As there is currently an ocean in our basement, let’s do a sea-based soup today. Just because your once-watertight dwelling has sprung a giant leak or twelve doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in fancy shrimp bisque. Remember the black-tie orchestra that continued to play as the Titanic sunk? It’s like that, only slightly less romantic because of the lack of music and empty litter boxes floating past.
We had so much shrimp in our freezer from our Cape Ann Fresh Catch seafood share that I began desperately searching for recipe ideas that used shrimp still in their shells, because, seriously, I can’t be peeling that many shrimp. Then I remembered a soup from my brief time at Cook’s Illustrated. It was a delicious shrimp bisque—one of the best bisques I’ve ever tasted if you disqualify the lobster bisque from the Brewster Fish House down the Cape, which is the best for sure, but really more of a chowder.
This version is just as rich as lobster bisque, but much more economical. It's saturated with shrimp flavor, but a hint of tarragon and three kinds of alcohol give it surprising complexity. Creamy and coral-colored, it would be a stunning appetizer for any kind of elegant dinner you might have planned as we wait with bated breath for spring vegetables and solid ground to arrive. The only problem I can foresee is that you really need a chinois to strain the soup and most normal people don’t have one. It’s a conical fine-mesh strainer that gives you a really smooth, silky texture in bisques (and crystal-clear broths). You could probably do okay with your finest strainer lined with a double-layer of damp cheesecloth. Or you could borrow mine. I’ll just float it down the river to your house. Bon voyage!
Here’s a time-saving tip: Instead of finely chopping the vegetables by hand, chop them all together in the food processor, set them aside, and then don’t bother cleaning the processor bowl before you grind up the shrimp mixture. It’s all going to get cooked together later anyway.
2 lbs. Maine shrimp, shells on
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 cup brandy or cognac, warmed
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 small carrot, chopped finely
1 small rib celery, chopped finely
1 small onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup all-purpose flour
1½ cups dry white wine
4 cups shrimp stock, fish stock, clam juice, or water, warmed if cold
14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 small sprig fresh tarragon
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Pinch or two of ground cayenne
2 Tbsp. dry sherry or Madeira
Set aside ½ lb. shrimp in a small bowl to peel later. Blot the rest dry with paper towels. Heat a 12-inch heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or other large pot over high heat until very hot. Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil and heat until shimmery. Add half of the big bowl of shrimp and sauté until pink and the shells are lightly browned, 3-4 minutes. Transfer to another bowl and repeat with the remaining oil and the rest of the big bowl of shrimp. Once the second batch is browning, return the first batch of cooked shrimp to the pot. Pour the warmed brandy over the top. Make sure all children are clear of the stove. Wave a lit match over the pot until the brandy ignites (Warning: the flame is huge!) When the inferno has subsided, transfer the shrimp to the bowl of a food processor and grind into a fine meal. Ten seconds should do it.
Wipe out the pan. Heat butter in Dutch oven over medium flame until hot. Add chopped carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and the ground shrimp. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until the veggies are slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly stir in the wine, then slowly stir in stock (or clam juice or water). Add the tomatoes. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened and flavors meld, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel the remaining ½-lb. of shrimp and cut them in half. You can add the shells to the pot (which I would recommend if you’re using water instead of stock) or save them in the freezer for future stock. Set the cut shrimp aside once again. Patience, my little shrimp. Your day will come.
Strain bisque through chinois or cheesecloth-lined strainer, into a large bowl, pressing on the solids with the back of a big spoon to extract all the liquid. Wash and dry the Dutch oven, then return the strained soup to the pot. Over medium-high heat, stir in tarragon sprig, cream, lemon juice, and cayenne. Bring to a simmer (but don’t boil), then add the cut shrimp and cook about 2 minutes until pink and tender. Discard tarragon sprig, stir in sherry, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves 6.
Source: Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated.