The seasons change quickly on the Prairies. Eight weeks ago was a beautiful fall with the trees full of leaves. The leaves have fallen with the temperatures, and we are sitting around -20 degrees Celsius today. One of the best opponents of the cold is a warm, slow soup. I had the inspiration for this soup on one of my cross-country road trips from Winnipeg to Alberta during Christmas break in my college days. We stopped at a Safeway in Regina for nourishments for the second half of the cold journey. In the convenient Safeway cafe, I tried a bowl of their roasted red pepper bisque – it was so good, but as always, I knew that I could make a version at home that was healthier and probably tastes better. My starting point has always been the recipe on Kerala Kitchen. Though my version is slightly different from Kerala’s, I feel I owe her props as I always find myself referring back to her recipe when I make it. I’ve probably made this 20 times by now, and here is the method I’ve come up with.
Wikipedia says Bisque is a French term for a smooth, creamy, highly-seasoned soup, classically based on a strained broth (coulis) of crustaceans. It can be made from lobster, crab,shrimp or crayfish. Also, creamy soups made from roasted and puréed vegetables are sometimes called bisques, and that is where is one fits. More accurately ‘Bisque’ is a method of extracting every bit of flavor from imperfect crustaceans (or vegetables) not good enough to send to market. During the final stages, a bisque is simmered in aromatic ingredients, pureed and followed by the addition of cream. My bisque fits this description perfectly, only mine is vegetarian.
Start by getting the veggies roasting: lay aluminum foil over a sheet pan and preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice 1 medium red onion into large chunks – they will hold up to the roasting better this way. Place the garlic on the pan with the onions and 4 medium-sized red peppers. There are different ways to roast peppers, and for the oven I find the best way is to keep them whole. I coat everything in olive oil and throw them in the over for about 45 minutes. Turn the pepper every 15 minutes so they are evenly blackened. While that is in the oven, thoroughly clean and dice about 2 cups of leeks and throw them in a pot on medium-high with butter and olive oil. Sweat them down a bit and cook until they start to caramelize. At this point add about 4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock – reduced salt is always better.
Once the vegetables are roasted, place the peppers into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about 10 minutes. The steam trapped inside of the peppers will help the skins to detach. Add all the onions, garlic (may need to be peeled, but should be soft inside), and the tomatoes to the pot. After the peppers have become cool enough to handle, seed them and peel off the skin. It will peel off easily if they’ve been cooked properly. There is always some sweet red juice leftover in the bowl or wherever you peel them – Do not waste this! – A bisque is all about extracting the most flavour from the ingredients, and that juice is full of flavour!
Add everything to the pot and simmer. Seasoning is pretty simple here: 1-2 tsp dried oregano, black pepper, 1 tsp red chili’s (careful here), 2 tsp sugar. Save the salt for after you puree – the flavour always changes after that step, and depending on the stock you used, you may have enough salt. Puree the soup in a blender 2-ladelfulls at a time. Keep the lid on the blender but leave the cap off and cover with a cloth when you start it. Steam alway escapes quickly when blending anything hot and the burn risk here is pretty high. Blend the whole soup, re-combine, taste and season accordingly. The consistency should be quite thick, but not as thick as a pasta sauce. If you are going to freeze for future cold days, then do so now. If you want to eat it all right away, add a handful of chopped basil. This is the only recipe where I have substituted freeze-dried basil and it worked nicely – its cheating in the winter months.
Serve it up in bowls, and garnish with a 1 tbsp of heavy cream and a little basil. This will always come out a little different, but what you are looking for is an even balance between the sweetness of the peppers and freshness of basil. The base flavours are layered with tomatoes, onion and leeks, and the heat is a nice touch if you like.
I think after I came up with this, my mom made it for a soup contest and won some kind of prize, so that’s pretty great.
The process takes about 1/5 hours and serves 5-6 people. I like to eat it alongside an open-face sandwich with salami, havarti, and cucumber – heaven.
Use lots of cream – enjoy your life.