Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lobster Bisque Sublime

ANNOUNCING WINNERS of Martha Alderson's THE PLOT WHISPERER: Michele Dorsey and Silver James! Please, email me your mailing addresses (hallie "at" hallieephron "dot" com.) TAH DAH!

HALLIE EPHRON: I grew up in Southern California where I developed a taste for lobster bisque at Hamburger Hamlet. At least once a week we ate at the one on Bedford Drive in Beverly HIlls, long before HH had turned into a chain. (They also served the best coconut cream pie I ever had until I had a piece at Jestine's in Charleston.)

In my memory, their lobster bisque was thick (not sludgy), full of chunks (not shreds) of chewy lobster meat, and redolent (but not reeking) of sherry. It was an orangey-pink, a few shades lighter than their radioactive-orange "California French" dressing.

Though that lobster bisque has long ago passed into legend (along with C. C. Brown's hot fudge and Lawry's roast beef), I've tried many recipes, trying to recreate what I remember.

Here's the closest I've come -- it's an adaptation of a recipe that ran in the New York Times.

Rich as it tastes, it has no cream or butter it at all. It's thickened with rice, contains the meat from two lbsters, and makes enough to generously serve four. It's so much work that I would never ever ever make it if it didn't taste so unbelievable delicious. I make it once or twice a year, and only for the people I really love.

Lobster bisque (serves 4)

2 live chicken (sized) lobsters
2 T olive oil
1 carrot chopped
2 ribs of celery chopped
2 cloves of garlic crushed
1 onion chopped
Fresh thyme (4 sprigs) or 1/2 tsp dried
Fresh tarragon (4 sprigs) or 1/4 tsp dried
2 T tomato pate
1 c white wine
2 cups clam broth (or if you have it fish stock works instead)
1/2 cup uncooked rice
Sherry to taste
Cayenne pepper

Cooking the lobsters and removing the meat from the shells
  1. Put one inch of water in the bottom of a large pot with 1 tsp salt.
  2. Bring the water to a boil.
  3. Toss in the live lobsters and cover tightly.
  4. Cook for 12 minutes (lobsters should have turned bright red.)
  5. With tongs, remove the lobsters to a bowl. SAVE the cooking liquid.
  6. When lobsters are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the tail and claws and from as much of the rest as you have the patience for; dump any liquid that comes out of the shells back in the pot.
  7. Chop the meat into bite-sized chunks and smaller and set aside in a bowl in the refrigerator.
  8. Break up the shells and all the remaining bits of lobster innards. All of will go into the bisque!.
Making the bisque
  1. In a large saucepan, sautee the vegetables and herbs in olive oil until onions are translucent.
  2. Add tomato paste.
  3. Add the lobster shells and remains.
  4. Add white wine.
  5. Add clam broth and 1 cup of lobster cooking liquid.
  6. Simmer and cook covered, 1 hour. Cool.
  7. Remove all the shells and lobster remains from the liquid; try to preserve as much of the tasty liquid and vegetable sludge that was stuck to the shells before you discard the shells and remains.
  8. Add the rice and cook for at lest 30 minutes until grains are mushy.
  9. Use an immersion blender (or food processor) to blend the liquid, vegetables, and rice together until smooth.
  10. Stir in the sherry
  11. If it's too thick, add more lobster cooking liquid (or fish stock or water).

Up to this point, this can be done a day before, refrigerated, and assembled the next day.

  1. Add the lobster meat to the bisque.
  2. Heat through and season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
Serving elegantly, if you wish
  1. Ladle into bowls
  2. Top each with a swirl of cream and fresh chopped tarragon
Prepare to take curtain calls.


  1. Wow, does this look good. I'm trying this soon and will report. We have a place in Jersey called Doris & Ed's that is known for their lobster bisque, and I love it. Can't wait to make yours and compare.

    I also grew up in the Los Angeles area and only learned how much I love lobster when The Flying Tigers opened that joint in Hollywood and flew in fresh seafood everyday on their jets. Jack's at the Beach in Santa Monica I discovered later.

  2. I started taking down this whole recipe until I got to "toss in the live lobsters."
    I know someone has to toss them in and I do adore lobster, but I also know I could never bring myself to do that.
    So I'll have to keep my lobster bisque tasting to restaurants, I'm afraid, Hallie.

  3. Just for the record, Rhys, in our house "tossing in the lobster" is "men's work." Picking the meat out of the shells is "lady's work."

    It is a gotcha if you can't deal with killing the crustacean. Because you need ALL of its juices and essences, and dead uncooked lobsters have a shelf life of about sixty seconds.

  4. Like Rhys, I'm chicken when it comes to boiling live critters. However, we have a wonderful seafood shop, owned by a native New Englander (complete with accent) very nearby. I feel very sure Tom would cook the lobsters for me, and even provide the two cups of stock.

    Hallie, this looks phenomenally good. Thank you!

