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Throwback Thursday: Prawn bisque and other seafood soups

Throwback Thursday: Prawn bisque and other seafood soups
Tony Jackman’s prawn soup. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Bisque, seafood soup, soupe de poisson, bouillabaisse, chowder, chupe, buridda, cioppino, Cullen skink, dashi, sopa de peiche. These are just some of the many seafood soups there are in the world. Among the most prized is bisque.

Bisque is a classic French seafood soup or, more specifically, a soup of crustacea, whether prawn, lobster, langoustine, lobster or crab. It involves plenty of cooking and some technique and skill, but it is worth its trouble in the reward it brings you.

Most soups are better and richer for the time and effort that goes into them. Reduction, and more reduction, are key to a fine liquid repast, with more and more flavour building up with each new reduced addition.

And if you start, at the very beginning, by first cooking up your shells, heads and the like, the very base of your soup is already off to a very fine start.

There are so many kinds of fish soup from so many countries that it would take a year to go through them all. So let’s whittle it down to bisque, soupe de poisson, chowder and bouillabaisse, even if it could be argued that the last might more accurately be called a seafood stew, given that it has many chunks of seafood in its broth.

Wikipedia remarks that a bisque must be highly seasoned, is smooth and creamy, and is “classically based on a strained broth of crustaceans”. A seafood chowder (there are vegetable versions too), by contrast, is a textured soup of seafood such as prawns, clams or crab with vegetables such as sweetcorn. The Provençal soupe de poisson is a richly flavoured seafood soup topped with toasted rounds of baguette which are in turn topped with a rouille. Bouillabaisse, to quote Wiki, is “a traditional Provençal fish soup originating in the port city of Marseilles”. But it is made in many parts of France and woe betide you if you make it in a way dissimilar to the way a stern Frenchman will expect it to be made. Wars have been fought over less.

I ate soupe de poisson in Cannes when I covered the annual film festival there in 1989. The memory of it has not waned at all despite all the years, nor of the condescension I had to endure from the waiter when I didn’t know how I was supposed to eat it. You were presented with a bowl of soup, and alongside it, little bowls of grated cheese, what appeared to be a sauce, and rounds of lightly toasted baguette. If you’ve never encountered it before, you can’t know what to do. On seeing my confusion, he condescended the hell out of me with much frowning, sighing and rolling of eyes. But it remains a happy memory because it was so good that, on finishing it, I snapped my fingers and had him bring me another.

What you do is smear the rouille (which is what the “sauce” turned out to be) on the bread, top it with cheese, and float them on the top of the soup. It’s a very happy experience. (Wikipedia: “Rouille is a sauce that consists of egg yolk and olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper. It is served as a garnish with fish and fish soup, notably bouillabaisse.”)

I don’t pretend that my fish soup is either a true bisque, a proper chowder, a soupe de poisson, and is certainly far from a bouillabaisse. It may be closer to a bisque than to the others, but mine was textured, purposefully, whereas a bisque is likely to be more refined and creamier.

See my related story with details of how this all came about in TGIFood tomorrow (Friday, 21 April).

(Serves 4)

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped

3 Tbsp butter

1 glass white wine

1 litre fish/seafood stock (see below)

1 x 400 g can chopped tomatoes

1 x 400 g can coconut cream

16 prawn tails, shelled, deveined and chopped

Salt and white pepper to taste

2 heaped Tbsp cornflour dissolved in milk

Chopped coriander for garnish

For the seafood stock:

1 fish head and any fins, etc you may have

Prawn heads and other offcuts, as much as you can get

1 large onion, roughly chopped

2 celery sticks, chopped

3 large carrots, roughly chopped

2 litres water

Method

Put the prawn offcuts and fish head into a large, deep pot with the vegetables and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and cook rapidly, uncovered, until reduced by half. Strain into a jug or bowl. Keep to one side or refrigerate until needed.

In a soup pot, melt the butter and simmer the prawns until softened but not taking on colour. Add wine and cook rapidly until reduced by half. Add the fish stock and cook on a moderate heat for 5 minutes. 

Add a can of chopped tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes at a moderate heat.

Add a can of coconut cream (not milk) and cook for 10 minutes at a moderate heat.

Add the prawn meat, season with salt and white pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Thicken with the diluted cornflour, stirring while it thickens. Serve garnished with chopped coriander. DM/TGIFood

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

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