By James P. DeWan, Tribune Newspapers
February 27, 2013
Nothing in the world — not a mother's embrace, not flannel jammies — is as comforting as a warm bowl of thick soup. Nothing. And that's why today just may be the best day in the history of the world, because that's exactly what we're making: delicious thick soup.
Why you need to learn this
It's winter. It's soup. Follow these instructions and you'll be able to create exactly two gajillion soups. Literally. Two gajillion.
The steps you take
First, let's discuss this notion of "thick soup." Georges Auguste Escoffier, the father of classical French cuisine, had two basic categories of soup: clear and thick. Clear soups have a translucent, watery broth, like chicken noodle. Thick soups are opaque and, you guessed it, thick.
While Escoffier had several subcategories of thick soup, in the modern kitchen we've mostly narrowed it down to two: pureed soups and cream soups.
Both soups get their thickness from starch. The difference is that pureed soups are thickened with starch that comes from the main ingredient, like potatoes, winter squash or legumes (peas, beans, lentils, etc.). Cream soups, however, are made from vegetables without a lot of natural starch, like broccoli, mushrooms or asparagus. For these, you have to add the starch, most often in the form of flour.
One crazy thing: Cream soups don't have to contain cream; they just need to be about the consistency of heavy cream. In other words, "creamy."
Fortunately, the methods for the two soups are nearly identical; they even start the same way. Once you understand their differences and how they get thick, you can apply these methods to virtually any ingredient to get those two gajillion soups we mentioned.
The following methods will yield about 2 quarts of soup, enough for eight 8-ounce servings. Or 128 one-tablespoon slurps.
Start: Sweat some aromatics in about 3 ounces of fat (vegetable oil, butter, bacon fat — whatever you like) over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. The aromatics can be onion, or onion and celery, or mirepoix, the 2-to-1-to-1 mix of onion, celery and carrot. For 2 quarts of soup, use about 1 cup, total. Remember to season with salt.
Here the methods diverge.
(Thickened by starch from the main ingredient)
1. When the aromatics are soft, add your main ingredient. It could be a couple of pounds of sliced or diced potatoes or peeled winter squash (like butternut or acorn), or one pound of dried legumes — beans, split peas or lentils. Again, season with salt.
2. Add a couple of quarts of liquid: I prefer chicken or vegetable stock. Water works, but it makes the soup somewhat … watery. Go figure. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the main ingredient is tender. This might be 15 to 20 minutes for potatoes, squash or lentils, or more than an hour for dried beans. (You can reduce the cooking time of beans by soaking them in water overnight.)
3. When the main ingredient is tender, you can puree all or part of the soup with a stick blender. Bean soups are often only partially pureed, and you may not want to puree lentils or split peas at all. Potato and squash soups are lovely when pureed to silky smoothness.
(Thickened by adding starch)
1. When the aromatics are soft, add 1 to 2 pounds of your main ingredient, cut into bite-size pieces, and saute until tender, just a few minutes for something delicate like spinach, or up to 15 minutes for tougher vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower. Don't forget to season your vegetable.
2. Add about 1/3 cup of flour and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes to create a roux, equal amounts of fat and flour cooked together.
3. Add two quarts of liquid — again, stock or broth beats water. Simmer 15 or 20 minutes to get rid of any starchy, floury taste.
4. Puree the whole thing. For an extra-smooth soup, pass it through a strainer. (If this strains out too many solids, you can always stir them back in.)
5. Add just enough cream (if you want) to lighten the color and add richness. Don't use cream to adjust thickness. (Speaking of thickness: There's no right or wrong. Remember, though: You're in charge. If your soup's too thick, add liquid to thin it; if it's too thin, reduce it over heat.)
One last word about flavors: When you add your main ingredient, think about adding another flavoring ingredient along with it. For example, apples with butternut squash, chipotle with black beans, or ginger with carrot.
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