  5. Live lobster story: We were having friends over for a special night of celebration so I had four lobsters in the fridge, waiting their fate. When the water boiled I went to the fridge but the lobsters were -- gone! After a five minute hunt, I found our six-year-old son watching TV with four new little friends, two of which had their own chairs beside him. He actually had his arm around one. Lucky the lobsters still had the rubber bands around their claws. Yeah, I boiled and ate them anyway.

  6. Woohoo on being a winner. Thanks, Hallie and Martha!

    I think I gained ten pounds just looking at the pictures. I ADORE lobster bisque. There was a seafood place here called Herman's, that closed YEARS ago, and while they were noted for many specialty dishes, I have to admit to tasting my first hint of caviar while eating their lobster bisque. They sprinkled some on top. It was sublime! If it weren't for tossing in the live lobsters, I'd be tempted to try this too. I wonder if I can substitute lobster tail....

  7. Hey, "Austin" = what a funny story! reminds me of that scene in Annie Hall with the lobsters loose in the kitchen.

    Gotta ask about the son... is he all grown up now and what's his career?

  8. Silver, I don't think you could do it with tails because the richness of the bisque comes from all the goo (technical term) from the lobster's body and the shells and innards.

    (It's like head cheese -- so pretty to look at but you sort of don't want to know what went into it.

  9. Okay, Austin, how did you explain to your son that his friends were about to become the guests of "honor"at dinner?

    Hallie, I love lobster bisque but I'd rather order it out than take all that time cooking it at home! I no longer make ANYTHING that involves more than three steps. (Not to mention the killing it part! I reserve my killings-at-home for spiders!)

    However, please feel free to invite me over for lobster bisque next time you make it.

  10. Austin, I laughed so hard I snorted my tea. No I have this picture of your little son with his lobster buddies. Was he traumatized when they went into the pot?

    Hallie, I must admit I've never killed a lobster. (Not exactly lobster country where I live.) And although I would absolutely LOVE the bisque, I think I'll wait for you to make it for me some day:-)

  11. You've just won the love of an old Marbleheader's heart.

  12. OMG. Years ago, worked on a case with about 50 depositions, all taken in an office building next to The Lobster Shop restaurant on Commencement Bay in Tacoma. Got to eat lobster bisque there twice a week for months. (No, there aren't a lot of lobsters in Puget Sound, but who cares?)

  13. But of course we generally skip everything that comes before and after, "Toss in the live lobsters and cover tightly."

  14. Austin, put a "snort alert" on that story.

  15. And lobster chowder is good. If you don't add the milk and other stuff.

  16. Karen, he's not a Native New Englander if he left. Unless he's desperately yearning to go back. And he has to say it out loud. In public. Sorry. Those are the rules.

  17. Uh, Reine, aren't you one? Ha!

    Omigod, Austin, that is one funny story. The last sentence deftly illustrates the difference between dads and moms, by the way. There's no way a mom could cook the new buddies after her son had bonded with them!

    Lobster goo. Maybe I'm changing my mind about this dish. ;-)

  18. Hah! Karen! I am. I am! And I desperately long to return. And I proclaim it loudly. Here. In public. xo

  19. I wish I liked to cook; I love lobster bisque and that sounds AWESOME! But I agree that throwing in 2 live lobsters is a bit intimidating!

  20. Austin, that made my entire day...week...maybe, year! I think you should make it into a TV series. It would be a winner. Deb, your response echoed mine. Another winner.
    And, last but not least, Hallie... You have brought out a big sigh and longing for Hamburger Hamlet #7 and a cup of lobster bisque to start. At the very least, to have a recipe that a fellow alum thinks "is as good as", is good enough for me to try. I sure hope it's great. It's a lot of work! Did you use dry Sherry, sweet Sherry, or both?! Thanks for sharing this. YUM! Can't wait.

  21. Follow-up: I put my son to bed before I boiled his buddies, and I hid the shells so he wouldn't see them the next day. I probably told him they went home to their mommy.

    Patrick is now 27, a Northeastern business graduate, a contractor of sorts, and he likes to eat lobsters. Although I'm always the one who has to dunk them in the boiling water. They only squeak once, and it's not very loud.

  22. Claudia: sweet or medium sherry (it's a waste of dry sherry to throw it in a sup, imho).

    My lobsters don't even squeak. I toss them right from the bag into the boiling pot and slam down the lid.

    We're lucky, people pull lobsters from the water very nearby. At the summer farmer's market, a local lobster fisherman's wife sells live lobsters, 'harvested' that day, out of a cooler.

    Makes up a bit for the fact that this morning it was 8 degrees out.

  23. Reine: Normally I agree with you. All a lobster needs is drawn butter. (not that I know what that means... how do you DRAW butter?)

    But I make an exception for the bisque. AND for the incredible pan roasted lobster at Jasper White's Summer Shack. VERY pricey but absolutely incredible tasting.

