Welcome back to ChefTalk's on-line classroom where we have been studying the basics of cooking! Our last 2 class sessions focused on stock-making which is one of the most important culinary building blocks. Now that we know how to make both white and brown stock, what do you do with it once you have made it? The answer is that there are a lot of uses for stock. One major use of stock in the professional kitchen is for soup making. Stocks form the base of a multitude of soups.
Soup is immensely popular. It is warm and nourishing. It is perhaps the ultimate comfort food complete with childhood memories of blustery winter days. It is the age-old remedy of choice for soothing a sore throat. Entire cookbooks are dedicated to soup (check out Daily Soup Cookbook The Soup Bible). Each country has its own distinctive soup(s) ranging from Chinese hot and sour to Polish duck blood soup. From the four star restaurant to the country diner, soup is featured on just about every menu.
Thus begins our exploration of the wide world of soup. In today's class, we will focus on the clear or broth-like soups. In future classes, our attention will shift to thick soups, international and specialty soups, and cold soups.
CLEAR SOUP: Clear soups run the gamut--from the rustic and homey chicken soup to the most sophisticated consommé. What separates clear from thick soups is that clear soups are comprised of a clear brothy liquid with things floating in it, like pieces of vegetables, meat, fish, rice, pasta, etc. while thick soups have items ground into a stock. The amount of garnish (the professional term for the "things" floating) in a clear soup varies considerably. Some are virtually garnishless while others are loaded with solids.
The unquestionable granddaddy of clear soups is the consommé. This is a soup that is challenging to make, expensive, and frequently graces the menus of the finest deluxe restaurants. A consommé is a very flavorful and aromatic liquid that is perfectly clear. Often times it also has a beautiful amber color.
What is unique about a consommé is how it is made. A consommé, like many other soups, begins with a stock. In a separate container (ideally a food processor), ground lean meat, vegetables, and egg whites are mixed to form what is professionally referred to as a clarification or raft. This rather unappetizing mass is responsible for the success of your consommé. It needs to be first completely mixed into the cold stock. This murky liquid is then placed on a moderately hot burner and slowly brought to a boil. It is important to periodically stir the bottom of the pot to insure that part of the raft does not stick to the bottom and burn (which ruins the consommé). As the liquid heats up, the "raft" will start to coagulate which means that it will start to come together and slowly rise to the surface. Once the raft begins to form and rise, it is imperative that it is not stirred as this could break the raft which could then in turn ruin the consommé. Once the consommé comes to a bare light boil, reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the quality of the stock you start with.
Let me explain why this murky raft creates such a perfectly clear soup. As the raft comes together and rises, it cleans up the stock by trapping all the impurities in it. Once the stock has come to a boil and the raft has risen to the surface, the soup should already be perfectly clear. The consommé is then gently simmered as long as it takes to intensify the flavor. Longer cooking intensifies and deepens the flavor. Sometimes, the entire clarification procedure is repeated in which case the consommé becomes a double or triple consommé and is then accordingly more intensely flavored.
When the stock is cooked long enough, it must be strained. This is particularly tricky as the consommé must be gently ladled from the pot without disturbing the raft any more than is necessary. The ladled consommé must be strained through a strainer lined with a coffee filter or clean cloth napkin. This will ensure that the consommé is perfectly clear. If there is fat floating on top of the consommé, it must be removed (easily done by chilling the consommé and simply removing the solid fat from the top). Consommé can be garnished with a wide array of solid ingredients (garnishes) just prior to serving.
THE OTHER CLEAR SOUPS: The other main division of clear soups is the broth-like soups. These soups are less codified than consommés. They come in an endless variety. These soups are generally made using a clear and flavorful stock as the base (remember that slow simmering and frequent skimming will ensure a clear stock). Often, certain ingredients, like vegetables or meats are cooked gently in a small amount of fat (butter, oil, rendered bacon, etc.) until they begin to soften. This initial cooking improves the flavor of the finished soup. The stock is then added and the whole is brought to a simmer and cooked until the vegetables have released their flavor and have softened considerably. The finished soup can be garnished with chopped herbs, diced tomato, etc.
Having just explained this technique, I would like to add that there are plenty of exceptions to this model. Often these clear soups are the result of tradition or regional cuisines. Sometimes they are not made with stock as in the case of the original French Onion Soup, or the stock is made at the same time as the rest of the soup--the way most chicken vegetable soups are made. What sets these soups apart from consommé is the broth soup's less extravagant preparation as well as also having less depth of flavor and clarity in the finished soup.
That's all for today's class. In our next class session, we will explore thick soups.
SOUPE CULTIVATEUR serves 4
1 1/2 qt chicken stock 3 strips bacon, cut into this pieces 2 T olive oil 1 C diced peeled carrot 1 C diced peeled turnip 1 C diced well washed leek (do not use the dark green) 1 C diced peeled potato 1 branch fresh thyme (or 1 t. dried leaf) 1 bay leaf 2 T. chopped parsley 8 slices French Bread lightly toasted in oven 1/4 c. grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese
Over moderate heat, cook bacon and all vegetables except potato in oil until soft. Add stock, thyme, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, add potato, and simmer until potato is tender. Remove thyme and bay leaf. Taste for seasoning. Add parsley. Serve toasted bread and grated cheese on the side.