Bisques are a type of soup, historically based on crustaceans, (crayfish, lobster, shrimp, or crab), that are thickened in one of a myriad of ways, and then finished with cream. Naturally, bisques are smooth, creamy, and rich. But the flavor of the base seafood should be poignant and not overpowered by the succulence. Not surprisingly, bisques are French in origin and often associated with more lavish eateries.
Bisques differ from chowders in that chowders usually employ potatoes, are thickened with roux, and are chunky. However, it is not uncommon for bisques to contain pieces of whatever seafood they are based on.
Traditional bisques are thickened with rice, breadcrumbs, and/or the puréed meat or shells of the crustacean in question. Contemporary versions rely on roux, (as in my recipe below), in conjunction with concentrating of the cooking fluid via simmering.
Lobster bisque presents a perplexing quandary to the average home cook. It begins with killing the lobster. No, not merely by dropping it in boiling water, (which is already beyond what many can stomach), but with a chef’s knife driven right between its eyes. As lurid as this sounds it’s actually the most humane approach as it instantaneously severs the brain. The lobster is then broken into its component parts and utilized to produce a stock which forms the basis of the soup.
So why can’t you just boil the lobsters? Because, like any food, boiling leaches flavor. Beginning your bisque with pre-boiled lobster will undermine the soup’s intensity. But don’t worry. If you don’t have the nerve to do a Jack-the-Ripper on your lobster, I have a decent compromise for you: Steam your lobster and then use the leftover water as the base for the stock. Whatever flavor has dripped into the steaming water will be reintroduced to the dish. Plus I add a secret ingredient to augment the seafood essence which we’ll get too shortly.
Some chefs like to include the roe and tomalley in the soup to push the lobster flavor even further. If you’re as squeamish about eating the eggs and liver as you are about plunging a knife in its head then this a moot point. However, if you are a connoisseur of the creature’s offal then we’re kinda back to the stabbing conundrum.
Traditionally, the roe and tomalley are removed before cooking, (which obviously means you have to kill the lobster by hand). They are then whisked into the soup just before presentation. Of course, you can steam the lobster and then remove them but again, you will compromise some flavor. Remember this caveat for all cooking: Whenever you save money, time, labor or unpleasant emotions, it almost always comes at a cost of flavor.
Onto my recipe for lobster bisque. First we make a lobster stock, and then the actual soup. I’m assuming you prefer my suggestion to steam the lobster as opposed to getting medieval on it so I’ve outlined the recipe accordingly.
For the lobster stock:
• 2 (1½ -1¾ lb.) lobsters
• 6 cups water
• Olive oil, as needed
• 6 oz. dry white wine
• 8 oz. clam juice
• 1 carrot, chopped
• 1 celery stalk, chopped
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 2 bay leaves
• Small batch thyme
• Small batch parsley, including stems
• Ground black pepper
Don’t buy one large lobster. They’re usually more expensive per pound and may not fit in your steaming equipment. Stick with two smaller ones. If you want the roe ask your fish monger for females. Use a steaming vessel big enough to adequately hold the lobsters. I have one of those old, inexpensive, ceramic covered steamers about 14 inches across. Place the six cups of water in the steamer, cover it, bring to a strong simmer/mild boil, and add the lobsters. They will take about 12-14 minutes. When done, remove the lobsters and allow them to cool. Take the steamer off the heat and hold the water in reserve.
Remove the meat from the lobsters. When opening the claws and twisting off the tail fluid will be released. Do this over the reserved water to recapture some of the juices. To remove the meat from the tiny legs, cut them off at the joint nearest the body. Lay them on a cutting board and with a rolling pin, squeeze out the elongated nugget of meat. Chop the tail and claw meat into bite size pieces, combine with the leg meat and reserve.
If desired, remove the tomalley and roe and reserve. Remember, the cooked roe will be more solid than from a raw lobster. Cut it into little pieces and sprinkle it into the soup with the tomalley at the end.
Place the shells from the claws, tail, and legs in a large bowl. Break up the tail shells into pieces about the size of the claws. Remove the outer shell from the main body of the lobster and add it to the other shells. Discard the inner body of the lobster.
Heat the olive oil in a stockpot. Add the lobster shells and sauté 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the wine, deglaze the pot, and reduce the wine by at least half. Add the reserved water and all of the remaining ingredients. Cover, bring to a very gentle simmer and cook for 45 minutes. Normally stock is simmered uncovered to reduce it but we’ll concentrate it later when making the actual soup. (The clam juice is my “secret ingredient;” an insurance to keep the seafood flavor on a par with the richness).
Strain the stock into an ample bowl, first through a colander or coarse strainer to remove the large pieces. Re-strain it through several layers of cheesecloth and reserve. Discard all the solids.
For the soup:
• 5 tablespoons salted butter
• 1 small onion, chopped (or substitute shallots or leeks)
• 1 celery stick, chopped
• 1 carrot, chopped
• Small batch thyme
• 1 bay leaf
• Salt and white pepper to taste
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1-2 oz. brandy, cognac, or sherry
• 4 tablespoons flour
• Lobster stock from above recipe
• 1 pint heavy cream
Melt the butter in a soup pot over low to medium heat. Cook the onion, celery, carrot, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper until the vegetables soften. Do not brown the vegetables or you’ll discolor the final soup.
Add the tomato paste and sauté it for a minute or two, frequently stirring.
Pour in the brandy and ignite it with a long kitchen match and flambé. Stir until the flames subside.
Add the flour and cook for a minute or two.
Slowly whisk in the reserved lobster stock. Gently simmer on low heat, uncovered, for 45 minutes.
Add the cream and simmer for another 5 minutes.
Strain the soup through a fine strainer into a new pot, discarding the solids.
Add the reserved lobster meat and return the soup to the stove, just long enough to warm up the meat.
Add the tomalley and roe if you wish and serve.
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