Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Famine Soup: Alexis Soyer and the Soup Kitchen

In the rich and often fanciful world of food and foodies, Famine Soup hardly sounds like a an inspiration for tonight's dinner. It isn't. But it does provide some food for thought and a window into the political world of food and famine.

The soup kitchen, which thankfully multiplied across America during the Depression Era helping to feed the legions of unemployed and destitute, was actually first introduced as a relief effort in Dublin during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1840's. After the potato blight ruined three consecutive harvests in Ireland between 1845 and 1847, the British Prime Minister, Robert Peel, introduced the Soup Kitchen Act in January of 1847 which mandated the setup of soup kitchens throughout all the voting districts of Ireland. By the end of the year, there were over 1200 such kitchens operating, serving a bowl of soup for 1 penny.

And the effort did have its celebrity chef participation:
Alexis Soyer, certainly the most fabled chef and restauranteur in England during the middle of the 19th century, was a Frenchman by birth, trained in some of the best establishments in Paris. By the time he was 17, he was already a master chef with 12 assistants! At the ripe age of 21 (in 1831), he came to London, and quickly built a reputation as a flamboyant and gifted chef among the nobles and landed gentry. In 1837, he was recruited by the new Reform Club, which was to be the most elite gentlemens club in all of London, to help design the kitchen and be the chef de cuisine. He had a knack for innovation and introduced countless gadgets and cooking equipment. So, when he heard about the plight of the Irish in the winter of 1847, he asked for a leave of absence from the Reform club and went to Dublin to lend his talents and expertise to the cause. His soup kitchen became a model for all others. It was designed as a state of the art facility, which at its peak, served 5000 or more bowls of soup a day!

His signature dish? Famine Soup - yes, it was actually called that.

Soyer is one of my favorite characters in the history of Food. I hope to have more about him in future posts. And there will be more about soup kitchens, too, an important chapter in the history of food, relief and politics of charity.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Celery Root - In Season, and in the Soup

Celery Root or Celeriac...
is a gnarly old thing easily passed up in the veggie display on account of its formidable ugliness and its often relatively steep sticker price. Definitely don't demur - take it home and you'll have enough to transform some of your everyday favorites into elegantly flavored new dishes.

Celery root is nutty and slightly sweet with a hint of celery flavor. The tough outer skin peels with a strong vegetable peeler to reveal a white turnip-like interior. Cooking time is similar to other root vegetables like turnip and sweet potato, though shorter than beets and white potatoes. The French love their celeriac au gratin, in addition to making a rich and creamy potato and celery soup. Northern Europeans make a delicious celery root salad by boiling and slicing the root, then dressing with onions, parsley and a sweet sour sauce.

For American palates, using less goes a long way. So, if you encounter celeriac in a recipe, try halving the amount until you know what you like!

And now that you've bought this thing, here are a few suggestions:

New Mashed Potatoes
Add a diced quarter of a celery root to your usual amount of potatoes. Potatoes take 20 minutes after water boils, so add the celery root 5 minutes into the cooking. Drain, steam, then mash using a hand mixer or ricer with 2 tbspns butter and up to a 1/4 cup milk or half n half until fluffy. Season with a few fresh gratings of nutmeg and server hot.
Wonderful with Swedish meatballs, roast chicken or duck, or perhaps roast beef.

Celery Surprise Roasted Root Vegetables
Half or quarter 4 small red potatoes with skins on, peel and cut a white turnip into 1/8 (slices look like half moons) and large dice half a celery root. Also slice a large carrot into 1 inch rings. Melt a tablespoon of butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss vegetables with 4 whole cloves of garlic, with skins on, with the oil/butter mixture, salt, and pepper. Put into a baking dish (higher than wide so flavors mix), and drizzle with juice of 1/2 a lemon. Bake 30 to 45 minutes, until vegetables are slightly crisp on the outside and tender.
Serve with roast chicken.

