Calling seafood soup ‘bisque’ does make it sound fancy and slightly intimidating, am I right? But ‘bisque’ simply refers to a seafood soup made with a stock drawn from the shells of crustaceans such as lobster, crayfish, crab, or shrimp. It is true, though,that no matter what you call it –bisque, seafood soup, prawn water– this French classic really can add that touch of luxury to your multicourse dinner (even when it’s not made with lobster)! It makes for a great appetizer at your Christmas banquet, or maybe you’d like to impress your guests serving it as a nice, warm Christmas lunch. I’d say, it’s also a romantic dish for a nice dinner date – given that nobody is allergic to shellfish.
My seafood soup, I mean bisque, is rich in flavours drawn from all parts of the prawns, including the meat, the shells, and most importantly: the prawn heads and a dash of cognac! Indeed, while prawns don’t need a lot of work to taste good, there are some tricks and tips to get the most flavour out of these sea-creatures. First of all, sautéing the prawn shells and heads before adding water to make a stock is an essential step in giving this soup its intense, rich flavour. Don’t you dare throwing away the heads before all of its contents have dissolved into the stock – use a wooden spoon to bash it all out if you have to. I know the googly eyes look a bit creepy, and sure, dining on a sea-bug’s brains may not sound very appetizing either, BUT IT IS.
Technically, a couple of handfuls of shells and heads is all you need to make a nice, simple bisque (so if you have any leftover from another peeled-prawn dish, reserve them and remember this recipe), however, I also like to add the prawn meat to the soup and very finely chop it all up in a food processor at the end. Some cooks like to strain the soup through a fine-mesh strainer so as to obtain an extremely smooth, velvety texture without any of the tiny pieces of meat inside. I don’t really mind the little pieces of meat left behind and I find they give the soup a bit more body… besides, I could never throw away all that good stuff.
You can also opt for a slightly thinner soup and add larger chunks of prawn meat at the very end without chopping it all up in a food processor – most of the thickening of the soup comes from the heavy cream and a handful of rice anyway. Some cooks prefer to make a roux, but I can’t really be bothered and I find it easier to just add the rice, letting it cook until it disintegrates and then have the food processor do the rest.
See? Making bisque is not as intimidating as it may sound, but it can add a nice touch of luxury to any kind of meal – not only at Christmas!
Prawn and Fennel Bisque
- 500g large prawns, or shrimp
- 50g butter, divided into two pieces of 25g
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 carrot (about 120g)
- 1 large fennel bulb (about 450g)
- Zest of half an orange
- 1.5l + 250ml water
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 90ml cognac, or brandy
- 50g parboiled rice, uncooked
- 200ml heavy cream
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- Peel and devein the prawns, reserving the heads, tails and shells. Reserve some prawns for garnish for each serving (this recipe serves 8 appetizer-sized portions), and chop up the rest of the meat. Refrigerate until needed.
- For the stock, melt 25g of butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the prawn shells, tails and heads and stir fry, stirring frequently, until they turn red and fragrant (about 5 minutes). Bash the shells and heads with a wooden spoon a little to break them up slightly. Add 1 bay leaf and 1.5l of water and simmer half-covered with a lid on for 30 minutes.
- Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and strain the prawn stock, making sure you get every last drop of stock and flavour out of the shells by pressing on them with the wooden spoon. Discard the shells and bay leaf.
- Prepare the fennel by chopping off a bit of the bottom of the fennel bulb and by removing the tougher outer 2 layers. Cut the fennel bulb in half and remove the ‘core’ at the bottom. Chop the fennel into thin strips, reserving the fronds. Prepare the rest of your vegetables by finely dicing the onion, zesting the orange, grating the carrot and chopping the garlic cloves. Set aside.
- In the large pot, heat 25g of butter over medium-high heat again. Add the 8-whole prawns, the other chopped-up pieces of prawn, a little bit of salt and sauté until the prawns turn opaque and are cooked in about 2 - 3 minutes. Remove all contents of the pot onto a plate and set aside.
- To the same pot, add the finely chopped onion, finely chopped garlic cloves, peeled and grated carrot, orange zest and your chopped fennel. Sprinkle on a little bit of salt and sauté the vegetables, stirring frequently until they turn soft and slightly brown, for about 15 - 20 minutes.
- When the vegetables are done, add the 90ml of cognac, or brandy. Cook for about 2 minutes more. Add the tomato paste, 50g of uncooked parboiled rice, your prawn stock and 250ml extra water. Stir until the paste has dissolved. Simmer uncovered for 25 minutes, or until the rice has been fully cooked and starts to disintegrate slightly.
- When the soup has cooked sufficiently and the rice has become soft, add the cooked chopped-up pieces of prawn to the pot, but remember to reserve the 8 whole prawns for garnish.
- Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or in a food processor working in batches until the mixture is very smooth. Discard leftover solids if there are any, or just leave them in the soup if they don’t bother you. [this is the step where you could pass the soup from a fine-mesh strainer for an even smoother consistency, if you like].
- Return the soup to the pot and stir in the cream. I would suggest first adding half of the cream first and taste if it's creamy enough for you, add more to your liking, or use the leftover cream to drizzle a cream swirl onto the soup when serving. Slowly reheat the mixture over medium heat, but do not bring to a boil! Taste the soup and add salt and pepper according to taste.
- To serve, ladle the bisque into soup plates, or cups. If you have some leftover cream, drizzle some on top [optional]. Place one of the cooked whole prawns in the middle of the plate, or on the edge of the cup. Chop up the reserved fennel fronds and sprinkle some over the soup. Serve immediately.