Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Tale of Three Soups

The basic technique for cooking every soup on earth--from creamy coconut milk-based curries to hearty beef stews to light, all-vegetable affairs--is the same. First, if your soup includes a fatty meat, brown it in oil and remove from the pan. Second, heat some fat in the pan and brown your aromatics--onion, carrots, celery, garlic, and the like. Then add the rest of your solid ingredients--any browned meat, peppers, potatoes, herbs, etc.--deglaze the pan with a small amount of liquid if desired, and add your liquid. Cook until done; taste for seasoning and add any last-minute additions--a splash of cream or vinegar, a chiffonade of basil, quick-cooking chicken or greens--shortly before serving.

There are variations, of course--some soups are blended, some left chunky; some call for reserving some softer vegetables until the end, or tossing in pasta halfway through to cook in the stock--but the basic method is the same for every soup under the sun. To demonstrate, here are three soups I made just this week.

Soup 1: Provencal Pesto Soup (Soupe au Pistou)

(Photo and recipe, slightly adapted, from Gourmet)

For soup:

1 large leek (white and pale green parts only), washed and thinly sliced (2 cups)
1 celery rib, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large thyme sprig
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound Swiss chard, stems cut into 1/2-inch pieces and leaves coarsely chopped
8 cups vegetable stock
2 cups thawed frozen edamame (fresh soybeans)
1/2 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup medium pasta shells

For pistou:

1 small tomato
1 cup packed basil leaves
1/2 cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup coarsely grated Gruyère (3 ounces)


Cook leek, celery, carrot, and thyme sprig in oil with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a 5-to 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables brown and stick to bottom of pot, 10 to 15 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes.

Add potatoes and chard stems with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up brown bits.

Stir in edamame, zucchini, green beans, pasta, chard leaves, and 1/4 tsp salt and simmer, uncovered, until pasta is al dente and vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Discard thyme sprig.

Meanwhile make pistou:
Heat a dry small skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat until hot, then char tomato on all sides. Core tomato, then purée with basil, parsley, and garlic in a food processor. Add oil and cheese and blend well.

Remove soup from heat and stir in half of pistou and salt and pepper to taste. Serve soup with remaining pistou.

Soup 2: Creamy Carrot Soup with Caramelized Carrots (the same one I served with arugula pesto a couple of weeks ago)

For the soup:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 medium organic carrots, the freshest and smallest you can find peeled if desired, trimmed, and sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick coins (about 3 cups)
3 small to medium leeks, trimmed and thoroughly washed, white and light green parts cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick coins (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
6 to 7 cups homemade chicken or vegetable broth

For the caramelized carrot garnish:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 carrots, peeled if desired, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 teaspoon finely shredded (chiffonade) fresh sage leaves, or to taste (I used more)
1 scant tablespoon sugar


In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, warm the butter and oil over medium heat until the butter is melted.

Add the carrots and leeks. Sauté the vegetables for about 10 minutes, or until they have begun to soften.

Add the potato, sage, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes.

Stir in 6 cups of the broth. Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer, partially covered, for 20 to 25 minutes, until all of the vegetables are tender.

Remove from the heat and let the soup cool for 10 minutes. Purée the soup in a blender, in batches if necessary, or in the pot using an immersion blender. Return the soup to the pot and reheat on medium-low until heated through.

To make the caramelized carrots:

Heat the butter and oil in a medium-size skillet or sauté pan placed over medium heat.

When the butter is melted and begins to sizzle, stir in the diced carrots and shredded sage. Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the carrots are tender and lightly browned.

Sprinkle with the sugar and cook briefly to allow the sugar to caramelize. Season with a little salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

To serve, ladle equal portions of soup into six bowls. Garnish each serving with a spoonful of the caramelized carrots and serve immediately.

Soup 3: Thai-Style Chicken Soup with Basil (adapted from Gourmet)


2 fresh lemongrass stalks, root end trimmed and 1 or 2 outer layers discarded
2 large shallots, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 qt rich and flavorful chicken stock; or 5 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth diluted with 3 cups water
1 (14-oz) can diced tomatoes in juice, drained, reserving juice
2 oz tamarind from a pliable block (a 2-inch cube), chopped
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
2 (2-inch-long) fresh Thai chiles, thinly sliced
2 fresh or frozen Kaffir lime leaves
1 (2-inch) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced
1 lb chicken thighs, skin and bones removed
1/4 lb snow peas, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/3 cup packed basil leaves (preferably Thai)


Cut off and discard top of lemongrass, leaving 6-inch stalks, then finely chop. Cook lemongrass, shallots, and garlic in oil in a large heavy pot over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until well browned, 12 to 15 minutes.

Add stock, reserved tomato juice, tamarind, fish sauce, chiles, lime leaves, and ginger and simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.

While soup simmers, freeze chicken just until slightly firm, 20 to 30 minutes, then thinly slice crosswise.

Strain stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large saucepan, pressing hard on and then discarding solids. Return to a simmer and stir in chicken, diced tomatoes, snow peas, and basil. Gently simmer just until chicken is cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with additional fish sauce and salt over cooked jasmine rice.

Three very different soups, each delicious in its own way, three nearly identical methods. Once you've mastered one soup, you've mastered them all.

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