Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cold (Hearted) Soup

I have a fairly poor track record with soup - it never seems to taste quite right or have the ideal consistency. The real kicker is that it always seems to take quite a fair amount of time, too. Chopping, peeling, stirring, sweating, blending, simmering, reducing ... all that for a thin, tasteless result? It's disheartening, to say the least.

The apex of my struggle with soup was the infamous "butternut squash incident" last fall. I had in my kitchen 2 butternut squash and a giant bag of apples from Honey Pot Hill Orchards, and I found what I thought was the perfect recipe on the Food Network website: Butternut Squash and Apple Soup Recipe by Michael Chiarello.

On the way home from work, I stopped off at Porter Square to visit Tags Hardware and buy a large soup pot and an immersion blender. This was the only successful portion of the evening. I was helped by a fabulous (and I do mean fabulous) man who was very into my cause and passionate about all things food; he talked at length (...) about his cooking show on the local TV channel. Most importantly, however, was that he alerted me to the current deal on Le Creuset cookware: because it was an unpopular color (which I happened to love), the kiwi green 8 qt. stock pot was only $50. I nearly fainted. He also pointed out his favorite immersion blender which I happily added to my cart.

I then proceeded next door to the Shaw's Supermarket to buy about $40 worth of spices in addition to the other basics I needed. I then waited 20 minutes for a cab because although my apartment was only about a half a mile away, I had too many heavy bags to carry to make the trek alone. By the time I got back to my place, I was exhausted, starving, and out about $150. However, I was convinced this soup would be gorgeous and that Matt would be thoroughly impressed when he got home.

I spent a good hour prepping the ingredients, including peeling and cubing 6 cups worth of butternut squash and 3 cups worth of apples, chopping and rinsing 2 leeks, and toasting and pulverizing my own spice mixture in a coffee grinder. The kitchen was hot and covered in debris, but I was convinced the results would make each step of my fairly epic journey worthwhile.

The leeks were in, the garlic was in, and then the butternut squash and apples were in, all nesting happily in my fantastic new pot. I then read the next line of the recipe: "Stir in the Toasted Spice Rub and cook briefly to toast it, about 1 minute." Happily, I took what I had made and dumped it in the pot, and in horror, immediately realized what I had just done.

If you take a look at the recipe, you'll see that the auxiliary recipe for the Toasted Spice Rub yields about 1 cup. In the ingredients list for the main recipe, you'll note that the soup only calls for 2 TEASPOONS of said Rub. However, when rushing about the kitchen and glancing back and forth from the recipe to the food, one doesn't necessarily check the amount in the ingredients list. Why would they have you make 1 cup of the Rub when you only need 2 teaspoons worth? Why, Michael Chiarello - WHY?!

The ingredients in the pot were pitch black, every nook and cranny caked with that infernal Rub. The kitchen reeked of fennel and coriander. This was the exact moment in which Matt came home. "Jesus, what's that smell?" he asked. I didn't cry, I didn't give up - I got angry. I was determined to make it right. I was not about to let $150 and 2 hours of my time go to waste.

So, I dumped the contents of the pot into a colander and ran it under cold water for about 10 minutes, stirring it with my hand. I then left that to drain and thoroughly scrubbed the pot. After drying the pot and returning it to the stove, I added back the squash, apple, and leeks, and continued as if nothing had gone awry.

Even after adding about a cup of heavy cream (which the recipe didn't even call for), it was still spicy as hell. I finally admitted defeat. I watched Matt choke down each sip with the loving determination any terrified pseudo-house-husband would, and I vowed I would never make the same mistakes again.

I've tried all sorts of soups since then: Celery and Potato, Silky Cauliflower Soup with Parmesan Crisps (at least the crisps were good ...), Cannellini Bean Soup with Kale, and so on. Still, the only soup I'd ever made and liked was matzo ball soup, and I make the broth from boullion cubes and the matzo balls from a box (for the record, I think Goodman's is better than Manischewitz). How is it that I can make things like beef brisket and pork chops taste good and I can't manage to make a simple cup of soup? I began to think that maybe I just don't even LIKE soup.

Yet I keep on trying, probably because it's inexpensive (as long as you don't set out to make your own goddamn toasted spice rub) and easily frozen and reheated later. Also, it seems that whenever I have a lot of one ingredient in my kitchen that I want to use up, most of the recipes that I find are for soups. This is exactly how I ended up taking on Chilled Carrot-Ginger Soup this weekend.

I had an impressive collection of local organic carrots in my refrigerator that I wanted to use (compliments of Boston Organics, of course), and I remembered that one of my first positive soup memories was the result of a special lunch with my mother at The Coach Grill when the soup du jour was carrot dill. I was convinced I wouldn't like it, but I was pleasantly surprised - it was creamy, smooth, and delicious.

I found a recipe online by a woman who calls herself the Cowgirl Chef. The picture was beautiful and the ingredients were simple, not to mention the fact that I had them all in my kitchen already. I also wanted a recipe that could be eaten hot or cold, considering that Boston was in the midst of a suffocatingly humid heat wave.

I hesitated when the recipe called for water as the main liquid, as opposed to something with more flavor like vegetable stock. Also, it seemed like a little much to add enough so that the carrots would be submerged by a couple of inches. However, since I seem to have such poor soup instincts, I decided to follow each step to the letter ... and what I ended up with was watery, tasteless soup. I tried adding salt, pepper, a tablespoon of honey, and even the juice of one orange, but nothing seemed to make much of a difference. I kept the soup at a simmer thinking that reducing it couldn't hurt, and I turned to a discussion board I frequent and asked the resident chefs what they would suggest for improvement. I received many helpful suggestions, the best of which (I thought) was to throw in a boullion cube. Genius! Another suggested adding curry, since it would enhance the flavor and work well with the already-present cumin. I added both and reduced the soup for about 45 minutes. The results were fantastic. I had FINALLY made a paletable soup.

Unfortunately, when I had it for lunch at work the next day, I discovered that it's not quite as good cold as it is hot. However, I'll settle for this one small victory, and maybe with these new flavor-enhancement tricks under my belt, the next soup I try will be even better.


(photo from Cowgirl Chef)

2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced
1 box (or two cans) vegetable broth or stock
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 tbs fresh ginger, grated or finely diced
the juice of 1 orange
1 tbs olive oil
1 tbs butter
1 tbs honey
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp curry
salt & pepper
cilantro for garnish

Add the olive oil and butter to a stock pot over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and sweat until translucent (approximately 10 minutes). Add the carrots, ginger, cumin, curry, and salt & pepper, and stir to coat. Cook for about 2 minutes.

Add enough stock to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil. Once a boil has been reached, lower the heat and simmer for about 45 minutes until the carrots are tender.
Turn off the heat and blend until smooth. Add the orange juice and honey and and blend again. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve hot or cold with cilantro as garnish. A dollop of sour cream, yogurt, or creme fraiche might also be nice.

- M