There are some dishes that are worth the extra effort, and prawn bisque is one of them. No matter how good you get at making it, you can’t cut corners with this soup, so save it for special occasions and serve it to people you want to impress. While the soup was originally made with crustaceans that weren’t of a high enough quality to be sold at the market, it’s worth splashing out on the base ingredient – you’ll be able to taste the difference so it merits the extra pennies.
Heading out to buy the ingredients on a rainy Friday night, I was surprised how hard it was to get hold of shell on prawns, which I thought would be an easy find in London. I finally found some giant Madagascan prawns at my local Waitrose in Chiswick, and flung a second pack of de-shelled king prawns into my basket to make up the amount the recipe required.
While I chose prawns, bisques can also be made with lobster or langoustines. The secret is extracting the maximum flavour from their shells. It takes its name from the Bay of Biscay on the Western coast of France, where the soup originated. Bisque also gets its moniker from being ‘bis cuites’ (twice cooked), as the prawns are first sautéed in their shells then simmered with white wine and stock.
There is no getting around the fact that making this soup is a laborious process, but the final taste is worth the effort. The first step is shelling the prawns and frying the shells with chopped onion, celery and carrots for around 10 minutes until they soften. For added flavour, a generous glug of good quality white wine and a splash of brandy does the trick. You then have to simmer the soup for half an hour with a litre of fish stock, a can of tinned tomatoes and two pinches of paprika.
At this stage, Julia Child advises: “Don’t wash anything until the soup is done because you will be using the same utensils repeatedly, and you don’t want any marvellous tidbits of flavour losing themselves down the drain”. Quite. Now comes the fiddly bit – you have to blitz the soup in a blender to break down the shells and extract the flavour from them. I had a lot of soup to play with, and, in a bid to save time as the clock ticked ever closer to midnight, I filled the blender to the brim, fixed the lid and turned on the motor.
To my horror the blender couldn’t cope with the amount of liquid I’d rammed into it and scaldingly hot orange soup started spraying up the kitchen walls like a scene from a slasher flick. It wasn’t quite as bad as the final scene of Carrie, but I was only a few revs of the blender away from a full-on Sissy Spacek. It took longer to clean the kitchen than make the soup. Lesson learnt, I poured out half of the soup and tried again. Mercifully, the blender played ball and worked its magic.
If the piecemeal blending of the soup isn’t fiddly enough, then comes the really tricky bit – forcing the contents through a sieve. While it is quite satisfying seeing how much liquid you can extract from the shells, it’s laborious in the extreme, and is a process that needs to be repeated after you’ve simmered the prawns in the blitzed soup for 10 minutes. This time you end up with a mound of minced prawn, which I wish I’d kept and turned into prawn croquettes or sesame prawn toast.
The one saving grace about this recipe is that you can do all the fiddly bits ahead of time, then chill the soup overnight. All you need to do when your guests arrive is gently reheat the soup and add 150ml of cream to it, then enjoy watching it turn from deep orange to peachy pink. Don’t overdo the cream, as you want to keep as much of that gorgeous seafood flavour as you can.
The soup is so good that it really doesn’t need anything more than a handful of homemade croutons. The flavour is at once creamy and savoury, redolent of the sea and luxuriously silky in texture. If it wasn’t such a pain to make this would be one of my go-to starters, but its level of difficulty means it will always be saved for special occasions, which is no bad thing – some things in life are worth waiting for.