One of the great joys of cooking is receiving a thoughtful gift from a friend. When you’re blessed to live near the cold Pacific Ocean as we are, that often means something from the sea. So it was recently when a coworker of Ms blessed us with freshly caught Dungeness crab. It was a cold December weekend, so something really comforting came immediately to mind – crab bisque.
I posted some images of the cooking process before I wrote this, and a couple people asked, ‘what’s the difference between chowder and bisque?’ It’s a good question – Both often contain shellfish, (and frankly bisque must to be bisque). Past that, chowder features big rustic hunks of ingredients, while bisque is creamy, smooth, and oh so rich.
Bisque is a strained or puréed soup, with stock made from shells, thickened with rice, cream, or roux. Its roots are in eighteen century France, albeit then it contained game birds – it wasn’t until the next century that shellfish made their way into the dish. There are numerous claims that the dish originated in the Bay of Biscay, which is likely hooey – the etymology of the word bisque is bis cuit, meaning twice cooked. For the record, soup that doesn’t contain shellfish that are called bisque is nothing more than a marketing ploy – ‘Whatever Bisque’ sells a bunch more product than ‘Whatever Soup’ does.
Over on this side of the pond, it took bisque a while to catch on. In colonial New England, lobster, oysters, and clams were so plentiful they were often referred to as ‘poverty food,’ and were not relished by many. It wasn’t until the 19th century that they became truly de rigueur.
Making bisque at home has an undeserved reputation as a fussy, even scary process. Fact is, it’s a gas and not at all difficult. While the stock needs simmer time to come into its own, the actual soup making phase is quite quick. You’ll need cooked crustacean for this, including the shells – which means you’ll need to do some disassembly prep, but that too is part of the fun.
The stock, freshly made from scratch, is the real heartbeat of this dish. The combination of crab shells and an aromatic base is intoxicating – it’s what makes bisque great. Traditionally, the aromatics are mire poix, but as you’ll see from our post on the subject, there are lots of options out there for you to play with.
There is often booze in bisque – usually wine, sherry, or brandy (cognac for instance). It’s there to impart a flavor note – some would say it’s mandatory, but really it’s up to you. Same goes for what you use. Tradition is fine, but add what you like – if you have a red that you think would be nice in this dish, use it, even if it ‘should be a dry white wine’. I’ve had bourbon crab bisque that was to die for, and añejo tequila adds a subtle smokey sweet note.if you don’t like booze, fear not – it’ll be delightful without it.
If you go with wine or sherry, simmer it until the alcohol and most of the moisture is cooked off – you can add this step to the process after you’ve made the stock and before you sauté the veggies. If you decide on high proof stuff, flambé that – flaming it will achieve the same end as simmering wine.
Seasoning your bisque is another perfect vehicle for self expression. Stateside, a lot of folks swear by Old Bay, and you wouldn’t go wrong with that. Old Bay has a lot of stuff in it, with major notes of bay leaf, black pepper, cayenne, salt, mustard, and celery seed, to warm minor notes of allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon – Knowing that, you could certainly pull out a few of those for your own blend, if you don’t feel like going the full Monty. If you want to try something a bit more traditional, fines herbes would be a great choice – major notes of parsley and chive are married to minors of tarragon and chervil – it’s an absolute classic in French cooking, for good reason.
For prepping your crab, here’s my routine – crack and harvest meat from body joints and major claws and legs, then leave whatever is in all the little nitpicky sections in place and use that for stock. You’ll get plenty of meat, and glorious stock as well.
NOTE – This is a two part stock, one done very briefly with shells only, and the other done as a basic veggies stock. David Berkowitz turned me onto a Cooks Illustrated article wherein they experimented with getting the most intense flavor from shell stock – long story short, it turns out that the compounds responsible for making things smell and taste like what we want from shell stocks are generally quite volatile, and will dissipate if simmered for longer than about 5 minutes – hence the two step approach.
Urban’s Crab Bisque
5 Cups Water
4-8 ounces cooked Dungeness Crab
Cooked Shells from 2-3 Crabs
2 Cups Heavy Cream
1 Cup Dry White Wine
1 medium Onion
1 medium Tomato
3-4 stalks Celery
1/2 Red Bell Pepper
3 Tablespoons Avocado Oil
2 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
2 teaspoons Fines Herbes
2 Turkish Bay Leaves
Fresh ground Pepper
Peel, trim and dice onion.
Trim and dice celery, reserve tops and leaves for stock.
Trim and dice red pepper and tomato.
In a heavy stock pot over medium heat, add crab shells and enough water to cover by about 2”.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a brisk simmer for 5 minutes.
Pour shell stock through a single mesh strainer into a mixing bowl and set aside.
In the stock pot back over medium high heat, ad 1/4 cup of onion, the celery tops and leaf, the tomato, the bay leaves, a three finger pinch of salt, and 8-10 twists of pepper.
Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for at least an hour, and two is better.
Remove pot from stove and carefully pour the broth through a single mesh strainer.
Return the pot to the stove over medium heat. Add the wine and simmer until the raw alcohol scent dissipates, about 1-2 minutes.
Return strained stock to pot and bring to an aggressive simmer.
Add 1/2 cup onion, the celery and bell pepper, and simmer until the stock reduces to about 2 cups – about 15 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium low and add the shell stock, tomato paste and cream to the stock and whisk to incorporate.
With an immersion blender, carefully pulse until you have a smooth, uniform consistency.
Turn heat down to a bare simmer, add fines herbs, and allow everything to marry, whisking occasionally, until the bisque thicken a bit, about 10-12 minutes.
Add crab meat and butter, whisk to incorporate, and allow to heat through, about 3-5 minutes.
Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired.
Serve nice and hot with crusty bread or oyster crackers and a nice glass of wine.