Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: Cream of ------- Soup

The following recipe is not precisely a new recipe in this sporadic series of postings I keep calling "Cooking to Save the Planet."  I've shared versions of it twice before--once, when I wrote about making cream of asparagus soup, and another time, when I blogged about cream of tomato soup.

Nor is what follows precisely a recipe at all.  As with the entire series of postings I've made about cooking to save the planet, it's a set of tips about how to make maximum use of ingredients that allow you to eat well fairly low on the food chain, with an expenditure of a minimum amount of energy, and a result that--I hope--will be good-tasting, nutritious, and simple to produce.  As I've noted from the start of this culinary series, I envisage these tips being helpful for people who really do want to cook good homemade meals for themselves and their families, but who have had little guidance in doing so, and who don't, therefore, have at their fingertips the kind of received wisdom many cultural traditions pass down as a matter of course, generation after generation, when it comes to kitchen matters.

And so I want to talk about cream of ------- (you fill in the blank) soup.   The recipe for asparagus soup to which I link above offers suggestions about how you can use the woody ends of asparagus that many people discard, turning them into a tasty and healthy soup with minimal effort.  I do precisely the same thing with the woody stalks of broccoli that also end up in many people's garbage bins, as they cook the more tender and easily used florets for various dishes. 

What I haven't spelled out in the recipes to which I link above are some of the basic principles underlying the production of cream of ------- soup.  These are soups that Steve and I eat routinely all year around, and which anyone can produce quickly with almost any vegetables that happen to be in season locally at various times of the year, and/or the scraps of vegetables that others might normally discard (e.g., the stalks of asparagus or broccoli).  The first principle that underlies all of these soups: to take a previously cooked vegetable, or one you're cooking on the spot for the cream of ------- soup, cook or heat it in some stock or water, purée it, and add milk and a thickening substance to create a cream of ------- soup.

I can't tell you exactly how much of what to use, since I am not sure what the "what" will be for you.  That is, I'm not sure what kind of vegetable you're going to be starting with, when you make your cream of ------- soup. 

For a vegetable that is waterier than other vegetables (e.g., pumpkin as opposed to broccoli ends), you'd obviously require less water or stock to create your soup.  As a very rough rule of thumb (and I'd encourage you to experiment and alter these proportions according to your own taste), to produce a soup to feed, say, four people, I'd start with about two cups of whatever vegetable.

And then I'd add a cup or two (less if the vegetable is watery, more if it's harder and drier) of water or, if you have it on hand, stock of some kind.  When we roast turkey, we almost always simmer the turkey carcass after we've eaten most of the turkey, with carrot, celery, onion, parsley, bay leaves, garlic, and thyme, and then strain the broth and freeze it in used milk cartons, for use in soups down the road.

As you begin to heat your broth or stock with your roughly chopped vegetable (roughly chopped, since you will be puréeing it and it you don't have to be finicky with what the vegetable looks like as it goes into the pot), you may wish to throw in a roughly chopped onion or two.  I almost always do this with any cream of ------- soup, though it is possible that, with some vegetables you choose, onion might not complement the particular vegetable you've chosen.  In many cases, I might also add roughly chopped celery--e.g., when I make cream of mushroom soup, I normally add both onion and celery.

Again, you'll want to consult your own taste.  Onion usually complements most other vegetables; celery can overpower, used in proportions that are too large.  See what works for you.  To almost any cream of ------- soup, I'll also add at this initial stage a few sprigs of parsley, stems and all, unchopped.

At the initial stage, I also add other seasonings (herbs and/or spices) of one kind or another.  Those will vary widely according to the type of vegetable you're cooking.  Cream of mushroom soup almost always demands, to my taste, a good bit of freshly grated nutmeg, and sometimes a pinch or two of dried marjoram.  I rarely cook any cream of ------ soup without adding, as well, a healthy dab of cayenne pepper.

Other vegetables--say, a carrot or pumpkin soup--may call for some pieces of fresh ginger added to the pot, and perhaps a pinch of cinnamon and/or allspice along with nutmeg, a spice I adore.  The cream of ------ soups that benefit from those sorts of spices also lend themselves well to curry, I find, so that the predominant flavoring may end up being curry, if that's what we're in the mood for on any given evening.

