An elegant and luscious soup is the perfect way to celebrate the holiday season and pay tribute to the comforts of tradition.
When I was growing up in Atlanta, Christmas was about concerts. That's because my stepfather, Robert Shaw, conducted at least 12 of them every year, including a festival of carols with collegiate and children's groups and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and a "Messiah" with more than 300 people in the chorus.
Robert was Mr. Christmas. His album Christmas Hymns and Carols was the first classical record ever to go gold, and each year tens of thousands of people heard his concerts live, not to mention the millions more who listened in radio land. By the time Christmas Day rolled around, Robert was usually exhausted and only in the mood for a fairly quiet celebration.
My mother's family would come to our house for a mid-afternoon lunch, and the menu was always the same: Champagne, cheese straws, and smoked salmon, followed by lobster bisque, the perfect roast tenderloin of beef with sauce soubise, and creamed spinach with red peppers, with charlotte russe for dessert. Every place would have a handwritten card — and a Christmas cracker from England for us to pull and pop! There would be very special red wine for the grown-ups, and the children couldn't wait to get up from the table to play with the toys Santa had brought. The adults were surely delighted by this moment, at least until the year we knocked over the 16-foot tree and it came crashing to the floor. Nobody was hurt, but I only use small trees as centerpieces on my table now.
I've come to realize that the only constant in life is change, and my Christmases these days are spent either in New York or Los Angeles. If I'm in New York, I'll go to an early service of lessons and carols at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, and then to the house of a friend who serves a very festive dinner, down to the Christmas crackers. If I'm in L.A., I entertain at home. Last year we were 40, my adopted family of friends, and guess what I gave them? The menu from my Southern childhood. Regardless of whatever else changes, the food must stay the same. With each bite, I'm home again in Atlanta, age 10. And not one year goes by without me listening to Robert's Christmas album Songs of Angels at least two hundred dozen zillion times.
Now I'd like to share one of my favorite holiday recipes with you.
Happy holidays! Love, Alex.
Yield: 8 cups (6–8 servings)
8 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup diced onion
3½ cups very rich chicken stock
3½ cups milk
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon white pepper, divided
¼ cup flour
1 cup heavy cream
2 lbs. lobster meat (can be claw, tail, body, or fin)
10 tablespoons cognac, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
7 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1. Melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large (at least 2-quart) saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, 8 to 9 minutes.
2. In another saucepan over medium heat, warm the chicken stock and milk. Add 1¼ teaspoons salt and ½ teaspoon white pepper, and continue heating until the mixture is scalding.
3. Add the flour to the onion mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is cooked thoroughly but not browned, about 2 minutes. The mixture should be fairly stiff.
4. Add the scalding stock mixture to the onion mixture. Whisk vigorously to break up any lumps.
5. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then turn off the heat. (The soup base will have thickened to an appropriate consistency after boiling.) Stir in the cream and set the soup base aside.
6. In a large, heavy skillet, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Season the lobster with the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon white pepper. When the butter's foaming subsides, add the lobster meat to the pan. Sauté for about 1 minute, making sure the lobster is fully coated with butter. (All this happens fairly quickly: Be careful not to overcook the lobster.) Add ¼ cup cognac and sauté for 1 minute more. Remove from the heat, drain, and reserve the lobster and the pan juices separately.
7. Return the soup base to medium-low heat and add the remaining 6 tablespoons cognac, the lemon juice, garlic, tomato paste, tarragon, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine the ingredients, and then add the reserved lobster pan juices. Simmer the bisque, whisking occasionally, until fully heated through.
8. When you are ready to serve, add the sautéed lobster meat to the bisque and serve immediately. Do not let the lobster continue cooking, or it will become rubbery and tasteless.
Photo by Victoria Pearson