Monday, January 22, 2007

Smooth, Smooth Soups

As food groups go, soups rank somewhere between 10 and 11 on a scale of 10 for me. And I must admit, that ranking is based on the joy of making them, even more than consuming them. I'm infatuated with the enormous range available for culinary play. The trek from Chicken Noodle to Vietnamese Chicken Pho just tickles Big Mary's fancy in a way that should probably fall under the censorship of some culinary Big Brother.

So, I was secretly pleased when the stars aligned to create the "perfect storm" of soup demand at my corporate kitchen this week. The fact that it co-aligned with a slow week of business blessing me with the time to play was, well... inspired. Not only were we bestowed with the first snowfall of the season here in NYC, which just makes any soup taste better; but a favored co-worker was caught between the blender and a hard place as well.

The Uptown/Downtown but always Eastside Lady C is a co-worker who's lately been so knocked about by Life that even the cynical hard edged heart of Big Mary has softened. In the past two weeks, our former party girl has had to quit smoking, undergo major dental surgery and consequently has been forced on the wagon and off solid foods for 3 weeks. Always a Sister of Charity under my apron, Big Mary has rushed in to fill the void by both making daily smooth soups and upping my alcohol consumption to keep the cosmos in balance.

Much as I "qvell" at the potential of making vast quantities of soup, my taste runs more to the chunky, chock full concept of soup kettle than the Parisian, restrained, elegant smooth puree. So I was giddy at the challenge thrown down by my dentally challenged compatriot. The week had many treasures, one of which I actually wrote down as I created. The others are included as cooking thoughts.

Puree of Cauliflower Soup
1 medium head of cauliflower (about 1 1/2 # after cleaning)
1 cup sliced leeks (pale green and white parts)
1 parsnip
Clean one medium sized cauliflower, break it down into small pieces and set aside. (Mine was about 1 1/2# after cleaning.) Slice pale green and white parts of leeks, wash very well and set aside. Peel 1 medium parsnip, cut out any woody core, rough chop and set aside. In a medium saucepan, warm some oil and a bit of butter. Add leeks and sauté gently until limp, avoiding any browning. When soft add a generous splash of white wine, 1 bay leaf, the cauliflower and parsnips. Next add enough well flavored chicken stock (homemade preferred, but in a pinch Swanson's Low Sodium isn't too bad) to just cover the vegetables. When the broth comes to a boil, add about a teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme and reduce heat to a slow simmer. A bit of salt and pepper should go in as well. Continue to cook the soup until the cauliflower and parsnip are soft. Cool slightly and strain, reserving liquid. Put vegetables into a blender with some of the liquid and puree until smooth. Add the rest of the liquid slowly until everything is smooth. When ready to serve, rewarm the soup and add half & half (about 1/2 cup) to taste. Add a fresh ground nutmeg to taste and adjust salt and pepper. Serve in warm bowls garnished with chives.

In addition, the Lady C (and the Handsome Venezuelan, by default and overflow) enjoyed the following:

Sweet Potato, Apple and Bacon Soup
Dice up peeled sweet potato, peeled Granny Smith apple, chopped fresh thyme leaves, sliced proscuitto and cooked bacon and simmer with chicken stock until soft. Next, puree until smooth. Personally I add a healthy spoonful of Garum Masala to this mix, while cooking. Serve in warmed soup bowls.

Lentil Soup
Sauté a sofrito of celery, onion, carrots, red pepper and garlic. When translucent add chicken or vegetable stock and simmer until soft. Feel free to add a generous handful of cooked bacon if desired. Add lentils (about 50% of the veg mix), chicken or vegetable stock, a generous spoon of tomato paste and simmer until soft. Puree thoroughly and add more stock to taste.

Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Soup
Drop two medium eggplants on a grill and char them over low heat. Transfer them to a baking sheet and continue to roast them until collapsing soft. Strain about 8 canned tomatoes, (or peeled Roma tomatoes in season) and roast in a 450* oven until charred. Combine roasted tomato flesh with eggplant flesh avoiding the seeds and skin of both. Sauté 1/2 cup leeks in olive oil and 1 small chopped fennel bulb (or half a large one) until softened, add 1 tablespoon minced garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Deglaze with about a cup of dry white vermouth. Add 1 cup tomato puree, 1 red pepper (roasted & peeled, seeds removed) and 1/4 teaspoon saffron. Cover with strong chicken stock and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until fennel is cooked soft. Puree in a blender and return to saucepan to rewarm. Right before serving, toss in a handful of fresh chopped basil. Serve in warm bowls with shredded Parmesan Reggiano as garnish.

Contented Eating,
Big Mary