This bouillabaisse a noble dish is --

A sort of soup or broth, or brew,

Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes,

That Greenwich never could outdo;

Green herbs, red peppers, mussels, saffron,

Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace:

All these you eat at TERRE'S tavern,

In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.

"The Ballad of Bouillabaisse" by William Makepeace Thackeray As we feasted on a generous bouillabaisse at La Brasserie, my friend Inge speculated about how hard it must be to prepare a dish like that for a group. "Anyone can do it," I maintained, and we argued back and forth. By night's end, spurred on by my determination to dispel the mystique that surrounds this aristocrat of fish stews, our challenge was on: to determine whether a good bouillabaisse can be prepared ahead, with the only last-minute work assembling and reheating the soup.

A check of various cookbooks turned up a debate about the ingredients in a classic Marseille bouillabaisse and the merits of using fennel seeds, bay leaves and orange peel, the authenticity of adding crustaceans and molluscs, whether wine should be added to the cooking liquid, the propriety of including potatoes and whether the peppers in the rouille should be raw or roasted, sweet or hot.

The controversy over whether the fish should be allowed to disintegrate or remain whole seemed relatively unimportant next to the more pressing question of the kind of fish to use in the first place. Variety is the key, with a combination of firm-fleshed and delicate-fleshed fish.

The French insist that no bouillabaisse worthy of the name can be prepared without conger eel and rascasse. General opinion continues to be that rascasse, native to the Mediterranean, does not exist in the U.S. even though New Yorker essayist A.J. Liebling laid that myth to rest in his 1962 essay on "The Soul of Bouillabaisse." Put to the challenge, a marine biologist friend of his uncovered the fact that rascasse is the scorpion fish of North American waters.

In his thorough study "Mediterranean Seafood," Alan Davidson claims that rascasse "do something for bouillabaisse which no other fish can do." Food historian Waverly Root calls rascasse "the one indispensable fish in Mediterranean bouillabaisse to which its venom contributes a needed fillip." And Liebling concluded that rascasse makes the essential difference because it acts as a catalyst to intensify all the flavors in the stew. He quotes a paean to bouillabaisse written by Joseph Mery in the 19th century:

To prepare without flaw this

Masterpiece Phocian,

The rascasse is the sine qua

non of the ocean.

A fish by himself rather like an old shoe

He suffuses with marvels the good of a stew.

Finding rascasse in the U.S. is another story because the fish is extraordinarily ugly and not particularly good eating on its own. The French chef at La Brasserie, Gaby Aubouin, dismisses the rascasse question by concluding, "The fish in America is so beautiful that you don't need the exact French fish. I've tasted many bouillabaisse in France which are not as good as the one I cook here with American fish."

Aubouin likes monkfish, red snapper, grouper and John Dory fish, but other good choices are catfish, sea bass, trout, whiting, red mullet, rockfish and flatfish such as sole and flounder. Including lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels or clams turns what began as an ancient Greek fish stew into an opulent treat.

La Brasserie serves bouillabaisse only on Saturday nights because it is so labor-intensive. "Although the vegetables are cut up and the fish cleaned and ready, none of the cooking is done ahead because that is the only way to do it very fresh," the chef maintains.

Despite that professional opinion, my friend Inge and I found that a home cook, working without a kitchen staff, can prepare a more than creditable bouillabaisse in stages, then assemble and heat it just before serving.

The first do-ahead step is saute'ing in extra virgin olive oil the vegetables that give the soup base its flavor and body. Onions, leeks, garlic and tomatoes, fresh parsley and other herbs as well as saffron and fennel seeds are the usual combination. Saffron reflects the Arab influence on the once-humble fish stew, herbs were a Roman refinement and tomatoes are the New World's contribution to one of the old world's most honored dishes.

Next, the fish can be cleaned, sliced and the heads and tails cut off to put in the stock. After thorough washing, the mussels, clams and lobsters can be steamed separately until each is just barely done. Discarding the top shells of the mussels and clams makes for more space in the kettle later. Their liquids should be strained to remove sand and combined with the fish heads and tails to be cooked with the saute'ed vegetables for the stock. The stock and cooked shellfish should be stored in the refrigerator until just before they are used.

Small red-skinned or new potatoes are not compromised by being boiled or steamed until barely done and refrigerated early on. French bread can be sliced, toasted in the oven and stored in a plastic bag. And the mayonnaise-like rouille can be made any time. If it is refrigerated and thickens too much, a little of the broth beaten in sets it right.

At dinnertime, when all the guests are primed for something special, heat the stock, add the delicate fish (the flounder, sole and red snapper), and cook the stew until the fish begin to disintegrate. Then add the firm fish (the catfish). Stir in the wine and the parboiled potatoes and cook until they are hot. Finally, add the steamed shellfish and cook the mixture just until everything is heated through and the soup is bubbling.

