Traditionally a bisque is a thick and creamy soup with a base of mirepoix and shellfish served with the diced meat of the latter. Right now, our beloved New England lobsters are on sale at one of the markets I shop at: an astounding $7.99/lb.!
With the temperature dropping, becoming as cold as the sea nearby, and the climate drying up before the rains begin to pelt us, nothing sounds better than to cozy up in my warm apartment with a bowl of steaming lobster bisque.
I cannot emphasize how incredible this soup is. It is the perfect balance of flavors–a touch of sweetness, a well-mannered but full-bodied saltiness with a succulent savory finish–the prize being the true essence of lobster that lingers in the mouth well after the last bite.
This recipe, inspired by Auguste Escoffier, may seem daunting, but with a little preparation and time management, it can be completed with minimal effort and little mess. I made my own fish fumet (fish stock with alcohol), but a consommé (white chicken stock) or light fish stock would work fine. I make my fish fumet in large batches, then freeze what I don’t need. It’s a great way to use the bones of halibut or cod.
Also, I thicken this bisque with fish velouté–a creamy sauce using the fish fumet. There are other methods to thickening, too: cooked rice or bread crusts. One advantage of using velouté or rice is that you can preserve the beautiful color of the lobster because both are simply white.
Preparing the Lobster
- 1 2-lb. lobster, live (up to 3 lbs. is fine)
In his Les Halles Cookbook, Anthony Bourdain urges his readers to use the old, recently dead or on-their-way-out lobsters for the bisque. He calls these stiffs. If you have the repertoire with your fishmonger, by all means, submit your request. A good indication that a lobster is about to leave the brutal world of the grocery market tank can be found where its tail meets its body: if there is a gray separation between the two, then the lobster is going to die soon.
But, chances are, you’re going to buy your lobster alive. Sometimes you can find whole, cooked lobsters. That would work too, but the cooking liquor produced from boiling it yourself is desirable. Do not buy just the cooked tail.
A swift, sharp knife to the brain is my preferred way of killing the lobster.
At home, bring a stockpot of water to boil. Give yourself plenty of water because the less time the water needs to return to a boil, the better the lobster will taste. Drop the lobster into the rapidly boiling water. Cook for eight minutes. Remove.
Don’t throw the cooking liquid away just yet! Reserve some just in case you need to thin the bisque out. And if you intend to make a side dish, such as rice, then you can use the liquid, infused with lobster flavor, to cook it. It may be a long time until you have this delicious broth again.
When it’s cool enough to touch, cut it into small pieces, removing all the meat as you do so. You should end up with a mess of shells, body cavity, guts and meat. Do this in a casserole dish so that you can save the cooking liquor that surely will squirt out. Set the meat aside.
Pound the remaining non-shell bits into a paste and pound the shells into smaller pieces. You may throw everything into your food processor, making careful use of the PULSE setting, though it makes a godawful noise and is probably not helpful to the longevity of the blade. For one lobster, though, I’m sure you’ll be okay. Set the lobster mess aside. Oh, do yourself a favor and have a taste of that lobster paste.
This creamy sauce will act as a thickener and add a touch of seafood flavor.
- 2 oz. butter (a little less than a whole stick–or, if using clarified, a tablespoon or two less than 1/4 cup)
- 2 oz. flour (about a 1/4 cup)
- 3 1/2 cup fish fumet (or white fish stock, or consommé)
- A pinch of sea salt
- A smaller pinch of white pepper (black pepper can be substituted)
- An even smaller pinch of nutmeg
Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour all at once. Whisk to combine. Cook it for only a few minutes, before the color darkens, whisking to prevent uneven cooking. We want to keep it a white roux.
Add the cold fish fumet, whisking meanwhile to prevent caking. Throw your pinches of sea salt, pepper and nutmeg into the mix. Bring slowly up to a boil. Let it barely boil boil for 20 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking at the bottom. Remove from heat and pass through a fine-mesh strainer. Set aside.
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 1/2 onion, small dice (white or yellow variety)
- 1/2 carrot, small dice
- 2 parsley stalks, small dice
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbsp. brandy (optional)
- 1/4 cup white wine
- Sea salt
- Black pepper, ground (or a mix of black and white)
Heat the butter in a sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Cook for a few minutes, stirring. Deglaze with the brandy. If not using brandy, just use white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to free up all those bits of flavor. (If using Teflon, this will not be necessary.) Stir in the salt and pepper. Add the white wine, reduce the heat to medium-low. Allow the wine to reduce in the mirepoix for about ten minutes.
Bisque-ing the Lobster
- The lobster scraps and cooking liquor
- The velouté
- The mirepoix
- 1 1/2 cup fish fumet (or white fish stock, or consommé, or lobster cooking liquid)
- Sea salt
From here, you have two options.
You can put the mixture into a food processor or blender and turn into a paste.
Or, you can skip that, and go right back to the pan and add to the mirepoix all the shells and gunk (everything minus the meat), and the cooking liquor, along with the velouté–stir the velouté before adding, or remove the scum first. Bring slowly up to a boil over medium, medium-low flame, then stir in the fish fumet. Let it cook, but not simmer, for about 15 minutes, allowing the shells to exude their flavors.
Strain out the large chunks, then pass through a fine-mesh strainer either to a double-boiler to keep the soup warm, or to a pot over a very low flame. Make sure to stir the bisque as you do other things, to prevent scum from forming. To keep hydrated, add small pats of butter to it. Salt to taste.
Serve the Bisque
- Strained bisque
- Lobster meat, from the tail, diced
- A couple teaspoons of heavy cream
- A small pinch of cayenne pepper
Dice the lobster tail meat and put into an empty bowl. Save what meat you don’t use. You can add it to eggs, a salad, pasta, risotto, make lobster butter, or turn it into Maine’s finest classy-trashy dish: the lobster roll.
Pour the creamy bisque over it. Drizzle a bit of cream over that and top with cayenne pepper. Serve with a fresh crusty sourdough, lots of room-temperature butter, and a good, not-too-sweet Vouvray or white wine of your choice.