Fishing for Compliments

To my knowledge, there are three types of court bouillon (French translation of short broth). The first type is the very simple quick broth for poaching fish with a small amount of onion, carrot and celery with aromatics and white wine. Then there are two types of Cajun court bouillon (in Cajun country pronounced koo bee-yahn). The first type is a thick sauce that whole fillets are slowly cooked in. The other Cajun type is similar but more of a fish stew. This recipe is a combination. It allows you a little more freedom with when to make the sauce, how much seafood goes into each portion and when the dish is finished. It can be made a few days before and kept in the fridge or made months in advance and kept in smaller portions in the freezer to thaw and reheat later.


Redfish and catfish are the most common finfish used in a Cajun court bouillon. Tilapia can be used but would be frowned upon in the south. Shrimp, scallops, crab, oysters, clams and sometimes other types of non-seafood could be used. This dish is very popular on Fridays during Lent. It can easily be made without any meat and then if you want for a special occasion, add bacon, tasso ham or andouille sausage.


In keeping with most Cajun dishes, you start with butter and the trinity (onions, bell pepper and celery). A heavy dose of garlic, jalapeno, herbs, spice and tomatoes rounds out the dish. There are many variations, some missing celery and peppers, but always using tomatoes.


Like most southern Louisiana dishes, the initial vegetables are cooked well past the point of al dente (firm to the tooth, slight bite, but no crunch). They start to develop their flavor when they start to develop color. The edges of the onions should start to take on color before adding the garlic and jalapeno. Make sure to cook garlic only until it becomes fragrant, any color will come across as bitter, as opposed to the onion where color develops as a sweet taste and aroma. The addition of tomato paste is not present in all recipes, but I think it helps raise the bar. It is important to add a few tablespoons of tomato paste before any liquid caramelizes the sugar in the tomato. Once the color of the tomato paste starts to deepen, you are ready to add the flour. This step is optional and is the only gluten in the recipe. It helps thicken the sauce slightly. The flour could be left out or substituted with some gluten-free flour or half the amount of cornstarch. The diced tomatoes can then be added, simmer for 20 to 25 minutes and you are ready to go.

In or Out

Traditionally this would be where the whole fillets of redfish, chunks of fish, shrimp, scallops or other seafood would be added and cooked in the sauce. This is where the name court bouillon comes in, which is a traditional French method for slowing poaching fish. In the traditional method, the fish is poached in a quickly made, clear flavorful liquid. In the Cajun version, the fish or seafood is also poached, just in a thick, vegetable and tomato-rich sauce. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to create small servings or put together in a restaurant. In many restaurants, they will make the sauce and then brown the seafood in a sauté pan and finish with the sauce. I find that this helps to portion out the seafood, adding some flavor, and helping to serve only a few portions at a time. The sauce can be made at an earlier date or the extra could be saved and frozen for a later date.


If cooking in the sauce, the seafood/fish can be heavily seasoned with salt and pepper about 30 minutes before cooking. Once the sauce is finished, turn the heat down to very low (just a few bubbles). Add in the larger fish and carefully push below the surface, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add in the smaller portions of seafood, then cook another 10 minutes. Remove seafood from the sauce, serve over rice, top with more sauce as needed.


Season the seafood heavily with salt and pepper. Melt butter over medium-high heat in a sauté pan. Add in the largest pieces of seafood, cook for 1 to 2 minutes per side. Add in the rest of the seafood, stir until slightly brown. Add in just enough sauce to cover the seafood slightly and bring to a simmer. Taste the seafood and sauce to make sure it is done, seafood should be white all the way through and, fish should be starting to flake apart. Season the sauce as needed with salt, pepper, more Worcestershire and lemon juice as desired.

Seafood Court Bouillon (KOO BEE-yahn)

Makes 4-6 Servings


1 bell pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
½ stick unsalted butter (4 tablespoons) – for the sauce
4 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil – for the sauce
4 to 5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 jalapeno minced, keep seeds in to make the dish spicier
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons flour
3 to 4 cups peeled and diced tomatoes or 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon dry thyme (1 teaspoon fresh)
½ teaspoon dry oregano (1 teaspoon fresh)
1 teaspoon Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced (separate greens and whites)
½ bunch flat parsley, minced
Salt and pepper to taste


2 pounds of lean fish – redfish, catfish, tilapia or a mixture of seafood
(Can be placed in as whole fillets, slices or pieces)
½ stick unsalted butter (4 tablespoons) – for the seafood
4 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil – for the seafood

In a saucepan, small stockpot or Dutch oven, sauté onions, celery and bell peppers in butter and oil with a heavy pinch of salt until edges start to brown. Add in minced garlic and jalapenos and sauté until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add in tomato paste and cook until color deepens and starts to stick to the bottom. Add flour and stir until incorporated. Add tomatoes, another pinch of salt, herbs, spice, Worcestershire, lemon juice, sugar and whites of green onions. Bring to simmer, cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring every 5 to 6 minutes to prevent the sauce sticking to the bottom. If you are serving over rice, start to cook it separately at this point.

On a tray or plate, season the seafood heavily with salt and pepper. In a separate pan with short sides turn on to high heat, add a half stick of butter and olive oil. Let fat melt and almost start to smoke. Add the largest set of seafood or one that needs to cook the longest. Once the heat in the pan starts to recover and seafood starts to get some color, add the next type of seafood and cook the same. Once all of the seafood is in the pan and partially cooked, add enough sauce to cover all the seafood. Bring to a simmer and season to taste. Serve over rice and enjoy.

Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.

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