What is it that makes a bisque a bisque and not a chowder?

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By Norm Harding, Reporter

Both bisques and chowders are made with seafood and vegetables, with a cream base. Chowders tend to be more stew-like or chunky, and bisques puréed. The word “bisque” is also used to refer to any sort of creamy, puréed soup, and thus menus often feature tomato and squash bisques.

In traditional French cooking, a bisque is a thick, smooth shellfish soup in which the seafood has been puréed. The most well known are lobster bisque, crayfish bisque, crab bisque and shrimp bisque. Some very respectable cookbooks even leave the fish in chunks in the soup, in which case it is a what? That’s right, a chowder, and not really a bisque after all.

Traditionally, bisque includes seafood, wine or cognac, and cream, along with a mixture of spices. Bisque is related to consommé, which is another rich soup produced through a long cooking process that concentrates flavors for intensity. The entire mixture is puréed, cream is added and the soup is cooked and allowed to thicken even more before being served, usually sprinkled with parsley and freshly cracked pepper.

Lobster bisque, in particular, is a popular form of the soup all over the world. The long cooking process brings out layers of flavor. While many cooks remove the shells of the lobster to eliminate the risk of a small piece of shell causing injury, traditionalists believe that bisque is not a bisque unless it contains the finely pureed shells, which serve to thicken the soup.

Lobster Bisque

(For Emma Lou, who requested this recipe)

1 to 2 cups cooked lobster meat, about 1 small lobster

1/3 cup dry sherry

1/4 cup butter

3 Tbsps. flour

3 cups milk

1 tsp. steak sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Seasoned salt to taste

In a small bowl, combine lobster and sherry; set aside. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Blend in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and bubbly. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly. Continue cooking and stirring until mixture is thickened; stir in steak sauce and salt, pepper and seasoned salt to taste. Add lobster and sherry; cover and simmer lobster bisque for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Makes 4 cups of lobster bisque.

Crab Bisque

1 (10-3/4-oz.) can cream of asparagus soup

1 (10-3/4-oz.) can cream of mushroom soup

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup Half-and-Half

8 oz. crab meat, picked free of shells

1/2 tsp. tarragon

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

1/4 cup dry sherry

Using a heavy saucepan, combine all of the ingredients, except sherry, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add sherry. Serve with your favorite crackers.

Oyster Bisque

1/2 cup rice, uncooked

4 cups bottled clam juice

1/4 cup butter

2 doz. oysters

1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce

2 cups whipping or heavy cream

3 Tbsps. brandy or Cognac

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh parsley

Put rice and clam juice in a saucepan. Cover and cook until rice is tender. Add butter. Blend the mixture until smooth or force through a sieve.

Finely chop about 16 of the oysters and add to the rice mixture with their liquid. Add Tabasco sauce. Add the cream and heat just to the boiling point. Add remaining whole oysters and heat until the edges curl. Add brandy or Cognac and heat one minute longer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into serving dishes, placing 1 or 2 whole oysters in each bowl or cup. Garnish with chopped celery. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Oyster Chowder with Bacon and Spinach

Enjoy this tasty oyster chowder with crackers and a tossed green salad.

3 slices bacon, diced

1 cup diced celery

1/2 cup diced onion

3 Tbsps. butter

4 Tbsps. flour

1-1/2 cups chicken broth

20 to 24 oz. oysters with their liquor

1 cup tightly packed chopped spinach leaves

2 cups heavy cream

1 tsp. sea salt

Dash freshly ground black pepper

Dash nutmeg

2 Tbsp. dry sherry

In a large saucepan, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until fat is rendered. Add the butter, celery and onion; continue cooking, stirring, until vegetables are tender. Stir in flour until well blended. Add chicken broth, oysters with liquid and spinach. Continue cooking until spinach is wilted. Add cream and seasonings; heat through. Stir in sherry. Makes 4 servings.

Seafood Newburg

16 oz. fresh or frozen shrimp, cooked and coarsely chopped

4-8 oz. crab or lobster, drained and diced

2 Tbsps. sherry

2 Tbsps. lemon juice

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

3/4 stick butter

1/3 cup flour

2 cups Half-and-Half

Salt to taste

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 egg yolk, beaten

1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

Mix the seafood with sherry, lemon juice and nutmeg. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours. In a large saucepan over low heat, melt butter; blend in flour then stir in the Half-and-Half. Add salt and continue cooking and stirring until thickened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Combine beaten egg yolk with the heavy cream. Add to the sauce, stirring constantly. Add cheese. Continue to cook, stirring, until well blended and cheese is melted. Add the seafood with its marinade. Heat thoroughly, about 10 minutes longer. If too thick, thin with a little milk. Serve over rice or toast points. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Norm Harding is a cooking columnist for the Beacon. To send him recipes, e-mail him at nharding@brunswickbeacon.com.