Several years ago, I spent a week at the Institut Paul Bocuse near Lyon, France, where I observed the Institut’s chefs and students in their immaculate kitchens. On the first day, the chef made a crayfish (it’s spelled with a “y” there) bisque. I was surprised to see that the crawfish were similar to ours, but the bisque in no way resembled what we have in South Louisiana.
The chef explained that “a classic French bisque is made with the broth from shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp or crayfish), and originally thickened not with cream but with rice and the ground shells of the shellfish.”
I was intrigued and did some research on my return to Louisiana. I found that the word “bisque” might have come from the geographical name Bay of Biscay, or possibly from the technique called bis cuites or “twice cooked.”
The late great Julia Child, in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, explains that a “bisque is a rich, thick, highly seasoned soup of puréed shellfish. Undoubtedly the bisque came into being because it is an easy as well as an elegant way to eat small crustaceans with complicated constructions like crayfish and crabs, and it is a wonderful solution for the chests and legs of lobsters.”
She also advised that this kind of recipe is best done with a group of friends who enjoy cooking together since “it is not tricky to make — it just takes a long time.”
And, indeed, her recipe indicates that it takes the better part of a day to prepare. Of course, I realize that the recipe for our local crawfish bisque is also a daylong (or more) procedure.
Julia gives instructions on how to buy a lobster:
“It must be lively: it spreads its claws, arches its back, and flaps its tail noisily.”
She goes on to give detailed instructions on how to cut up a lobster and how to cook it. I had to flip through several pages before I got to the actual instructions for preparing the bisque.
First, according to Julia, you have to get your mise en place ready — meaning all the ingredients measured, pots (yes, several pots in this instance) you will need as well as sieves, numerous bowls, spoons and knives. (I actually don’t have the space for this kind of production in my 10′ x 10′ kitchen….) Julia goes on: Sauté the lobster, simmer the lobster and remove the meat, simmer the rice, purée the rice and lobster meat, make shellfish butter, prepare a lobster garnish, and, finally, flavor the bisque and serve it.
Now, on to the recipe for our local crawfish bisque. I dug around in Mama’s old recipe box and found several, but the one that caught my eye listed the first ingredient as “2 buckets of live crawfish.” See, we first have to go catch those freshwater crustaceans. To do this, we needed some chicken necks for bait, twine to secure the necks and nets to catch the crawfish as they nibbled on the necks. I don’t know what size bucket they used, but it probably took a few hours to fill them up.
Upon returning to the house, the crawfish had to be purged. We had a huge outdoor sink that was perfect for this procedure, but I know some friends who purged their crawfish in their bathtub — a fact that makes me love that outdoor sink even more!
The next step was to blanch or scald the crawfish, then cool and peel them. The tails were set aside, and the bodies were gently cleaned since they were going to be stuffed with a mixture of finely ground tails, onions, bell peppers, celery and bread. Remember, this was before food processors were invented, so this procedure was done with a hand-operated grinder that was attached to the kitchen table.
Once the stuffing was made, it had to be stuffed into the crawfish bodies, which were then baked, and then set aside while the bisque (stew) was prepared. The final step was to add the stuffed heads to the bisque and let them simmer gently before serving. Whew! I’m exhausted just thinking about the labor involved, but when you’re finally sitting there eating that delectable bisque, it all seems worthwhile!