A bisque is a rich, creamy soup of French origin based on a strained broth of crustaceans such as lobster, shrimp, crab and crawfish. Crawfish bisque is a unique and traditional Louisiana dish. Unlike a French bisque, which is cream based, a Louisiana crawfish bisque is a roux-based soup (flour and butter mixture) incorporating crawfish meat, sauteed green pepper, onions, celery and garlic, and crawfish heads stuffed with crawfish dressing.
Despite its long Louisiana history, only about a dozen restaurants in New Orleans still serve crawfish bisque, according to Tom Fitzmorris, food critic and longtime host of The Food Show on WWL Radio. Today, Deanie’s Seafood’s three locations offer crawfish bisque using Deanie’s Proprietor Mrs. Barbara Chifici’s personal recipe based off the traditional River Parishes version of this soup. The restaurants also serve seafood & okra gumbo, crawfish étouffée, and a variety of seafood-focused soups du jour. We’ll walk you through how to make a New Orleans crawfish bisque.
Prior to the Civil War (1861–1865), crawfish generally were consumed in gumbo or crawfish bisque, a Creole soup featured in New Orleans restaurants and the homes and plantations of rural elite. According to “Louisiana Crawfish: A Succulent History of the Cajun Crustacean” author Sam Irwin, numerous references to eating crawfish appeared in newspapers starting in the 1890s. If you wanted to impress someone, you served crawfish, which was often featured on the Society Page.
Preparing crawfish bisque can be time consuming, especially when you make the stuffed crawfish heads, too. After a crawfish boil, the women start picking the tail meat out of the leftover crawfish and cleaning the crawfish heads to make the bisque. Because of the work involved in peeling crawfish, cleaning out and filling the heads with crawfish dressing, and making a stock from the shells, crawfish bisque in Louisiana is often made in large batches for families to fill up their freezers, as it freezes very well.
Bisques are traditionally thickened with rice, which can either be strained out, leaving behind the starch, or pureed during the final stages. But in Louisiana, we thicken our bisque with roux and then pour the bisque over rice, serving like you would a gravy.
How to Make Crawfish Bisque from Scratch
To make a bisque from scratch, first you start with a good crawfish stock. Crawfish stock is the perfect base for gumbo, étouffée, bisque, maque choux and more. To make the stock, save the leftover shells of bodies and heads after a boil and rinse them. Boil them in a large pot with water, onions, carrots and other veggies, such as potatoes and corn from the boil, for a few hours to let the flavors blend. You can freeze the stock for up to a year.
If using fresh crawfish, you’ll have to peel and devein about six pounds of unpeeled crawfish for one pound of tail meat. A pound of crawfish will produce a batch that will feed 4 to 6 people. For the stuffed crawfish heads, you’ll need to clean the heads of the crawfish, removing the whiskers, eyes, snout and fat, and leave nothing remaining besides the shell.
Making a Roux
Making a roux is a tricky business that requires near-constant stirring (with a wooden spoon) to make sure it doesn’t burn in the pan. Add two sticks of butter or about ⅔ cup of oil and let it get hot for about 2 minutes on medium high heat, then add ⅔ cup of flour and stir. Continue to stir, about 8 minutes. The mixture will get darker in color the longer you stir. You’ll want your roux to be a dark, chocolatey color before turning the heat off and continuing to stir until the roux thins out into a creamy liquid. Set the roux aside and let it cool.
When adding the pre-boiled crawfish tail meat (which will come later), you can choose to blend the crawfish tails in the blender for about one minute for a smooth texture bisque, or hand-chop crawfish tails for a heartier stew—you can even add crawfish claws for more flavoring. Your baked crawfish heads are placed into the bisque last. (More on those below.)
Stuffing the Crawfish Heads for Your Bisque
To save time, you can pick up crawfish heads as well as Deanie’s crawfish dressing at our seafood market in Bucktown and assemble at home. They’ll also ship these to you if you aren’t nearby.
If you’re doing it yourself, there are a variety of crawfish dressing recipes. Some call for crabmeat, crawfish tails and ham, a variety of seasonings like lemon pepper, Cajun seasoning, garlic powder, salt, pepper, cayenne, hot sauce and liquid crab boil seasoning to taste, plus Panko (breadcrumbs made from crustless bread) to bind the mixture.
Deanie’s crawfish dressing recipe is mainly crawfish tails that are blended lightly in the blender or food processor, breadcrumbs, eggs, and seasonings and spices.
Add ⅔ cups chopped yellow onions, bell peppers and celery (which we refer to as “The Holy Trinity”), tomato paste and about a tablespoon of chopped garlic to a skillet and stir until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in crawfish meat and ⅓ cup plain breadcrumbs. Seasonings are added next – ¼ tsp. Salt, 1 tsp. Cajun seasoning such as Tony Chachere, 1 tsp. Seafood seasoning (such as Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic) and ½ tsp. thyme.
The rinsed heads will be just a boat-shaped shell to hold the dressing. You can use your hands, a spoon or even a pastry bag to stuff the heads with the crawfish dressing. Once you have filled the heads, you will dredge the bottoms of the crawfish heads in flour and either pan fry or bake in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes so that they have a light crust over the stuffing. (Leftover crawfish dressing can be rolled in breadcrumbs to form crawfish balls and baked to add to the soup or serve separately.) Let the crawfish heads cool before adding to the roux.
Finishing your Crawfish Bisque
In a large pot, sautée 4 tbs. butter, 1 cup chopped onion, ⅔ cup celery and bell pepper, and 1 tbs. garlic, for about 8 minutes. Add your cool roux, which will now have thickened a bit, and stir together.
Add 3 qts. crawfish stock and stir. Let the roux come to a simmer, taste and add seasoning as needed – cayenne, thyme, salt, Cajun seasoning, a little hot sauce, bay leaves and tomato paste (which is optional). Stir and cover, and let simmer for an hour and 10 minutes.
Add 1 lb. of crawfish tails, stir to simmer for 3 minutes. Add stuffed crawfish heads and crawfish balls, and stir. Tip: Your bisque and stuffed crawfish heads will absorb more flavor if kept in the fridge overnight before serving.
Serve your crawfish bisque over rice and garnish with parsley and green onions—and, Viola!
If all that sounds like a bit much, your other option is to visit one of Deanie’s three locations in New Orleans and try our housemade crawfish bisque for yourself. Bon Appetit!