According to my beloved Concise Larousse Gastronomique, a bisque is technically a soup which is made from the shell of a shellfish and garnished with some of its meat. While technically true (the Larousse is the bible of gastronomy after all) I prefer the Food Lover's Companion definition, which is much looser: a thick, rich soup usually consisting of pureed seafood (sometimes fowl or vegetables) and cream. Without the Food Lover's Companion I would have to admit I have always been too faint-hearted to make a true bisque with all the grinding and straining required. Some day I'll try it, but in the meantime we have work-day dinners to make and do not have a commercial quality kitchen. (Not to mention the kitchen minions I'd love to have at my beck and call, wiping spills, washing inconvenient kitchen equipment and chopping onions...sigh...)
So this is a modern-day version of a bisque. I usually have little patience with recipes that call for exotic fresh ingredients but I throw myself on the mercy of the court in this instance: as a starter for our New Year's Eve dinner I bought far too much shellfish for a seafood platter and so had it on hand on Monday the 2nd. I am not usually so extravagant, and I certainly wasn't going to let the uneaten shellfish go to waste.
Seafood Bisque (serves two as a main course, or four as a starter)
8-10 cooked crab legs (about 120 grams of crab meat extracted from them)
3 praires (after 13 years living in France and quite a bit of web research I still do not have a definitive translation for these clams - I think they may be carpet shell clams)
6 oysters, fines de claire in this instance
6-8 cooked shrimp
1/2 glass cream sherry, plus a bit more
2 glasses sparkling wine
100 ml/ 1/2 cup crème fraîche
1 Tbs flour
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 Tbs olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
Shell the shrimp and throw the heads, tails and shells in a medium saucepan. Extract the meat from the crab legs and set the meat aside with the shrimp. Add the shells to the same pan as the shrimp shells. Drizzle the olive oil over them and turn on the heat medium-high under the pan. As it starts sizzling, toss the crab and shrimp shells and cook for several minutes until the kitchen starts to smell deliciously of shellfish. Add the glass of sherry and toss until it is reduced by half. Add the sparkling wine and turn down the heat. Add water to cover, until you have about a liter and a half of liquid. Leave to cook at a point just above a simmer but just below a boil.
Turn to the shellfish. This is where you must be hard-hearted. I don't like killing spiders or insects. And I don't like killing shellfish but I steel myself for it when good food is involved. (This is especially true with the sudden attack of conscience hits me well after the live shellfish has been bought and in the full knowledge that we are a few hundred miles from the nearest source of natural saltwater and so they are destined to die soon regardless of what I do.) Still, doesn't this little praire look disturbingly cute as he sticks out his tongue to taste the countertop?
If you are going to cook your shellfish, and especially if it has been sitting on the terrace in suddenly warm-for-January-weather for a few days, the best thing you can do with it is steam it. Steaming shellfish means they are easy to open, and in fact open when you cook them. It also means you have a quality control: if they open when you leave them alone, close when you tap them and then re-open after steaming you know they were alive when they went into the pot. And so they should be safe to eat. Oysters don't tend to open as easily, but the praires only took a few moment to gingerly poke their tongues out of the shell. I put them in the steamer, got the water boiling and then popped them in and covered them. After four mintues most were open, but I left it a further four minutes just in case. In the end only one oyster did not open and so was tossed.
Remove the meat from the open shellfish (and of course discard those that do not open) and chop roughly. By now you will have a decent stock in the pan with the shells. Strain the liquid into a new sauce pan. Mix the crème fraîche with the flour and stir into the stock. Add the chopped shrimp, crab and shellfish and heat until almost but not quite boiling. When the soup has thickened slightly and is heated through, add the paprika and taste for seasonings. You probably won't need salt but might want more paprika or even a pinch of the hot paprika. Give it a squeeze of lemon juice if you think the flavors need lifting a bit. Just before serving, stir a dollop of sherry into each bowl to add to the richness.