by: Chef Jim Berman
The seventeenth century was a turning point for soup. Bisque was no longer made entirely of pounded pigeon or boiled game and garnished with crayfish. In fact, the crayfish took center stage. And, not surprisingly, the color of this classic soup turned pink. To get it straight, a bisque is defined as a cream soup, usually seafood-based and, classically, thickened with rice. There. I said it. I acknowledge that there should be some type of crustacean swimming about and rice, in one form or another, holding the goods in place. However, like the laws emanating from our Constitution, classics are meant to be interpreted. Caesar Salad adorned with olives? A grilled hamburger stuffed with cheese and bacon rather than gracing the top of the patty? Chicken Noodle Soup with roasted tomatoes and fresh basil? All classics, integrity intact, but made anew with some inspiration, consternation and, perhaps, some perspiration into the development of the newer dish. Not necessarily better, mind you; just different. Sometimes better. If not, then what would be the point?
So, while getting a crew of students ready for a hot food competition, we decided to tackle a cream-based soup. It would not suffice to be a generic “cream of” soup. Nor would it do well to do chowder; we needed something a bit, um…., more refined. So, the bisque it is. We agreed that shrimp elevate atypical to a different place in the epicurean realm. We also concurred the addition of sherry would make great music, singing along side the shrimp.
/imgs/articles/mattsherry.jpg Matt measuring out the Sherry
To start, we stripped the shrimp of their shells. We opted for smaller, 31-35 per pound variety, shrimp. Much larger, and they tend to toughen up when subjected to the longish exposure to heat necessary to make the bisque. The shells were given a quick simmer in water with a bay leaf and a pinch of black peppercorns. Alas, the shrimp stock would prove to be an inexpensive liquid medium for the soup.
The recipe yields just over a quart of finished product:
½ cup, butter, melted over medium heat
1 cup, yellow onion, small diced
8 oz, shrimp, peeled & deveined, shells reserved for stock
½ cup, flour
1 cup, shrimp stock
24 oz, whole milk
½ cup, sherry (we used the less expensive cooking variety, but feel free to indulge in the ‘better’ stuff)
To taste, Dry thyme, salt, black pepper
The onions do well to bring a layer of flavor to the bisque. Shy away from garlic or shallots in place of the sweeter, less pungent onion. The purpose of the aromatic vegetable is to create a multi-dimensional bisque with the accent on the shrimp rather than the vegetables on the periphery.
/imgs/articles/alexdice.jpg Alex Small Dicing The Onions
To start, sweat the onions in the butter, until just translucent, using care not to brown them or they will look like ants swimming in your soup. Cook the peeled and deveined shrimp in the butter-onion mixture until their color just starts to turn pink. Overcooking now will result in little, rubber band-like shrimp-shaped bits of rubber on your spoon.
Add the flour and cook a moment or two to reduce the chalky taste of the starch. Stir continually to avoid toasting the flour.
/imgs/articles/stephanie.jpg Stephanie stirring in the flour
Add the shrimp stock, milk and sherry. Stir often, as the bisque’s thickness will start to take hold; sparingly, season with thyme, salt and pepper. The shrimp stock often brings its own salinity and the thyme will quickly overwhelm the delicate cream. I am not a big advocate of white pepper because it is often dispensed with reckless abandon.
/imgs/articles/roux.jpg Stephanie stirs the flour
so it doesn't burn
So, table-grind black pepper it is! Also, cream can (and should) be used in place of the milk when going for a richer flavor. The richness of the cream brings more heart-clogging fat to the table along with glorious flavor. However, cream isn’t something we need during the week. For the weekend, for guests? You bet. Not on a Tuesday afternoon after a Saturday night of gluttony, for sure.
/imgs/articles/saucepot.jpg Simmering the shrimp
and milk-stock mixture
Holding true, the crew did puree the soup. Specifically, half of the soup was pureed while the remainder was left undisturbed as garnish. For garnish, they kept it simple with a frond of fresh parsley and some of the un-pureed shrimp.
Be sure to serve as hot as humanly possible; as the soup cools, that familiar starch film forms on the surface.
In all, preparation time, including the knife work and cooking time, was about 30 minutes. This bisque is carefree enough to produce in the midst of multitasking or in a time crunch. Additionally, this amalgam is not limited to shrimp. While the shrimp lends itself to the subtlety of cream, a sherry-spiked cream of shiitake mushrooms or asparagus would do well as terrestrial-bound bisque varietals.
/imgs/articles/bisque.jpg Finished Bisque