One of the most important and lasting lessons I learned during my time training to be a cook in Paris and working in restaurants there was the extraordinary extent chefs go to in order to avoid waste.
My inner Ebenezer loves this.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted in a professional kitchen – from potato and apple peelings (put aside for pommes purée and as a free source of pectin, respectively), to parsley stalks (which add a lovely aroma to a bouquet garni), broccoli stalks (for flans or purées), and mushroom trimmings to add flavour to stocks – a use was found for the most abject of off-cuts and unloved elements of kitchen waste.
Apparently, in the old Escoffier days they even used to keep egg shells for clarifying stocks. Someone, somewhere, really ought to gather all these tips together…
I kind of already had this approach to cooking, thanks to my mum who, as a child of rationing, was brought up with a pretty-strict-verging-on-eccentric ‘waste not want not’ approach to the kitchen (to this day her draining board will usually be adorned by a once-used tea bag awaiting another dip in boiling water, and her fridge is full of parmesan cheese rinds for dropping into stews), and also because I am, frankly, really mean.
But one recipe in particular that I learned at Le Cordon Bleu has stuck with me for its brilliant use of a particular type of kitchen waste to create an exceptionally delicious haute cuisine classic for which you would easily pay, say, €12 for as a starter in a Michelin starred joint.
I am talking about bisque, whose chief ingredient is the shells of crustaceans. When we prepared lobster or langoustine, the chefs at the school would literally rummage through our work-top waste bins plucking discarded shells and tutting disapprovingly at our carelessness with such a costly ingredient. ‘The shells cost as much as the meat you know!’ one of them told me on such an occasion (he used the same quote about duck fat, which pro chefs also take the trouble to save, to render later for roasting, frying or making confit).
I made bisque again this weekend. We were staying with my wife’s parents on the south coast of the Danish island of Fyn (Funen). Southern Fyn is an idyllic place, whose gently undulating grassy hills always remind me of Telletubby Land. Come spring, there are always loads of small producers selling new potatoes, asparagus and other fresh produce from home made stalls with honesty boxes by the roadside.
My mother-in-law had secured one of my favourite Fyn foodstuffs, a supply of the first-of-season, quite rare fjord shrimps (local fisherman don’t just sell them to anyone, it’s all about who you know, apparently).
She cooked them, still alive of course, in salted water with added sugar – her secret tip for crisp, easy-to-peel shells.
Fiddly and time consuming as they were to peel, the shrimps – rejer in Danish – were deliciously delicate, juicy and sweet. We devoured them on bread for lunch with some mayonnaise which I knocked up in a couple of minutes.
Afterwards we were left with this. Shrimp apocalypse to some: secret ingredient Valhalla to others.
Rugby tackling my mother-in-law en route to dump them all in the rubbish bin, I saved the bowl of shrimp heads and shells and pledged to turn them into a starter for dinner that evening. My mother-in-law backed away nervously and left me to it making a mental note to prepare something else as backup. She needn’t have worried. Fresh-made bisque – as opposed to the gag-worthy stuff you get in glass jars in the supermarket – is a stunning starter, packed with umami (the Japanese-identified fifth taste, usually translated as ‘savoury’).
I don’t really do recipes (for reasons outlined here), and I’ll leave the proportions up to your commons sense, but here is a rough guide to the very simple process of making a bisque:
I chopped some onion, celery and carrot (optional, as is garlic); and slowly sweated them with some bay leaves and a dollop of tomato paste for colour and tomato-ey-ness. I think I used olive oil, but you can use any oil really – it’s only at higher temperatures or when dealing with more delicate flavours that you need to be more picky about oils, I feel.
(Actually, that’s a lie about the tomato paste – I would usually use some, but my mother-in-law didn’t have any, so I just dumped in a tin of tomatoes and it turned out fine – like I said, this is off piste cooking.) You should always cook tomato paste well cos it softens its rather harsh flavour, and slow cooking the veg somehow enhances its sweetness.
In go the shells and heads to cook for a little while (you can use bits of crab or lobster if you have them; I go all funny thinking about how great a bisque made from all three would taste), then a good dash of Cognac (again, this is a complete lie, as I didn’t have any of that either but, though I would use it usually both at this point in the bisque-making process with another dash just before serving, I didn’t miss it all that much when we came to taste the soup), and a much bigger splash – half a bottle in this case – of white wine.
I cooked this down until virtually all of the alcoholic liquids had evaporated (you get a more mellow flavour if you do this), then covered the shells with some water. Most recipes tell you to use fish stock here but, a) who has fresh fish stock lying around? and b) is there a more hideous substance on earth than fish stock powder (well, yes, clearly there is – nuclear waste, for instance, or, say, Michael Gove, but you get my point). And, besides, I wanted a shrimpy taste, not a fishy taste.
I simmered this gently for about 40 minutes, before tipping it into my blender for a vigorous blitz. Then I strained the resulting slurry (not a word you should ever use in the context of food, but still), through a very fine conical sieve (one of my top five most important pieces of kitchen equipment); put it back in the pan to re-heat and reduce a little; then tasted it and got a bit annoyed that it didn’t really have much oomph or body. Probably because I didn’t use the fish stock.
I could have reduced it even more, or added some of the slurry – it’s what a French chef would do – and it would of course have been thicker had I remembered to add some flour when frying the vegetables. It’s called bisque because the French traditionally thicken it with dry bread, or biscuit, but in a stroke of unprecedented genius, inspired by a stunning miso-bisque I once had at the Japanese restaurant Ayaa on Brewer St in London (one of the best and most authentic Japanese restaurants I’ve eaten in outside of Japan), I decided to add some light brown miso paste.
I tempered it first, by pouring a ladle of the bisque over the paste in a separate bowl, and mixing it well with a fork. As when adding miso paste to dashi to make miso soup, or, for that matter, cornflour to thicken a sauce or eggs to thicken a creme anglaise, this tempering is essential to ensure the miso mixes properly in the bisque.
Turned out great, with a sweetly shrimpy, umami-packed flavour. With a little squeeze of lemon juice, a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkle of chopped chives to lighten it a little and add some welcome acidity, it was fit to grace the tables of Taillevent.
Though that table cloth probably isn't.