Saturday, January 05, 2013

Core Cooking: Soup

Since this week we're thinking about food planning (and I wasn't able to get a lot of actual planning done today, as we were getting ready for some excellent dinner guests), I thought it would be a good time to start talking about core recipes that I make.

When I talk to people about the process of learning to cook, one of the things I describe is how over time, you'll go from being tethered line-by-line to specific recipes to being more comfortable working on core techniques that you use again and again. It's like any other skill: you start off hugging the side of the pool, but before you know it you can swim with ease in the deep end.

I had an epiphany a few years ago during the great blizzard when Sharon and I were snowed in her apartment for about a week. Thankfully, we had a few issues of Cooks Illustrated and plenty of time to try a variety of dishes. First I tried their "Best Beef Stew," only a few days later to try a similar Dutch-inspired beef stew with beer, and a few other soups. Spending so much time making so many stews and soups, I suddenly realized that they all followed the same basic process:

  1. Brown the meat (if applicable) in the pan and remove
  2. Brown the onions and other aromatics (though I didn't really know what the term meant at the time) in the remaining oil and fat in the pot
  3. Add flour to the fat
  4. Deglaze the pot (either with wine or beer)
  5. Add stock, meat, vegetables and herbs
  6. Simmer until done
Since then, I've learned all sorts of new recipes, almost always varying this core process. 

For Boeuf Bourguignon, I brown big pieces of chuck roast (though I've found the best way to do so is to toss them with salt and oil and put them in a dry pan, rather than put them straight into one with oil) before adding in onion sliced with the mandoline. The thinness means that they'll initially brown quickly (adding more flavor) but disintegrate in the final liquid. A little flour adds some mouthfeel, and the red wine brings the flavor for the liquid. Put the chuck back in with big chunks of carrots and a bouquet garnĂ­ and simmer for a couple hours until the meat is falling apart with a fork and you're set. 

Our old favorite, Cheese Soup follows the process to the letter: no meat, but you sweat out the Mirepoix in oil before adding in a little four, heating, and then deglazing with chicken stock. Let it simmer for a half-hour, then add in a few more spices and the eponymous cheese along with some cream. 

Even our Chicken Pot Pie recipe (which will get its own post) mostly follows this process: sweat onions in lots of butter, then add flour and slowly brig in the chicken stock before adding vegetables and the already-cooked chicken, add the crust and pop it in the oven. 

But the beauty of this realization isn't just that it will help guide you through new recipes. No: the real value is that when you find yourself snowed into your apartment with 3' of snow on the ground and another blizzard coming, you can brown the leftover chuck roast from yesterday's dinner, throw in a chopped onion and some mushrooms (that you got for who-knows-what), finish off the last bit of red wine and beef broth in the fridge and know that what's going to come out when you're done won't feel at all like the crap you threw together in college.

In fact, you can even do this when you're not in an emergency situation, but that story will have to wait for another post. 

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