Seafood, Soup

Life’s a bisque.

Back in the mid-1980s, I waited tables on and off for several years at the Woolworth’s Coffee Shop in the Brookfield Square Mall. In case you ever hoped for a glimpse into my own special brand of psychopathy, here’s one. I loved waiting tables. The tips were awful, owing to a combination of Wisconsin cheapskate-ness and the fact that the food was inexpensive in the first place. I had to work with this guy named Ernie who was studying accounting at UW-Milwaukee and responded to anything I said by telling me “I don’t play penny-ante,” which meant nothing to me at the time and still doesn’t. The busboys and dishwashers were constantly locking me in the walk-in and harassing me by following me around with frozen hot dogs in their pants until I noticed. I had to make all my own desserts, and invariably a family with six kids would demand milkshakes and banana splits during the busiest part of the Saturday lunch rush. But even so, I cultivated a long-term plan to continue waiting tables, possibly even at the Woolworth’s. I’ll finish med school, I’d tell myself, and then when I’m a surgeon or whatever, I’ll cut back on waiting tables to just weekends. You know, just for fun. Sometimes it’s good to let go of your adolescent dreams.

Waiting tables wasn’t simply a matter of taking orders and bringing them to table. In between, we were constantly busy – filling the ice bins, replacing the syrup concentrate in the soda fountains, cleaning everything, making the hated ice cream desserts, dishing out soup. The soup came from the prep kitchen in deep pots, to be inserted into a steam table and ladled out to order. When fresh, the cream soups were pleasantly creamy and studded with bits of broccoli and the like. As they sat steaming for hours, though, they took on the viscous quality of unadulterated Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom. I liked to favor my customers by telling them when the soup was fresh, and when to avoid it (I know, pretentious). When I learned to cook during law school, I realized why the soup changed so much during its time in the steam table. The Woolworth’s cream soups, like many such soups, are based on a blond roux thickened with stock and milk. As it sits, the flour in the roux continues to gelatinize, and as the liquid in the soup evaporates, the mixture eventually becomes somewhat gloppy. Boiling, or the addition of more liquid, would have thinned it out again, but back then I didn’t understand much about starch properties.

When I make cream soups now, I generally avoid using roux for textural reasons. In addition to the dreaded gloppiness, roux can leave behind a floury taste and sensation. It’s also highly caloric, being equal parts flour and butter. If you crave that sort of thick quality, vegetable soups made with pectin- or cellulose-rich foods, such as carrots and onion, tomatoes and squash, all will be naturally thick when blended, and any added cream is purely for fat and flavor. Seafood soups, like chowders and bisques, are lighter and enjoyable without the thickness of roux, which obscures the brininess of the shellfish.

Shrimp bisque

The multiple sous vide preps seem like a pain but they make for a seriously intense shrimp fumet, and I really prefer the flavor and texture of the shrimp cooked at the lower temperature. The bisque will not be thick/gloppy like a typical roux-thickened “bisque.”

1 1/2 lbs whole shrimp (heads on would be best but shell is fine), shelled and cleaned
one large onion, about 10 oz, peeled and sliced pole to pole
1 large banana shallot, peeled and sliced pole to pole
1 large or two small stalks celery, peeled and sliced
3 c fish fumet
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp brandy (I used Torres Jaime I from Spain but cognac also will do nicely)
1/3 c dry white wine
2 fresh bay leaves
several branches thyme
4-6 stems parsley w/leaves
celery salt
piment d’espelette
1 c heavy cream
4 tbsp butter
garniture: pickled ramps, chive, celery leaves, parsley leaves

Season the shrimp lightly with celery salt and seal in a vacuum bag with a sprig of thyme, a bay leaf, and about 2 tbsp butter, divided. Keep cold until about 10 mins before service. [note: you probably won’t use all the shrimp for the bisque; feel free to use it for something else like shrimp & grits, etc].

Seal the remaining butter with the celery and onions, and a little celery salt. Seal the shells with the fumet, parsley, the remaining bay leaf and thyme. Set an immersion circulator to 183F; drop in the two bags. Pull the veg after 40 mins and the shells/fumet after 1 hour. Strain the shells/fumet through a chinois lined in a double thickness of cheesecloth; pressing hard on the shells. Turn off the circulator and add some cold water.

[If you don’t want to cook SV, place a skillet over medium low heat and, when hot, add the butter. Once melted but not browned, sweat the vegetables in the butter. Do not brown. Set aside. In another pot, combine the shells and fumet; cover and bring to a simmer for about 45 mins. Blend the shells and fumet and pass through a chinois lined in a double thickness of cheesecloth. Restrain if necessary.]

Bring the tomato paste and cognac to a simmer and reduce by 2/3. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Return the sweated vegetables to that pan and add the strained shrimp fumet. Blend using an immersion blender or transfer to a vitaprep. Return to the pan and reduce until you are pleased with the intensity of the shrimp taste (I reduced by about 15%). Add the cream and bring back to a simmer. Season to taste with salt/celery salt, and espelette.

Set the immersion circulator to 140F. Drop the shrimp and cook for about 8-10 mins depending on size; the shrimp need only be cooked through. [If you don’t want to cook the shrimp SV you can oil poach instead; try to keep it to around 140F.]

Serve the shrimp and bisque together garnished with pickled ramp (optional), chive, parsley, celery leaf.

Shrimp, pickled ramps, chives.

With shrimp bisque.