Chow Town

A culinary question: Lobster soup, bisque or cappuccino?

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.”

This week’s culinary question: Is it a cappuccino if I put lobster in it? I awoke suddenly in the middle of the night this past weekend and a question arose, that for some reason not only puzzled me but kept me awake for several more hours. Waking up in the middle the night is not abnormal for this chef. Losing sleep over puzzling food questions or food history is nothing new. Staying up all night researching a recipe or trying to perfect the perfect dis? No problemo.

The question that came to my mind was, “Can I call my lobster soup tasting course ‘lobster cappuccino’ even if it contains no coffee or frothy milk? Is it a sin for me to put lobster, cream and spices into a small cup and still call it the historical hot beverage name?”

Cappuccino has a long history in Italy and is named for the color of the foaming, milk laden espresso drink because the appearance looks like the robes of the ancient cappuccino monks. Cappuccino actually means “hoods” in Italian. The cup is usually small; 5 ounces or less. Unlike America's version of a latte or some other ridiculous name from well-known coffee houses, the cappuccino stands alone as the iconic drink Italians enjoy before 11 a.m. Actually, it could be considered a sin to drink cappuccino after 11 a.m., as espresso is the preferred drink, sometimes even before bedtime.

I called some local chefs and scholars and asked them the same question. Their answers varied but most agreed; it is a bisque. Hmmmm...Perhaps I may have an issue here.

I immediately called my mentor, Chef Roberto Donna, in Washington, D.C., and asked the same question. He laughed and asked if I had gone crazy. He has been calling the same version of this dish “cappuccino” for 30 years. Thank God, I was feeling better.

I brought the question to my dining room customers and their answers varied. Some said keep it simple, call it a bisque. Some loved the idea of “cappuccino” but all agreed, they loved the dish. Is this going anywhere? Do I have an clear answer yet?

My lobster cappuccino, or bisque, is very simple to prepare and, with some sweet creamy foam on top, can be an excellent beginning to any meal or simply served in a bowl as a main course with some crusty Italian bread.

Here is the original recipe that I served at The James Beard House in 1995 and to this day, have not changed one single ingredient.

So whether you call it lobster cappuccino or lobster bisque or lobster soup, this chef is sticking with lobster cappuccino. End of story. Thank you Shakespeare!

Lobster Cappuccino

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 cup cooked lobster meat

1 quart heavy cream

2 ounces cream sherry

1 teaspoon chopped tarragon

3 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup pancetta chopped

1 cup milk

In a large saute pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the minced onions and sauté until translucent and golden, about 10 minutes. Add

the lobster meat, cream, sherry, and tarragon. Season with salt. Bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, in a separate pan, melt the remaining butter. Whisk in the flour to make a roux. When the soup comes to a simmer, stir in the roux. Simmer for 10 minutes, until the soup is thick. Sauté the pancetta in a small pan until crispy, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

If making the milk foam, steam the milk using the steam wand of an espresso machine.

Place the soup into small cappuccino cups and top with a bit of foamed milk or whipped cream and top with the crispy pancetta.