Soups with just a hint of nutty celeriac
Now you have a quarter of the root left. Just enough for either the Smoky Split Pea Soup posted earlier or, saving best for last, a delicious creamy Potato Veloute. Click on the link for this wonderful luncheon soup, best served only with a light salad of baby lettuces with a delicate lemony raspberry dressing and fresh pepper.

Potato Veloute

The Broth
2 cups whole milk (or 2%)
2 cups water
1/4 whole onion, studded with a clove
1 Bay Leaf
Warm the milk and water in a saucepan with the onion and bay leaf. Just before it starts to boil and foam, turn off heat and allow the mixture to steep.

1/2 lb potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 leek, slice lengthwise and diced (white and tender green parts only)
1/4 celery root, diced
1 to 2 tbsp butter
Prep vegetables. Melt butter in a medium soup pot, and sautee
leek 10 minutes until slightly softened over medium to low heat - leek will finish cooking in the broth. Add potato and celery root and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and a dash of white pepper.

Ingredients to finish the soup
Have ready
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup minced parsley

To make the soup, remove bay leaf and onion from the steeped broth and add the warm broth to the sauteed vegetables. Bring to a boil. Simmer gently on low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, or until vegetables are very tender when pieced with a fork. Using a hand blender, puree the soup until completely smooth and creamy. (Alternatively, blend in a blender in several batches and return to the the soup pot).

Reheat the soup, being careful not to boil. Taste for seasoning. Slowly add in the creme fresh or cream, stirring constantly. Re-taste and correct pepper, if needed. Serve warm, not piping hot, with minced parsley.

A light salad of baby greens is best. Try a fruity dressing of raspberry vinaigrette with a dash of lemon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Smoky Split Pea Soup with Butter Toasted Croutons

Even in the southern California where I live, there are crispy Fall days when you can't get enough of being outside. For us, it was leaf raking and Fall tree pruning, and after a few hours I sneaked away to make a soup for ruddy cheeks and chapped hands!

Tonight's menu was a split pea soup with gently smoked pork chops, served with a garnish of fresh parsley and buttery toasted croutons, accompanied by a glass of ice cold Kirsch. Since I lightened the soup considerably from the traditional recipe, we could guiltlessly enjoy a dessert of sauteed apples and vanilla ice cream, with Lenotre's incomparable caramel sauce!

How the soup was lightened? The secret to avoid that thick as pea soup grog, which tires the tummies with all the mushy starch, was to use fewer split peas, proportionally more vegetables, and smoked pork chops instead of the usual ham bone, gelatinous pork hocks and smoked sausage. For meat, I chose a small amount of salt pork to help season the vegetables as they sauteed, then gently browned the diced pork chops before adding to the soup to help maximize their flavor. A 1/2 glass of white wine towards the end also helped to enrich the flavor without adding heaviness.

And, here is the recipe, for 4:

The Broth
6 cups water
1/2 onion studded with 2 cloves
Generous tsp of salt
Bay leaf
In a small saucepan, bring the water to boil with the half onion, cloves, bay leaf and salt. Simmer a few minutes, turn off and set aside for later.

1 cup Green Split Peas
1 cup diced onions
3/4 cup diced carrots (~ 2 carrots)
3/4 cup diced celery (1 to 2 stalks)
3/4 cup diced leek (1 leek)
3/4 cup diced celery root (1/4 the root)
Wash and pick over split peas. (Though rare nowadays, dried beans can have a stone or two mixed into the package!) Put beans with double the amount of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer two minutes and turn off heat. Let stand stand for at least 30 minutes while the rest of the ingredients are prepped.
Dice onions and reserve separately from other vegetables. Next, dice and set aside altogether the leek, celery and carrots. Large dice the celery root (see my separate posting about this marvelous vegetable!) and keep apart from the other vegetables.

1/4 cup salt pork, diced
3 smoked pork chops
In a medium soup pot, sautee the diced salt pork over low to medium heat to render as much of the fat as possible. Add a little light oil if the pork starts to stick. The rendering can take a good 15 minutes, so its good to start this before once the peas are up and before the veggies are prepped.
The smoked pork chops can be lightly browned once the soup is constituted.

