Look for the recipe for a particular dish on the Web, and you often find the results you get quickly divide into two or three categories: People who use pignolis in their pesto, and people who use walnuts; people who put egg in vanilla ice cream and people who just use cream; people who roast the turkey breast down, people who roast it breast up, and people who turn the bird midway through.
Now try looking for a recipe for seafood bisque. There's lobster bisque, crab bisque, shrimp bisque, and every-imaginable-combination-of-seafood bisques--including several recipes for catfish bisque. Hmmm. They range from short versions ("Just combine canned mushroom and tomato soups, milk, and that surimi stuff, hon!") to excruciating versions that involve flaming shrimp in brandy, grinding shrimp shells in Cuisinarts, using eight lobster bodies, cooking in sherry, pureeing in blenders, straining through cheesecloth, and flavoring with Madeira, m'dear.
The version I created by combining the most adventurous recipe with some common sense was, nevertheless, something out of a Flanders and Swann routine. I ended up with crab shells in the dish strainer, shrimp shells in my hair, and warm pureed bisque all over the counters. Plus the kitchen was swarming with cats. I didn't use the brandy in the bisque itself, but it came in handy for after I cleaned up the mess.
Here's my recipe, if you're game:
Melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter or a light olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven and sautee half an onion (chopped), a chopped carrot, a chopped celery stalk, and a minced clove of garlic.
Toss in two pounds of shellfish (anything but mussels or oysters), rinsed and patted dry, in shells. Hint: If using shrimp, buy large Gulf shrimp. If using crab, look for frozen split crab legs—these refinements come in very handy where you reach the point in the recipe where you are shelling all the cooked fish.
Sautee, stirring, until lobster or shrimp turn pink, scallops and clams open, or whatever.
If you used a skillet to sautee, transfer the sauteed shellfish to a Dutch oven or a stockpot. Add to the seafood 2 cups clam broth, 2 cups chicken broth, 2 cups tomatoes (pureed work well), and one cup white wine. Using either all clam broth or all chicken broth, plus the tomatoes and wine, is also an option.
Bring to a boil, then decrease heat to a simmer (very low) and cover, cooking for 20 minutes.
Now the fun part: Fish out the stuff with shells and remove all the shells and dispose of them, far from any cats. Reserve two or three cups of the shelled shellfish, chopped in small pieces, and refrigerate it.
Return the rest of the shellfish meat to the liquid, and puree in a blender or Cuisinart. In small batches. Seriously: Only fill the blender halfway unless you were planning to hose down the kitchen later anyway.
You can refrigerate the puree for a day or two if you want. By that time you should have removed all the tiny bits of shrimp shells from the cabinetry and the smell of boiled shrimp from the kitchen. When you are ready to serve the soup, heat the puree, slowly stir in 1 cup of heavy cream, and all the reserved shellfish meat. Heat extremely gently (if it gets too warm, the cream will separate out and look curdled!) and season with salt and pepper.
Add a splash of Madeira, or serve with a small pitcher of warm sherry as an optional add-in.