February is soup season in Maine; with all due respect to San Francisco in the summer, it can get pretty cold here. Our very favorite cold weather soup is an ancient recipe from Rome that includes bread, egg, cheese, and garlic in chicken stock. When it’s done right, it’s not even a soup really — it’s so thick that each spoonful will crown over the spoon edge. The garlic opens your often stuffy nasal passages, and the egg and bread fill you right up. There’s nothing better to be eaten in front of a roaring fire on a dark winter night. The recipe we normally use is from a 1993 SF Chronicle article by Carol Field who calls it “Pancotto.” However, there’s another good recipe in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines where Jeff Smith traces a bit of the history of the soup, and then offers a version that makes “rags” out of semolina, eggs, and grated cheese that are cooked in the broth just before being served. Either way, you can’t go wrong when you’re looking for a quick filling way to warm up.
February is also Maine shrimp (Pandalus borealis) season, when this smallish species (averaging 30 to 60 pieces to a pound in the conventional shrimp meat measurement) of comes south for the winter from its summer home in the Arctic ocean. The nice thing about buying these shrimp in season is that you can often buy them directly from the fishermen, who sit in pick-up trucks just off Route 1 (the coastal State highway) propping up hand-lettered signs advertising their catch. And, believe it or not, these days the shrimp, often less than 24 hours out of the net, cost $1.00 or less a pound (the best I got this winter were $0.75 a pound)! That’s in the shell, but you can get more than a pound of tail meat from two pounds of shrimp, and that’s a very nice meal for two to four people. The remaining shells make this deal even better because the heads and shells contain lots of flavor of their own (and often the shells also include eggs stuck to the legs because the shrimp breed at this time, and the roe offer even more rich fat and flavor), and you can make some serious shrimp stock for poaching other fish, or as a base for sauces or soups.
What could be better, though, than a recipe that calls for shell-on shrimp that you don’t have to peel? Chez Panisse Cooking offers just such a recipe, which I’ve cooked many times and adapted it to become more Maine focused (ingredients beyond the shrimp), as well as give it a little “oomph.”
The fresh Maine shrimp I use are very sweet, but I have also used headless Atlantic shrimp from South Carolina with good results. Paul Bertolli recommends using white Louisiana Gulf shrimp (“deep, lingering flavor”) or Pacific Ridgeback shrimp (“incomparably sweet and fine flavored”). No matter what kind of shrimp you use, whole shrimp with heads and roe attached will add richness because those bits contain more fat than just the tails.
The original recipe calls for fennel and sweet red pepper, and that makes a nice, if a bit more subtle, soup. But in February we would have to go to the supermarket and pay a premium for fresh versions of either, and since Alison and I grow as much of the food we eat as possible (that’s one we live all the way up here in Maine), I like to use what can be found in the stores from our garden harvest. So I doubled up on the carrots (which we have plenty of) and browned half of them in a little butter too caramelize and draw out the sugars to compensate for the sweetness of the fennel and red peppers. I also included shallots to add a little complexity that might have been lost without the fennel. And I include a dried ancho pepper, which adds that red pepper flavor and then some…I think it gives the soup a lot of extra warmth, and pairs well with the shrimp flavors.
One thing to point out about Bertolli’s recipe — it uses techniques that are common in restaurants but not so common in the home kitchen, such as dicing the vegetables, and then straining the soup. Diced vegetables cook faster because they are tiny pieces of the whole vegetable, and the vastly increased surface area allows for a very fast release of flavors without risking an “over-cooked” flavor. Dicing definitely takes more time, but it can be a good practice of your knife skills (read Bill Buford’s “Heat” to learn how important a good dice is to a good restaurant). It’s worth the time. Because this recipe uses whole shrimp, which are ground up during cooking, if you didn’t sieve the soup you would have a terrible texture that included shell bits, but by sieving the soup you also eliminate the fiber from the vegetables, especially because you don’t “overcook” them to make them soft enough to be palatable. Sieving any soup will often add a pleasant texture that you can’t get any other way, which is why restaurants often sieve soups.
Adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
10 Tbsp. diced carrots in two piles
5 Tbsp. diced celery
6 Tbsp. diced onions
6 Tbsp. diced shallots
1 diced ancho pepper (if dried, soak for 30 minutes in a half cup of hot water and save the water)
1 bay leaf
1/2 diced ripe tomato (or one canned tomato)
12 ounces whole shrimp in shell (head on if possible)
1/2 cup water (or pepper soak water)
4 cups fish or shrimp broth
1 cup soft white bread crumbs (preferably from an artisanal loaf)
In a frying pan slowly sauté over low heat half the diced carrots and all the onions in on tablespoon of butter until they start to brown and carmelize. Pour these into a four quart pot with one more tablespoon of butter, then add the rest of the carrots, the celery, shallots, ancho pepper, and bay leaf and sauté over medium heat until soft, about ten minutes, then add the tomato.
Put the frying pan just used for carmelizing the carrots and onions onto high heat, melt the last tablespoon of butter in it then add the whole shrimp in their shells once it gets how. Stir and flip the shrimp so that they cook quickly all over, picking up bits of brown butter. Once they have lost their translucence and the shells are starting to brown, dump the shrimp into a food processor with the blade and process into a paste. (Or use a blender wand to puliverize the shrimp and vegetables together in the pot.)
Put the shrimp paste into the pot with the vegetables. Add the broth. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of water, scraping all the fond off the bottom and sides before adding it to the pot as well. Simmer for ten minutes.
After simmering, remove the bay leaf and push the entire mix through the medium blade of a food mill — make sure to include the stuff from the bottom of the mill, then push the thinner soup through a chinoise strainer, or any wire sieve. (It’s easiest to use the pan that was deglazed to catch the food mill process, then rinse any stray bits from the pot and pour through the strainer back into the pot. You don’t have to clean the food mill — just dump out the accumulated shell paste that didn’t get through — because you will use it again in ten minutes.) The sieving serves to create a silky texture in the soup, so take your time to get as much through the sieve as possible.
Over very low heat, add the bread crumbs and let them sit in the warm soup for 10 minutes, then put back through the food mill medium blade.
Season with salt and pepper if necessary, warm the bisque gently, and serve. If the ancho doesn’t add enough “heat” for your liking, you can zip it up with a pinch of cayenne powder.
(Because of the added breadcrumbs, be gentle when reheating leftovers, stirring often, otherwise you risk a sticky clump of bread collecting on the bottom of the pan.)
Here are those bread soup recipes, which are very easy to make at the last minute if you have some chicken stock on hand:
Breadcrumb and Egg Soup
from SF Chronicle article by Carol Field, 13 Oct 1993
serves 4 to 6
3 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic
4 1/2 cup chicken broth
bread crumbes from 6 to 8 slices stale country-style bread, crusts removed
1/4 cup shredded basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiana cheese
3 to 4 eggs, lightly beaten
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a 2 quart saucepan. Sauté the garlic until it is soft, but do not burn. Pour in broth, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer 5 minutes.
Combine the breadcrumbs, basil, parsley, and grated cheese. Whisk the mixture into the broth and cook, whisking constantly, until the soup is hot but not boiling.
At the last minute, whisk the eggs into the hot broth; simmer for about 1 minute, until the eggs are cooked and have shredded. Do not let the broth boil. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Roman “Rag” Soup
from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines
The Frug indicates that this is an a very popular soup in Rome going back hundreds (I bet thousands) of years. It uses semolina flour instead of bread, and lemon peel instead of garlic, but is very similar to the Pancotto soup.
serves 8 as a first course
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups beef bone stock
3 eggs, beaten
4 Tbsp. semolina or regular flour
4 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmigiana cheese
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
chopped Italian parsley and freshly grated Parmigiana cheese to garnish
Mix the stocks in a large soup pot and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Beat the eggs, flour, and cheese together. Add the lemon peel and salt and 1/4 cup of the mixed soup stock.
Move the simmering pot from the heat and pour the “rag batter” into the soup in a thin stream, pouring carefully all over the surface of the soup. Return to the heat and stir with a wooden spoon as the tatters and rags cook. Simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve very hot with parsley and cheese garnish