3-4 thick slices good crusty bread, 1/2 inch cubes
2 tbspns butter - 1 tbspn light olive oil
1/4 cup minced curly parsely
Croutons can be made while the soup is simmering. Don't wait to the last minute - they take a good 15 minutes to toast up. A heavy cast iron skillet is great for toasting croutons. Ready the pan early by heating with a coat of good Start with a cooking spray is fine.

light olive oil, as needed
1/2 cup white wine
salt and freshly ground pepper

Assembling the soup
Add onions to the rendered salt pork and continue cooking over medium heat until the onions are translucent. Lower heat slightly, add the leeks-carrots-celery and sautee 8 minutes. Season with a sprinkle of salt. Remove and discard the studded onion from the seasoned water, rain and rinse the pre-soaked split peas, and add peas and broth to the vegetables along with the celery root. Bring the soup to a boil, partially cover and reduce heat to a lively simmer. Soup should cook at 30 to 40 minutes.

While the soup is cooking lightly brown over moderate heat the diced smoked pork chops in a pan coated with a little cooking spray. Immediately add the meat to continue cooking with with the soup.

Once the meat is in, begin preparing the toasted croutons. Melt butter and oil together in the microwave. Toss the cubed bread in a preheated seasoned iron skillet. As the bread begins to get dry and color, drizzle on some of the oil-butter, and toss to coat. Continue to add drizzle, turning and tossing the bread cubes so that all sides get brown and crusty. Once bread is golden brown, lower heat or set pan to the back of the stove while the soup is finished.

Raise the heat on the soup to a rapid boil, add 1/2 a glass of white wine or more. Let the soup bubble while you finely chop the parsley.

To serve, ladle a good helping of mostly meat and vegetables into each bowl, season with fresh pepper and parsley and then add a ladle of broth. Bring the skillet of toasted bread to the table and spoon a handful onto each bowl - croutons should sizzle as they land! Don't forget the kirsch!

Monday, December 3, 2007

About this Soup Blog!

This blog is brand new. I'm hoping the content steadily increases, and that eventually a team of soupers gathers to keep the content fresh and the excitement rich. For the start of the blog, building content with recipes will be my main focus. Recipes are important, and I feel strongly about how the printed recipe is structured. I often take issue with the standard format in today's books: ingredient lists in order of use, usually with prep instructions imbedded in the list. Instructions follow, but while cooking, the chef is reading back and forth from the top and bottom, gathering and prepping while managing the cooking. A bit of a visual juggle!, and one that puts the energy emphasis on cooking as a series of sequential operations, instead of giving us the time to sharpen our sensory skills so we can actually improve our dishes.

Every once in a while, a cookbook author will exhort the users to first read the whole recipe through to pre-master the cooking event, and lots of magazine articles around the holidays attempt to comfort the daunted hostess with minute by minute stepped programs. But the typical sequence still doesn't allow time to test and sample ingredient choices along the way, and most often the endproduct is artless.

A case in point: the instuctions say, 'saute vegetables 5 to 8 minutes then add broth'. If broth is frozen (like so many of the homemade stocks we love to use), the 5 to 8 minutes doesn't give enough time to thaw, heat and sample, deciding whether, say, to add a little chicken stock or water to the beef!

So, I like to see a printed recipe as a tool to help the chef manage the quality of the finished dish, not necessarily just steps to completing the dish. Preparing a dish successfully is managing the ingredient selection and prep, then devoting all energy to the actual cooking. The printed recipe should clarify and assist this process.

