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Soups: When finesse, technique hit the bowl

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 8:54 p.m. CDT

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“You can always judge a restaurant by its soup.”

The words my father had said a hundred times to me growing up ricocheted around my head as I glanced up, red-faced, at Claire, the head teacher of the culinary school I was attending in London a decade ago. She was peering over my shoulder into my pot of consommé on the stove. I had whisked in the egg whites to collect the impurities, but the resulting “raft” had not clarified the broth as it was supposed to. Claire’s expression betrayed nothing, but it was as clear as my broth was not that I had failed consomme.

I went on to become a pretty good cook, sailing through sauces and pastas. But I never entirely recovered from the idea that fancy soups – restaurant-worthy soups – were somehow beyond my reach, best left to real chefs and, in the case of consommes, best left to top chefs.

Over the years, I’ve stuck with rustic soups. My favorite is Italian wedding soup, loaded with lemony chicken meatballs, pasta and greens. More often than not, I make the unfortunately named garbage soup, concocted with whatever leftover beans, meat or broth we happen to have on hand.

Chefs, of course, have long known that soups are deceptively simple. The 19th-century French chef Auguste Escoffier declared that “of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.” But it is also, he noted, essential to any chef’s repertoire because “soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.”

Clearly, I couldn’t let one failure a decade ago stand in my way. This past fall I was inspired to try again when I stumbled across a promising technique that promised to yield fabulous soup without stress or, frankly, too much work. It was a chilled carrot soup from chef Thomas Keller, published in Saveur magazine. Instead of using carrots and stock, Keller simmered thinly sliced carrots in carrot juice, allowing it to evaporate and concentrate. The carrots, a little cream and more carrot juice were then pureed for an intense, almost caramelized flavor and served with a creamy mousse.

Even I could do that. And I did. The soup was delicious: rich, velvety in texture, with an almost impossible-to-believe carrot-ness. I have no desire to pick a fight with a star chef such as Keller. But it was too sweet for me to eat a whole bowl. It would have been perfect served in an espresso cup as an amuse-bouche. It was divine smeared on a plate as a sauce for a piece of grilled fish, which is how I served it.

Still, the idea of using and reducing juices to intensify and finesse flavors was brilliant - and, it turns out, pretty common among chefs. Austin Fausett, executive chef at Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Va., makes his carrot soup by cooking carrots and other vegetables in vegetable broth, then reduces carrot juice and adds fresh ginger juice. That adds intensity without overwhelming sweetness, as well as a subtle punch. The method works well with beet, apple or corn juice, too.

I don’t have a juicer. Although I was keen to improve my soups, I wasn’t willing to buy or store any new appliances. With advice from Jonathan Seningen, executive chef at the Catering Company and Elizabeth’s Gone Raw in D.C., I started again. I sautéed onions, seared pancetta and toasted curry powder. I cut the carrots into a small, uniform dice; that is essential for the vegetables to cook evenly. Next, I cooked the carrots in a little oil in a big soup pot. The goal was to soften them but also to let some of the water cook out so their flavor became concentrated. If you cook the vegetables only in broth, as most recipes recommend, you are adding liquid to the pot.

While the carrots – and diced apple – were cooking, I put a cup of carrot juice on the stove to boil and reduced it much further than Fausett does for his soup. That would give me that carrot-y intensity but not too much sweetness. (Later, I tweaked the recipe to use the carrot juice reduction at the finish.) Once everything was ready, I pureed the lot with some salt to season.

The soup was table-ready straight from the blender. But to add a little more restaurant finesse, I pushed the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. The texture was rich, the flavor was the essence of carrot. My husband said it easily merited $12 as an appetizer.

Fresh-pressed juice can be expensive, however. I wondered whether I could get that luscious consistency and flavor without forking over $7 for a quart of it. With Seningen again as my guide, I experimented with celery root (celeriac), a winter vegetable that I love but that frequently ends up mashed with potatoes.

The first step was to figure out how to draw out the vegetable’s subtle flavor. Seningen suggested adding a sachet of sweet and savory herbs and spices. We settled on bay leaf, thyme and cardamom pods.

Seningen also recommended that I cook everything separately, to ensure that nothing was over- or underdone. I listened, mostly. (Such advice makes sense for chefs, who have someone else washing their dishes.) I cooked onions over low heat, making sure they didn’t pick up any color.

Then, in a separate pot, I cooked the diced celery root with the spice sachet until it was almost tender before adding the pears. Once everything was soft, I added the broth and cream.

Cream is probably a chef’s No. 1 go-to weapon. Seningen recommended using a quart for this recipe. I’m sure the result would taste delicious, if I didn’t know what was in there. But I wanted a soup I could feel guilt-free about eating, so I used mostly broth and one cup of cream.

With crisped prosciutto and diced apple as garnishes, the soup was a brilliant balance of sweet, salt and creaminess.

Dad, let me know when you are free for dinner. My restaurant is open for business.

Black, a former Washington Post Food section staffer, is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. She blogs at www.janeblack.net.

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