  24. Austin, didn't you get the hint that that boy needed a pet??

    Hallie, I'm waiting for the invite too. Can't quite get over the hump of making my own stock, whether it's lobster or chicken...and how can you be sure to get all the pieces of shell if you don't strain the liquid?

    But I love the idea of the rice as thickener. Love the whole idea of the bisque, just maybe not making it!

  25. The Lewis's have a restaurant on Wilshire called Kate Mantilini where the lobster bisque lives on...

  26. You know, you might not predict this..but boiling live lobsters only bothers me for a fraction of a second. I hypnotize them first. Do you do that?

  27. Hi Hallie, I just couldn't publicly admit that it sounds delicious. You understand. The trouble is, would I risk two bare naked lobsters to find out

    And I have to admit a great fondness for a wharf-side restaurant in Gloucester (shhhhh) that serves fantastic lobster-stuffed lobster. I love it so much, Auntie-Mom gave me a Kiel James Patrick, Skip's Lobster Shack, bracelet with a brass anchor button, for Christmas as a memento.

    I would rather have the butter undrawn, myself. I love the flavor the solids add. Just seems bland without. xo

  28. Okay, Hank: I MUST ask how one hypnotizes a lobster? Um, is it possible that you self-hypnotize Hank to convince yourself that the dear little things can't "feel"that they are being boiled? (Someone told me that lobsters "don't feel a thing". I don't believe it -and I still eat lobster whenever I have a chance.)

    This conversation reminds me of the time my dad took me and one of my younger siblings to a poultry store when I was around eight years old. There was a row of caged live chickens on each wall. Dad asked us which ones looked good to us. My sister and I agreed on one, Dad pointed it out to a man wearing a white apron that was stained with some sort of "red stuff"(hmmm...wonder what it could have been?),the man took The Chosen One out of the cage and disappeared into the back room with it. He reappeared shortly with a package that he handed to Dad, Dad gave him some money, we went back to the car and drove home. On the way home Dad told us that we helped buy Christmas dinner (my memory is hazy on this but I think that was the upcoming holiday) - but I don't think that we immediately made the connection between what happened in the poultry store and what we ended up eating for the holiday. I know that at some point my sister and I thought we were getting a pet and our dad explained that we were not allowed to have pets in our apartment. The whole 'no pets' thing was harder to accept than the fact that we picked our holiday dinner, I think! Our dad was a kind-hearted person so I don't think we believed that we had actually caused a chicken to be killed - we were such innocents!

    Overall,I think that Austin's Patrick had a MUCH more traumatic experience,because he had bonded with the dear little things before his dad sent them to their deaths!

    Deb R

  29. Laughing, Deb -

    YES, Hank, how DO you hypnotize a lobster?

    Deb's story reminds me of the ducklings we won at a carnival (remember when you could pitch a ping pong bowl into a gold fish bowl and win and duckling?) -- three of them (I have pictures! another time...) which were installed in the garage where we had to clean the dog house (long gone dog) and feed them. Until they got fairly large and my father drove them to "the farm," or that's what he said.

  30. Kate Mantilini - writing it down for the next time I'm in LA. I have this otherecollection that the owners of HH had a son who was in my class in elementary school. El Rodeo, late 1950s. Is that possible? That would make them very old. Me, too. Sigh.

  31. I am still laughing at this entire conversation. You guys are hilariously funny.

    Hank, come on, we all need to know this skill of hypnotizing lobsters (or selves, as the case may be). Spill, girl!

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  33. Okay.
    First get a lobster.
    Boil water.
    Take the lobster in one hand.
    Feet down.

    (The lobster's feet. Well, Yours will be down, too.)

    The lobster will be--for want of a better word--kind of thrashing.

    With one finger, massage what would be the back of the lobster's neck. Behind the eyes. Use a bit of pressure, like you are rubbing that part of the lobster.

    I am not kidding. In a couple of seconds, the lobster will go absolutely limp. LIMP. No more thrashing.

    They totally relax. They are OUT.
    Boom. Put into the water. (Head first, okay?)
    I truly believe they have no idea.

  34. Hank, that's really fascinating. I thought you were kidding!

  35. Hallie, this is my alltime favorite soup and I will forever be in your debt for the recipe. Forever! I have missed so many soups since I turned celiac (gluten-free), and so many places forget that you can use rice as a thickener. What a delight. Yay! Can you see me dancing?

    ~Avery aka Daryl

  36. Nope, Karen, all true! Just try it..oh, maybe we can do it together when Hallie invites all of us over!

  37. I've been looking for a good lobster bisque recipe for months! Never thought I'd come across one while reading a writing blog. Thanks!

    Also, "Toss in the live lobsters" reminds me of summers in the Outer Banks when my dad would sing and talk to the lobsters as he threw them in the pot.

  38. This recipe sounds awesome! I am definitely gonna make it this holiday season! @Austin - that is the best story. Totally reminds me of something my son would do.