With soups, it's particularly apt to adopt this approach. Soups are made of solids, liquids and garnishes. I always like to start with the liquids. Choose your broths or water, then heat, season and taste so they are ready when you need to add them. Recipes calling for water often benefit from a studded clove and bayleaf, or a bit of celery, onion, peppercorns and bayleaf poached in the water for flavor and fragrance, but then removed before using the water. A few sprigs of parsley and a small sliver of lemon zest can also really sparkle the water for other fish and dellicate vegetable soups, where a stronger vegetable broth just wouldn't do. Vegetables are easy to prep as a group, using separate small bowls to gather different ingredients to be added at the same time. Once done, all the messy skins and shavings can be shoveled together into the pre-compost tin, and the workspace remains clean and orderly. Garnishes, too, have their own process. Beginning early will give you the time to lavish on decorative or time-intensive special touches. Even meats and beans will benefit from separate preparation, and the final combining of flavors is more controlled.

Hope you can look at the recipes here with these ideas in mind. I'd love to hear some feedback from chefs or home cooks who have thoughts or advice on how to structure recipe.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

No Tears Diced Onions

There's rarely a soup without the onion - so its best to perfect the dicing of one of soups most frequent starters.

Slice off the stem end, then clean any loose strands from the root end. Don't cut the root end off.
(Instructional videos on YouTube show chefs coring the stem and root ends with a paring knife - not necessary to dirty a second implement - just cleanly slice both ends.)

Half the onion through the two cut ends.
Now the peeling is easiest - peel the outer brown skin and the first inner layer together - they both come off easily with the help of the tip of a knife.

With the onion face down on your cutting board, make thin slices from the stem end almost the whole length of the onion to the root. Don't cut through the root end, though, or your onion will fall apart.

Last, make thin even slices perpendicular to the first cuts to achieve a fine dice.

Perfect, fast; no tears!

Winter Lentils

This is an update to a traditional European lentil soup made with brown lentils, vegetables and plenty of sausage. The original was often too thick, heavy and starchy after the long simmering of the lentils, and leftovers were a trial.
By simmering the lentils first in seasoned water, less starch leaches into the soup once they're added. The vegetables, when sauteed, taste richer and end up taking the flavor lead, as they should.

The Broth:
2 cups of stock (beef, chicken or vegetable)
3 cups water
Thaw and heat all liquids. Adjust quantities of flavored broths to your taste. Broth should be light, without a strong beef or chicken imprint, and undersalted. More seasonings are later!.

1 onion, diced
1 onion, whole
1 leek
2 carrots
2-3 celery stalks
2-3 medium red potatoes
1 cup lentils
Peel and small dice all vegetables except potatoes, which should be peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
Prep lentils by rinsing under cold water.

Seasonings and Other Ingredients:
3 Tbsp. Light olive oil and butter
Pinch of Thyme
2 Cloves
Cider Vinegar
Salt and Fresh pepper

Garnish Meats:
Kielbasa, veal sausage, German style frankfurters, good quality beef franks or other smoked sausage

Making the soup:

Add lentils, whole peeled onion studded with 2 cloves, bayleaf. Cover all ingredients amply with water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 20 minutes.

While lentils simmer, heat oil and butter (roughly half and half) in heavy bottom dutch oven or soup pot. Over medium to low heat, saute onions 5 minutes. Add leeks, continuing to saute at least 5 to 8 minutes. Then add carrots and celery, again for 5 minutes. Lastly, toss in the potatoes to coat with the oil. Sprinkle vegetables with thyme, salt and pepper, stirring with a wooden spoon to warm the seasonings and release the flavors. Taste to correct seasoning.

Remove studded onion from the lentils and drain in medium strainer. Do not rinse lentils.

Add stock and water to the soup pot, bring to a lively simmer and add drained lentils and bayleaf. Continue cooking 20 to 30 minutes - not more, or the vegetables will loose their fresh taste. Before bringing the soup to the table, stir in a teaspoon to a tablespoon of cider vinegar, then a pinch of sugar if needed. Be careful not to overdo the vinegar, particularly if the sweet-sour is a newer taste for your family.

If serving the soup with meat, heat the franks separately in a saucepan barely covered with water. Smoked sausage, and alternatively the franks, should be pan sauteed to remove excess fat, turning them often until they start to brown. Before serving, cut the franks in half and thick slice larger sausages. Serve meat mixed in a shallow serving dish with plenty of mustard and crusty bread to go around.