I must confess a major pet peeve when it comes to menus that list things like Strawberry Bisque or Sweet Potato Bisque. Why? Because bisque is a specific family of soups–not a generic name for cream soups that you want to make sound uppity!
Traditionally, bisques are only found in the varieties of lobster, crab, shrimp and crawfish. Notice a theme there? It’s all shellfish. And those shells are what make bisque bisque and not just cream of lobster soup.
Our ancestors were crafty people who didn’t like anything to go to waste. While I’m not certain they new shellfish exoskeletons are rich in calcium, but they did know that after the shells were used to make a rich stock for the liquid portion of the soup, the shells could be ground and used to thicken the soup as well.
Which is why I find the use of “bisque” for creamy vegetable, fruit and other soups a show of the writers ignorance in the history of the food they are selling or supporting.
If you’ve got a mind to make your own old-fashioned bisque, make sure you’ve got a serious food processor handy to do the job. These days, though, it’s seldom you find a bisque recipe that calls for the shells to be used for thickening, instead a roux, rice or cornstarch can be used to lessen the work of the cook while still yielding a rich, smooth soup perfect for a cold winter’s supper.
Over the summer I’d picked up a few pounds of crawfish from our local seafood market and made sure to save the shells for future use. While I didn’t make the New Orleans-style crawfish bisque that takes 3 days and stuffs the heads with some of the tail meat mixture, I did make a wonderful crawfish bisque in the style of lobster, crab or shrimp bisques.
Using the Shrimp Bisque recipe from Ina Garten as my model, I did a few things differently, aside from substituting my shellfish.
First, I made my own seafood stock. Considering it’s tough to find vegetable stock most weeks at our local grocery store, seafood stock was out of the question. Instead, just take your shells and load them up into a big pot with a couple of quartered onions, some celery stalks (the little pale inside ones work great for stocks), a handful of baby carrots and a bay leaf and let it simmer until you’ve captured as much flavor from those shells as you can. (A couple of hours.)
If you’re crawfish were well seasoned to begin with you really don’t need to add anything extra seasoning-wise, it’s bound to be plenty spicy on it’s own. (This also means hold off on adding heat to your soup until the broth is in as you might end up over-doing it.) Also, I had no need to add water to make up the necessary volume. In fact, I’ve got a couple of quarts of very spicy crawfish stock in the freezer, now, ready for the next bisque-y day.
Since your crawfish is already cooked, you’re only going to add the meat at the very end and only long enough to heat it through. Going back to the base recipe, this means I purreed my onions/leeks and garlic with the crawfish tail meat and the other chunky ingredients cold (okay, room temperature), then made the roux and concocted the soup as I would any other soup of that nature, stirring in the liquid ingredients and adding the pureed mixture at the end. If additional thickening is required, a little rice flour works great and fast.
I reserved some crawfish tails, pre-puree, and placed them into the soup plate before ladling the bisque around them. Add a slice of french bread and you’ve got an amazing, filling supper that will show you what a bisque is all about.