From the Beginning
Sure-fire steps to soup-making success.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
No one really knows when soup was invented. Historians claim boiling food dates back to 5000 B.C., and evidence of soup-making has been found in Egyptian tombs. Early ancestors must have seen the advantages of boiling, which, unlike fire, provides efficient “full contact” cooking at a low, steady and repeatable temperature.
Surely it wasn’t long before someone noticed the aromatic broth resulting from boiling meats, grains, herbs and veggies and said, “Hey, that looks good!”
It’s no wonder that soup has since been a culinary mainstay around the globe. Simple to make and serve, soup can be made year-round from local ingredients. Soup extracts flavor and valuable nutrients from otherwise inedible plants and animal parts like bones, and makes economical use of excess or leftover food so everyone from thrifty homemaker to five-star chef profits.
More good news. Since it’s nutritious, filling and easy to digest, soup is beneficial to the sick as well as the healthy. In fact, the restorative nature of soup is credited with the invention of the restaurant. In 1765, when a Frenchman named Boulanger began selling soup to combat exhaustion, he called his shop a restaurant, after the French word restaurer, meaning to restore.
The final two steps make the difference between ordinary soup and the extraordinarily rich-and-creamy variety of fine dining establishments.
Early versions were simple broths served with bread – called a “sop” – to soak up the liquid, giving birth to the term “soup.” As soup-making diversified, it was Antoine Carême, architect of French haute cuisine, and later, Auguste Escoffier, father of classic French food, who divided soups into modern day categories like bouillon, consommé, purée, bisque, cream and velouté.
One doesn’t have to be a food historian or dietician, however, to know that soup nourishes the mind, body, and soul. More importantly, it doesn’t take a superstar chef to whip up a flavorful bowl of homemade goodness.
There are five basic steps to making great soup: onion/garlic, wine, veggie/spice, blend/strain, and cream/garnish. The variations are endless, but the process is constant. Here’s an example for sweet potato and red pepper soup.
In a large stockpot over medium-low heat, gently sauté one onion, two shallots and four garlic cloves (all finely chopped) in 3 tablespoons olive oil and 3 tablespoons butter until softened and translucent (about five minutes).
Add 1 cup white wine, and simmer over medium-high heat until almost all the wine has evaporated, burning off the alcohol while leaving its flavors behind.
Add two to three red bell peppers and one pasilla pepper (each cored, seeded, and chopped, about a pound total), three large sweet potatoes (peeled and chopped, about 2 1/2 pounds), and enough good quality, low sodium stock (veggie or chicken) to just cover the vegetables (about 1 1/2 quarts). Stir in the spices, in this case two large pinches of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a tiny pinch of cumin, a little cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, curry powder, sage and a pinch of brown sugar. When the soup begins to boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer until the vegetables are very soft.
Although the soup could be served at this point, the final two steps make the difference between ordinary soup and the extraordinarily rich and creamy variety of fine dining establishments.
Turn off the heat and let the soup cool slightly. In small batches, purée an equal amount of stock and vegetable solids in a blender for 3 minutes (fill only halfway and cover with a kitchen towel because hot liquids can be explosive when blended). Add more liquid from the pot (or extra stock/water) if the mixture doesn’t blend freely. Pour the puréed soup through a fine metal mesh strainer/sieve, using the backside of the ladle to gently push it through to a clean saucepan, leaving behind any undesirable solids and fibrous materials.
To finish, stir in 1/2 cup heavy cream, 2 tablespoons butter, and for true mouth velvet, 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese. Mix in a tiny splash of balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon white truffle oil (if available), and salt and pepper to taste. Gently reheat the soup to serving temperature, ladle into pre-warmed bowls (two minutes in the microwave), and garnish with bacon bits, paprika, and crushed almonds. Enjoy with fresh crusty bread and a glass of wine.
Note that this recipe holds the key to a multitude of soups. Simply repeat the process with different vegetable, spice and garnish combinations.
Replace the sweet potatoes-peppers with butternut squash-parsnips, and garnish instead with chive oil, crushed almonds and crispy fried sage leaves. Or how about celery root, potato and leeks (white and light green parts only, chopped and rinsed), with salt, white pepper, and freshly ground nutmeg, garnished with toasted pine nuts, celery leaves, and chives? Same procedure, new versions of yum.