Rich and creamy lobster bisque is a perennial Valentine's Day favorite, but it's a dish that can be daunting to the uninitiated and daunting to the wallet. After tinkering with a traditional (and expensive) recipe last week, I knew there must be an easier (and cheaper!) way. Turns out, there is.
Unless you live particularly close to the ocean, the Northeast in particular, then lobster—and lobster bisque—is probably a rare indulgence saved for special occasions. (Or trips to Vegas. Don't ask me why.) Either way, lobster bisque is definitely not something that most folks make at home on a regular basis. Whether it's the thought of killing the little critters alive, or just their high price tag, there's plenty of reasons to stay far, far away.
A classic lobster bisque (or any seafood bisque for that matter) adheres to a few general principles: most of a bisque's flavor comes from the shells, which are simmered with aromatics to create a rich stock. The shells and vegetables are strained out, pureed, then returned to the pot for an additional simmer. And while a bisque traditionally uses uncooked rice as a thickener, a roux is fairly common these days, too. Warmed cream is added at the end of cooking, creating a luscious soup full of intense lobster flavor. Finally, chunks of reserved tail meat serve as its pièce de résistance.
My version takes all of those "guidelines" and throws them out the window. First and foremost, you don't have to kill a lobster! Instead, I just use fresh lobster tails along with their meat to make a base. The key is to slowly extract the flavors from the tails in each and every step. (Shhhh, I also used store bought shellfish stock to supplement the missing lobster body.) And instead of using rice for added texture, I made a slurry with tapioca flour to thicken the soup; it adds the perfect body and glossiness to the finished dish.
The result is a silky smooth lobster bisque worthy of any Valentine's Day dinner, minus the overpriced prix fixe menu and hassle for a last minute reservation. Now that makes February 14th a day to look forward to!
For the bisque to get the most "lobster" flavor, a rich stock is made by using fresh lobster tails—shells and all. First the shells and meat are cooked in a store bought (or homemade) seafood stock. After a 30-minute simmer, the shells are pureed with the vegetables and cooked in the bisque a bit longer to extract even more flavor. Don't worry, though, you don't eat the shells! Any extra bits and pieces get strained out through a cheese cloth before a final simmer.
2 lobster tails (See Recipe Note)
2 tablespoons butter
2 large shallots, chopped
1 - 2 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 - 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup dry sherry, cognac, or brandy
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon roughly chopped tarragon
4 cups shellfish or lobster stock (I used Bar Harbor brand)
1/4 cup heavy cream, warmed
2 teaspoons cornstarch, potato starch, or tapioca flour
Salt and white pepper, to taste
Crème fraîche or truffle oil, to garnish
Sauteed lobster meat, to garnish (optional)
Using kitchen shears, cut lengthwise through the top of each lobster shell. Flip the tail over over and cut lengthwise through the underside. Using the cuts in the shells as a guide, cut through the lobster meat — cutting the tail in half lengthwise with the meat still inside the shells. Then cut each half crosswise into several large chucks. Rinse the lobster under cold water and remove any visible veins.
In a Dutch oven or large pot, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the chopped tails and cook until shells are bright red, about 3-5 minutes. Add the shallots, celery, and carrots and cook until softened, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and sauté for another minute.
Pour in the sherry. Increase the heat to high and simmer until almost all of the liquid cooks out, 3 - 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and tarragon, followed by the seafood/lobster stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 - 25 minutes.
Strain the soup through a fine mesh sieve and return the liquid to the Dutch oven. Place the solids (vegetables, lobster meat, and lobster shells) in a heavy duty blender and process until smooth. Add the puree back to the Dutch oven. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for 10 more minutes.
Strain the bisque through a chinois or fine mesh sieve lined with a cheese cloth, pushing the solids with a wooden spoon to get as much liquid out as possible. Discard the solids.
Return the bisque to the Dutch oven. Add the warm cream and bring to a gentle simmer. Whisk the starch into 2 tablespoons of cold water and add to the bisque. Continue cooking until soup reaches desired thickness, about 2-3 minutes more. Garnish with crème fraîche or truffle oil, and lobster meat if using. Serve with toasted French bread.
You'll find lobster tails at most grocery stores with a decent butcher and seafood section, like Whole Foods. If you can only find small lobster tails (4 - 6 ounces), use all the tail meat for the stock. If you have larger tails (8 - 12 ounces), reserve some of the meat to garnish the soup with later. Dice the meat neatly and saute in a pat of butter before serving.
Related: Recipe: Shellfish Stock
(Images: Nealey Dozier)