so that vinegar is not the way to go. Then, I sweat chopped shallots in butter and add water and white wine, half and half, and finish with chopped parsley. For years, I used Gallo Chablis for this court bouillon, as it had just the right amount of acid in the wine. I used to make up a fair sized pot of this base, and put about a cup of it in small Wearever Aluminum pots with lids, and then fill the little pot with cleaned and bearded mussels. When I got an order, I'd just place the little pot onto the range. It would tell me when it was done by clanking the lid. The mussels, yellow and fat, would be gaping open, and I'd throw some chopped parsley on them, and pour the mussel stock into a cup, and serve the mussels in a soup plate, with a basket of French bread, toasted with garlic, coarse black pepper and Pope Virgin olive oil. So this broth, which results from steaming the mussels in a court bouillon, is quite delicious to dip the mussels in, and can be taken a step further to make a sauce for them.

If I were serving Moules Mariniere a la Creme or Mussels in Cream, I would bind the broth with a little manie butter. Beurre manie is three parts of butter to two parts of flour. It is used to give a little thickening to a' la minute (on the spot) sauces. Just bring the broth to the boil, and whisk in a little of the manie butter, just enough to make it a little thicker than clinging. Add a jot of heavy cream so that now it will just cling to the mussels, finish with some chopped parsley, s&p, and toss the mussels in it. It is really very rich and wonderful this way, a sort of lily gilding that I approve of, but I could eat freshly steamed mussels any I can get them. From a technical point of view, we have made a veloute of mussels with cream. A veloute is a thickened stock. In fact, we are edging our way towards a Sauce Vin Blanc, but more on that another day.


Thank you Gary, for the e-mail. You confirm my belief that today's best chefs have an eye on the past as well as the present and future, and as you said so well, "strive for simple, fresh flavors in ... cooking." Now that is a worthwhile quote.

Spring has sprung, and for Mise en place which is the advance preparation for the meal, let us think about the basics and not so basics of soups. Does any one have a favorite family recipe for matzoth balls, marrow balls, or Wonderful Wet Wontons or suchlike soup goodies? I'll be glad to publish the best in the Fonds cookbook WE are doing together. After soups, I think sauces come next in logical culinary order, but when were we ever logical? Seasonally, I'm starting to think about cleaning up the old barbecue...

Did you know that the Caribbean word 'barbacoa' (from which our word 'barbecue' is derived) means Frame of Sticks?



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This page modified February 2007