New Year’s will forever go hand in hand with this dazzling delicacy from the deep. At least it will for me. My first bisque was the product of true guerrilla cooking by a team of Chef-Guevara Swedes in Landskrona, southwest Sweden. Three men scratched at their stubbled chins as they propped their weary bodies around a large cast iron pot that was to hold the most sacred part of New Year’s dinner. Thankfully two of them had a plan, and more importantly a well-stocked bar, so I sat back, drank beer and watched as a bisque was born. Part of the lobster had been consumed before the turning of the calendar, but the shells and bodies had been prudently preserved in order to be resurrected as something equally delicious. I have dreamlike flashes of how this bisque was made, but the minute I come close to piecing the story together it all vanishes. There was cream. There were vegetables. There was a juggling of herbs, spices, sauces, and bottles that formed a blurred queue between the various cupboards and drawers and the pot itself. There were tastings, and re-tastings, and tastings of those re-tastings. The only thing there wasn’t was a single note that might have served as the stalest of breadcrumb trails that could lead back to a recipe. To have even mentioned a pen or paper would have caused the entire act to crash to the floor, so fantastical was the production. My memory and culinary skill will simply never allow me to reproduce what I saw that day (through a self-induced beerhaze), but I have taken up the torch and will stubbornly attempt to produce something that my foggy recollection reluctantly tells me is a vague approximation of that unattainable nectar of Poseidon.
Ahem. In production terms there are three main components to the bisque – the lobster meat, the broth, and the thickener. The broth is going to be made in several steps, trying to extract as much flavour as possible from the ingredients. My method is to perform a primary steeping of the lobster in order to get the majority of the lobster aroma, then add the vegetable essences in the next step. Finally, I use a trick from my Swedish friends and dry the lobster shell in the oven for several hours before breaking it into fine pieces in a blender and using this for a final round of flavourful simmering. At the end all of the solid ingredients are filtered off to give the fine broth that will impart the majority of the immediately identifiable taste to the soup. A type of crude roux will be made for additional texture, then the cream is added and the entire thick, orange, satin concoction is gently poured over decadent chopped lobster.
New Year’s Lobster Bisque
3 medium-sized lobsters
2.5 to 3 L water
3 carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 leek, finely chopped
1 onion, coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
200 mL tomato paste
3 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
1/3 cup flour
300 mL dry white wine
500 mL heavy cream (35% or greater)
1 large sprig of thyme
3 bay leaves
1 tsp saffron
salt to taste
pepper to taste
chili powder to taste (optional)
1/2 cup celery greens for garnish
3 tsp chopped chives for garnish
If you have the time and inclination then you can take fresh lobster, humanely kill it with a knife behind the head, then boil it until it turns red – not more than 10 minutes. Save the cooking liquid, which you can reduce and add to the recipe to give an extra kick of flavour. Otherwise, take some pre-cooked store-bought lobster and get to work.
If you haven’t marvelled yet, then get a-marvelling. I am (hu)man enough to admit that I was well into my twenties before I finally gained the most startling appreciation that lobsters were not naturally red. I had never seen a live lobster before! I won’t be the last to experience this so late in life, and I take some small consolation in the fact that millennia of homo sapiens lobster festivals transpired before anyone had a clue as to the cause of one of nature’s most recognised colour changes.
The culprit is a molecule called astaxanthin. Are you scratching your chin and searching your brain as I did that New Year’s morning? Yes, if you have been following my posts then you may recall another chemical called zeaxanthin. They are quite closely related, but astaxanthin is a chemical apart. One major difference is in the way it reacts to light, which explains why zeaxanthin gives the yellow colour we know from corn and astaxanthin gives the bright red we see so often in cooked lobster. Yes, cooked lobster. Throughout its lifetime, the crustacean slowly accumulates the red pigment in its shell through ingestion of marine organisms. Normally you would expect that an increase of a bright red compound would, I don’t know, make something bright red. But this does not happen. Instead, the molecule is anchored to a protein called crustacyanin, giving a new type of arrangement and a new colour – blue. Despite being a riddle almost as old as civilisation, it was only in 2005 that the mystery of this striking colour change was finally solved. The protein twists and organises the chemical in such a way that it reacts differently to light. Heating the crustacyanin, by for example boiling it, changes the protein’s structure. As it unravels it liberates the astaxanthin and returns it to its normal, brilliant red colour. This dish is a photographer’s dream.
Separate the tails, claws and swimmerets from the lobsters, removing the meat and placing aside in the refrigerator or freezer to be saved for later. Cut the body in half behind the head and place in a large pot along with the crushed remnants of the lobster – everything except for the meat. Add enough water to cover (2.5 – 3L ) and bring to a boil for 1.5 hours. We have now the basis for the “lobsteriness”, but we are missing the vegetable stock. Let’s fix that now.
Chop the celery, carrots, onion, garlic, and leeks. Throw 3 tbsp of olive oil in a large pot and cook the vegetables over medium heat until the onions are beginning to turn golden – 5 to 10 minutes. Now add the tomato paste and herbs and pour the lobster broth into the pot containing the vegetables, filtering off the shell, heads, and bodies through a sieve. Place these in a tray and bake them in the oven at 300ºF for approximately 2 hours until quite dry. The broth will be on low during this procedure – biding its time. When the shells are ready they need to be prepared in order to maximize the amount of flavour we can take from them. We do this by smashing them well with a mallet or hammer before putting them in a blender you don’t mind treating roughly and spinning them into an aromatic powder. This powder is then combined in a pan with the melted butter and flour and cooked on medium-high for 15 minutes before the wine is added and the entire mixture is transferred to the broth. If this doesn’t give you a good bouillon for the bisque then something is definitely wrong!
Keep simmering for at least 30 minutes, reducing to a total of about 2L of sweet smelling liquid. Filter off all of the solid components through cheesecloth – the shells and vegetables – and then add the cream. Adjust the taste with salt and pepper (chili pepper as well if you desire) before spooning the soup over the chopped lobster in individual bowls. You really want to minimize how much the lobster meat is cooked at this stage in order to preserve the soft and tender texture of it, so definitely do not at any time try to cook it in the soup.
Garnish with chives and celery leaves. If this does not have your dinner guests praising your cooking then I owe you a bottle of white Bourgogne. Serves 6 to 8.
How did it turn out for you?