I kind of feel like this week’s soupapalooza! was an unintentional homage to the 1980s. Not the semi-ironic Breakfast Club, shoulder pads and leggings-wearing 1980s (sorry LiLo, but you’re doing it wrong), no, but the big flavor, Windows on the World 1980s. Which, incidentally, was the site of my first ever consumed consommé. At the time I thought it was just exceptionally expensive broth to be eaten while looking out over the whole of Manhattan, and I was right; but it was also the only thing on the menu that didn’t completely fry my eight year old brain other than the chocolate soufflé.
Last week someone asked me what made a bisque a bisque and I had no answer other than I ate a lot of it in the 80s because, for some reason, it seemed like anything with fish had to be healthy (mind you, this was the era when pasta was considered a DIET food). Let me be frank: even when I don’t have an answer I always have an answer. It’s pathological and obnoxious; and for me to be not only stumped, but stumped AND speechless considering I consider myself a bit of a soup expert, well that just would’t do.
Well, thanks to Mr. Wikipedia and “The Internets”, I learned that the word “bisque” comes from French (non?!), the Bay of Biscay, specifically, and its natural inhabitants, the lovely crustacean. Traditional bisques are made from the strained juices of sautéed lobster, mussels, crab, shrimp or crayfish. This jus is then added to vegetables sautéed in butter, rice is cooked in the mixture and then the whole thing is puréed and cream and seasoning added. It’s a great way to extract every last drop of flavor from shellfish. And I was reminded I could eat it again and again until the cows come home (and is that 7.30 or 8 o’clock?).
But back to the 1980s. The culinary 1980s. Time of sundried tomatoes and wine coolers and the two towers standing with a restaurant perched on top just like a cherry, God how I loved you. And in honor of you and all your largess I crafted a meal this week of bold memories of your grandiosity: a salad reminiscent of the frenchy goodness of Café des Artistes which included market greens, steamed baby potatoes, steamed haricot vert and yellow beans, heirloom tomatoes in a dijon shallot vinaigrette; a creamy fennel and mussel bisque like I used to get at The Flying Dutchman served by busty high school chicks in halter tops (oh how I thought someday, for sure, I’d have those boobs, or at the very least a job that would pay for those boobs); and for dessert-- the coup de gras-- a spin on a classic chocolate soufflé: individual Grand Marnier dark chocolate soufflés topped with white chocolate whipped cream.
Pretty effing good. And pretty amazing that in less than a year I could learn to pull all of this off in a half of a day without resorting to voodoo, verbal abuse of the hired help (they’re imaginary) or prescription drug abuse. Certainly if I can learn to cook and can pull of a casual dinner party for 15 people, ANYONE can.
Soup Dee*Lite (I mean dee-tails... but you know, Groove is in the Heart):
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups (about) bottled clam juice or low-salt chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 1/2 cups 1/2-inch cubes fresh fennel bulbs, divided, fennel fronds chopped and reserved for garnish
1/4 cup 1/4-inch cubes peeled carrot
1/2 cup chopped shallots (about 2 large)
1/4 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon brandy
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Combine mussels and wine in large pot. Cover; bring to boil. Boil until mussels open, about 5 minutes (discard any that do not open). Using tongs, transfer to large bowl. Pour cooking liquid through strainer set over 8-cup measuring cup. Add enough clam juice to cooking liquid to measure 5 cups. Remove mussels from shells; place in small bowl. Discard shells. Cover mussels and chill until ready to use, up to 8 hours. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 1/2 cups fennel cubes and carrot; sauté until fennel is slightly softened, about 10 minutes. Add shallots; sauté until soft, about 4 minutes. Add clam juice mixture, rice, tomato paste, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; partially cover and simmer until rice is tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Cool slightly. Working in batches, puree in blender. Return to saucepan.
Meanwhile, melt 1 tablespoon butter in small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 cup fennel cubes; sauté until tender, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. do ahead Bisque mixture and sautéed fennel can be made 8 hours ahead. Cool slightly. Chill bisque mixture uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Cover and chill fennel. Bring bisque mixture to simmer before continuing.
Add whipping cream, brandy, and mussels to bisque mixture; bring to simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle bisque into 6 bowls. Sprinkle sautéed fennel cubes atop bisque. Garnish with chopped fennel fronds and parsley, if desired.
So I nixed the fennel garnish, but added additional fennel to the base of the bisque for good measure. I also used a little more butter than the recipe called for, because that’s how I roll and because I no longer feel the need to fit into lycra.
I also substituted cognac for the brandy (which I guess isn’t really a substitution at all since cognac is brandy, just brandy that’s made in the Cognac region of France) and used fresh thyme instead of dried (double the amount when moving from dried herbs to fresh herbs).
Visiting the past was nice this week, but I think it’s now time to move on. At least I was on top of the world once...