Recipe: Shrimp Bisque

Shrimp Bisque. 
Many years ago - in 1970 to be exact - recently out of high-school and consumed with wander-lust, I hitch-hiked from England to Morocco with a good friend. The fact that we ended up in Morocco was incidental. We were, in fact, headed for Portugal but found ourselves at a cross-roads in southern Spain at noon on a day in the middle of August. We were looking for a lift west towards Sevilla but the only vehicle that stopped (a VW minibus, would you believe?) was headed for Morocco - so we ended up in Marrakesh, then one of the places to be in the hippie world. It was a magical world and I was enchanted. We ended up spending quite a bit of time there and so I only payed the briefest of visits to Portugal before returning to a wintery England and a job in the brickworks.
      But the short time I had spent in Portugal was enough to leave me beguiled and so, in 1972, I returned there with my great good friend, David Marsh - followed a few weeks later by the lovely Dee, my then girlfriend. We fashioned horseshoe-nail jewelery and sold it to tourists. We made a comfortable living and lived in a house quite close to beach of Praia de Guincho. We worked in Cascais, in the orange-tree-scented evenings when people were out strolling and socializing. It was here that I first truly learned about the pleasures of good food and wine.
      You could always find wonderful food in Ireland and England -- excellent cheeses, pies, breads, seafood - but in the early '70s wonderful cooking was rare and expensive. The food in Portugal, though, was an inspiration. There were African influences from the colonies in Mozambique and Angola and South American flavours from Brazil. I vividly remember 'Chicken Piri-Piri' - a lovely fiery dish from Mozambique accompanied by Maricujá, a passionfruit drink popular in Brazil. But the indigenous cuisine, 'Frango en Tomate', 'Lombo de Porco Asado', 'Iscas', 'Caldo Verde', Canja', was exquisite. We usually ate at a place called A Tasca - it was still there the last time I looked. It was cheap and great!
      The following recipe, however, was not a dish that appeared at 'A Tasca' but rather at a place called 'Castro's'. Late in the evening when we had finished our peddling of cravos - this might be about midnight - we would often repair to the Cascais sea-front as the fishing boats were coming in and the fish auction was beginning. We'd often see people we knew - we had a number of friends who were high school age who saw our hippie image as very rebellious; this was fascist Portugal, in the early '70s, after all and I suppose we were quite exotic. Then we'd head for our supper and a cab home. And this was our supper:

 

Creme de Camarão 

  • 2 onions, chopped coarsely
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 bayleaf
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped - don't bother to peel and seed
  • Tomato paste - most of one of those wee cans - 5 - 6 Tablespoons
  • 1 red chili, or about 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 lb or more of shrimp, raw and in the shell
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 cup dry white wine

      Sautée the onions and garlic in the oil and butter until the onions get 'glassy'. Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste, the bayleaf, the chili (or cayenne) and a grinding of black pepper to your taste. Cover and simmer on very low heat for about a half-hour while you go about the next part of the task.
      This part is a little tricky because you're dealing with shrimp and there's nothing better than properly cooked shrimp and few things more disappointing the the tough, rubbery result of badly prepared shrimp. So, you have some options. You can put the shrimp, water and wine together in a saucepan on a medium heat and as soon as it simmers take the pot off the heat, strain the shrimp and and reserve the water/wine mixture. Or you could, as I do, peel and devein the raw shrimp and set aside. Then cook the skins in the water/wine mixture for 10 minutes or so. Strain and add the liquid to the onion/tomato mixture. Simmer, uncovered, for an hour or so. Let the liquid thicken a bit. About 5 minutes before the end add a dozen shrimp to the pot and let them cook gently. Take out the bayleaf and blend the mixture in batches in a food processor. Strain through a sieve into a clean pot. This might seem a little odd but tomato seeds are indestuctable and though I can't prove it, I believe that no matter how well you've blended something it will be smoother if you put it through a sieve.
      If you're going to be serving this straight away bring the soup to a slow simmer. Add the remaining raw shrimp and cook them in the soup - about three to five minutes, or so. Remove from the heat and add salt to taste. At this point you might want to add a half-cup or so, of cream. Stir it in gently and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro. 

When we supped on this we did so with a loaf of crusty bread, a bottle of vinho verde and a half-kilo of steamed shrimp -- gluttonous, I know. If you can't find the wonderful vinho verde any dry white wine is good or try it with chilled vermouth -- it's not just for martinis. It's somewhat more potent than a regular wine but it's very good with this.

Enjoy.

Mick

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