Long before Paul Prudhomme popularized redfish for blackening, coastal residents ate redfish courtbouillion. South Louisiana’s courtbouillion (pronounced koo-bee-yohn) bears no resemblance to the French preparation by the same name. The classic haute cuisine version consists of a flavored liquid (water, wine or vinegar, aromatic seasonings) used to poach delicate foods, whereas the Cajun version is a thin, tomato-centric fish stew.
Pre-Prudhomme, redfish wasn’t exactly prized as a tasty fish; it can have a very assertive, almost metallic flavor, especially in larger fish. Enter the tomato: an equally assertive flavoring to provide balance, acidity, acting as a bright foil for the redfish. Courtbouillion operates on the same culinary principles as the sauce piquantes used to cook wild game: the acidity of tomatoes, layers of long-cooked flavor, and a nice jolt of hot pepper tame an otherwise gamy or difficult protein. It’s also a cousin to shrimp creole (though my own shrimp creole is thinner, lighter, and more gently spiced).
Though redfish is most commonly associated with courtbouillion, cooks routinely use snapper, large catfish, or large pieces of any firm, white fish. Fillets too thick for frying are perfect for this wet dish, being sturdy enough to stand up to longer cooking and occasional stirring.
- 1/2 cup oil, or half oil and half bacon grease
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 small/medium bell pepper, chopped
- 1 or 2 ribs celery with leaves, chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 bay leaves
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/2 tsp ground thyme
- 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- salt, to taste (start with 1/4 tsp)
- 1 cup of wine (red or white, use whatever’s on hand)
- 2-3 cups water
- 1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes, or 28 oz fresh tomatoes, peeled & chopped
- 2 or 3 shakes of worcestershire sauce
- 2-3 lbs redfish, red snapper, or other firm white fish, cut into 2″ thick chunks
- juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
- 1 bunch parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch green onions (tops & bottoms), chopped
Heat oil in a heavy saucepan until a pinch of flour sizzles in it. Whisk in the flour, then stir with a spatula over high heat. When the roux reaches a light peanut butter color, add the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Cook, stirring frequently, over high heat until the vegetables soften. Add garlic, bay leaves, allspice, thyme, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, water, wine, and worcestershire. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 30-45 minutes, until thickened and fragrant. Consistency should be thicker than soup, but not overly reduced or gravylike. Add fish, lemon juice, parsley, and green onions. Continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes; stir gently to prevent fish from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Fish should be cooked through; do not overcook once fish is added or it will break up. Serve over rice. Garnish with additional parsley, if desired.
Note: red wine will yield a darker-colored courtbouillion, though the flavor of white wine is just as good. Shrimp stock or fish stock can be substituted for the water. If stock is used, reduce initial simmering time by a few minutes and be cautious with salt.