The final dilemma is whether to serve the bouillabaisse the traditional way -- the broth in a tureen and the fish on a platter -- or throw custom to the winds and bring the entire steaming kettle right into the dining room.

If you don't tell that you cooked your bouillabaisse ahead, nobody will guess from the taste that yours is any less delicious than the legendary dish Venus cooked for her husband, Vulcan, to distract his attention from her love affair with Mars.

DO-AHEAD BOUILLABAISSE (8 servings)

FOR THE SOUP:

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large onions

3 leeks, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, minced

4 tomatoes, diced

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon saffron, crushed

Grated peel from 1/2 orange

1 clove

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme or 1/8 teaspoon dried

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried fennel seeds, crushed

24 mussels

24 littleneck clams

4 lobsters, between 1 and 2 pounds, each

1 pound flounder or sole fillets

2 pounds whole red snapper

2 pounds farm-raised catfish

Bottled clam juice (optional)

16 shrimp, shell on

1/2 cup white wine

16 small red-skinned or new potatoes, cooked

1/2 bunch parsley, minced

FOR THE ROUILLE:

8 garlic cloves

4-ounce jar pimientos

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup fish broth

2 to 3 slices white bread, soaked in water and squeezed

16 slices toasted french bread

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion, leeks and garlic and saute' until lightly browned. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, saffron, orange peel, clove, bay leaf, thyme, cayenne and fennel seeds. Cook 2 minutes.

Scrub and debeard mussels. Place in a saucepan with 2 cups boiling water, cover, and cook over high heat until mussels barely open. Remove and cool.

Place scrubbed clams in same saucepan, adding boiling water if needed. Cover and cook over high heat until clams barely open. Remove and cool.

Strain broth through a cheesecloth to remove sand and reserve.

Wash lobsters and plunge into a large kettle with 2 cups boiling water. Cook until done, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on their size. Remove and cool. Split lobster bodies in half. Add lobster broth to reserved mussel-clam broth. Remove lobster claws and crack with a nutcracker in 2 places.

Remove top shell from mussels and clams and discard. Cut lobsters in half. Clean fish, remove heads and tails, and cut bodies into 1 1/2-inch thick slices.

Wash kettle, pour in reserved broth and add fish heads and tails. Add saute'ed mixture to broth, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove fish heads and tails.

Add flounder to broth and cook until it just begins to disintegrate. Add snapper and catfish and enough water or bottled clam juice just to cover and cook until barely done. Add shrimp, wine, pre-cooked potatoes, reserved mussels, clams and lobster. Cook only long enough to heat shellfish. Sprinkle with parsley and stir.

To make rouille, pure'e garlic and pimientos with oil and broth in a food processor. Add bread and process until smooth. Mixture should be the thickness of mayonnaise. If too thin, thicken with additional bread. If too thick, add broth.

To serve, place 2 slices of toast in each of 8 large soup bowls. Ladle bouillabaisse over top. Pass rouille.

LA BRASSERIE'S BOUILLABAISSE (8 servings)

FOR THE LOBSTER STOCK:

4 lobster heads

1 onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

Pinch each fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley

1 gallon water

2 cups dry white wine

FOR THE SOUP:

1/2 cup olive oil

3 medium onions, minced

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 large tomatoes, peeled and diced

Pinch each fresh thyme, parsley and fennel seeds

1 bay leaf

Pinch finely julienned orange peel, dried*

Combination of leeks, carrots and celery to total 1 pound, finely julienned

4 live lobsters, quartered

24 large mussels, debearded

1 pound bay scallops

1 pound monkfish fillets, cut up

Pinch saffron

1 pound red snapper fillets, cut up

1 pound grouper fillets, cut up

1 pound John Dory fish fillets, cut up

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

FOR THE ROUILLE:

2 garlic cloves

2 teaspoons harissa (hot red pepper pure'e)**

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

1 cup olive oil

16 slices french bread croutons

To make lobster stock, combine lobster heads, onion, carrots, celery, rosemary, thyme, parsley, water and wine in a large saucepan. Cook until reduced to 2 quarts, about 2 hours.

To make soup, heat oil in a large kettle, add onions, garlic, tomatoes, thyme, parsley, fennel seeds, bay leaf, orange peel and leek-carrot-celery mixture. Saute' 2 minutes. Add lobsters, mussels, scallops and monkfish. Saute' 2 minutes. Add lobster stock and saffron. Bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes. Add snapper, grouper and John Dory and boil 5 minutes longer. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.

To make rouille, place garlic, harissa and bread crumbs in the bowl of a food processor and process until combined. With the motor running, slowly add olive oil and process until smooth.

To serve, spread rouille on croutons. Place in a large, deep bowl and ladle bouillabaisse over top.

*Julienne the orange peel 1 day ahead and allow to dry out at room temperature.

** Available in Middle Eastern markets or gourmet store