This time of year, I’m obsessed with soups. And not just because it’s cold outside. Have you ever noticed how soup works a kind of magic at big holiday feasts? Soup quiets the crowd in a good way. Serve a small bowl to start and suddenly you’ve got a dinner involving courses. Which makes your whole menu seem more special.
Lobster bisque is a classic, elegant, French soup (probably originally from the Bay of Biscay, known for its crustaceans). Like so many restaurant dishes that seem fancy, bisque is actually a clever use of leftovers––in this case lobster shells.
Don’t stop here just because you don’t happen to have a bunch of lobster carcasses lying around. Ask your fishmonger––that would be us, I hope––for some lobster bodies. We nearly always have plenty at our markets, left over from a morning of prepping lunchtime lobster rolls and packaging up the chilled lobster tails we sell online.
Right here on this recipe, I see a note to myself: “the better the stock, the better the bisque.” I guess I wrote that before Bella and Lili came along and changed our afternoons forever.
What I’ve learned since then is that there’s no sense denying your guests lobster bisque just because you’ve fallen behind in your stock making. The truth is, chicken stock or vegetable broth work for this soup. And so does Kitchen Basics seafood stock.
Elegance does take some effort, though, even if you’ve cheated by using stock from a box. You need an emulsion blender for this recipe, and the guts to stick it into a pot full of shells. At the restaurant, we have an emulsion blender that will take your ankle off, but I use an ordinary one at home and I promise it survives the ordeal.
You want your bisque to have a creamy texture, and I know some cooks who get there by adding a butter-and-flour roux to thicken it. At the restaurant, we blend in rice: that’s the traditional thickener for bisques. But I don’t like my soups too thick. The cream will thicken as it boils, and that plus the ground up lobster (strained through a sturdy fine mesh sieve or a chinoise) is all I use to perfect the texture when I make lobster bisque at home.
Serves 8 as a first course
2 whole lobsters (you’ll add the meat to add to the soup at the end and use the bodies and shells to flavor the base)
2 cups diced celery, leaves included
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced white onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dry white wine
1 1/2 cups dry sherry (set aside the half cup for finishing the soup)
2 quarts lobster stock (fish, chicken, or vegetable stock works, and so does a good packaged seafood stock like the one from Kitchen Basics)
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs of thyme
1 cup tomato paste
2 quarts heavy cream
sea salt and white pepper
(2 cups diced white mushrooms are an optional last-minute addition that I really like)
Steam the lobsters very briefly: bring about two inches of water to a rolling boil in a big pot; plunge the lobsters in head first; put the cover on the pot and blanch the lobsters for just one minute; remove them and drop them into a big bowl of ice water; drain, then remove the claw and tail meat and set it aside for finishing the soup. The bodies and shells will go in sooner.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot. Add the diced celery, carrot and onion (you can call this the mirepoix if making bisque makes you feel French), and gently cook the vegetables until the onions turn clear. Drop in the lobster bodies and shells.
Add the white wine to the pot and bring it to a fast simmer to reduce it by one half. Add one cup of the sherry to the pot and again reduce the mixture by one half. Now add the lobster stock, bay leaves, thyme (no need to take it off the stems), and tomato paste. Simmer for a half hour, this time reducing the mixture by about one third.
Add the cream and the remaining 1/2 cup of sherry to the soup and simmer it gently for another half hour. The cream will thicken as it boils, and the lobster shells will soften up a bit.
I know it looks impossible, but now’s the time to take your immersion blender to this whole reduction. A home blender will not make a paste of the shells the way a restaurant blender will, but take your time and really bust the shells up well––you want to get all the flavor you can into the mixture.
Working over a clean pot or bowl, pass the bisque through a fine mesh sieve or a chinoise. Press on the shells and push all their flavorful juices through. Season the bisque with sea salt and white pepper.
(Now’s where I sometimes scoop out a cup or two of the soup and put it in the fridge or freezer. It’s just so good stirred with chopped tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, and more lobster, and served over pasta.)
Once the soup is seasoned, add bite-size chunks of the rare lobster meat you set aside earlier. Add the diced mushrooms, too, if you like the combination of lobster and mushrooms the way I do.
Warm the soup for a few minutes to heat it through before serving.