Whatever vegetable you choose, and whatever the seasoning vegetables, herbs, and spices you add, you need now to simmer the ingredients in your water or stock for about 15 minutes or so, until everything is tender.  That is, you need to do that if you are not using a vegetable you have cooked earlier in the week, and are now turning into soup.  In that case, you would want only to simmer the seasoning vegetables, herbs, and spices, and then add your pre-cooked vegetable to the pot.

When the vegetables are tender, you're at the stage of puréeing.  For this, there are a number of implements you may choose to use.  For years, I relied on a blender--the regular kind of blender with a large jar that sits atop a little wheel thingy which causes the blades to rotate.

The problem of these blenders is, of course, that you can end up with a horrible (and dangerous) mess on your hands, if you don't know what you're doing when you blend hot liquid in them.  And that's what you want to do at this stage: you want to take the vegetables and seasonings you've simmered in water or stock and purée them them as well as possible in the liquid in which they've cooked.

After years of tussling with a regular blender jar to make cream of ------ soups, I discovered from Steve's mother that there's a miraculous little device that may be called a blender wand (I think that's what she herself calls it), which goes into the soup pot and blends the vegetables right in the pot.  This device has little blades at the end of a wand-shaped instrument, whose speed can be regulated by a dial.

Ever since I discovered it, this miraculous little wand has been my new best kitchen friend.  I find all kinds of ways to use it in any given week (it's a whiz for making mayonnaise).  I will admit, though, that I've discovered through painful experience that, like any tool, it has to be used with respect and understanding.  If you don't pay careful attention to the speed at which you set it and the angle at which you're using it to purée your vegetables, you can end up with the same hot mess on your hands, face, and kitchen walls that an upright jar blender can produce.

For those inclined to less high-tech kitchen tools, the old-fashioned hand-operated French mouli works wonders for these purées, too.  I used to have an elderly friend (he's, unfortunately, no longer living) who would use nothing else.  Its drawback for me is that it processes smaller portions of vegetables at a time than the other two devices process--and I lack patience.

Okay, so you've now puréed your vegetable.  If the vegetable is of the woody sort--e.g., asparagus ends or broccoli stalks--you're now going to want to sieve out the woody bits.  You can do this in various ways.  I have one of those devices called a chinois or Chinese hat--a cone-shaped strainer that sits inside legs and fits over a bowl, and which has a pointed wooden implement to whirl around inside the strainer, to force pulp through the strainer's holes while retaining the unwanted woody pieces inside the strainer.

I've also used, and found perfectly adequate, a regular mesh sieve, the kind that has a handle, is bowl-shaped, and fits on top of a bowl.  To remove the woody bits using the sieve, simply pour your purée through the sieve, and then use the back of a wooden spoon rubbed across the vegetable material remaining in the sieve to push through as much of the purée as possible, while retaining the woody parts.

If the vegetable out of which you are making your cream of ------ soup has no woody material, you obviously won't need to go through the straining step.  For instance, if you make your cream of broccoli soup entirely out of the florets of the broccoli, you won't have to do any straining at all.  (And I should note that, when I do make cream of broccoli or cream of asparagus soup using the woody ends of both vegetables, I also often purée into the final mix some of the broccoli florets or asparagus tips that I have cooked earlier in the week, from which the woody ends came.)

Once you have your purée made (and strained, if necessary), the next step will be to add the ingredients you plan to use to thicken the soup.  Here, you have a number of choices.  One classic way to thicken a cream of ------ soup is to make a simple beurre manié and whisk that into the hot purée before the final step of adding some milk to the purée.  The beurre manié is softened butter worked into flour, to allow the flour to thicken the soup without forming lumps.

For a cream of ------ soup that has begun with, say, two cups of vegetables and a cup to two cups of broth, I might add about two tablespoons of butter to three of flour, work the butter with a fork until it is entirely amalgamated into the flour, and then whisk it into the hot purée mix before I add milk.  The whisking needs to be done thoroughly, to avoid letting any of the flour create lumps in the soup.

Alternatively, one can (and I often do) thicken a cream of ------ soup with a cooked potato and without flour or butter at all.  I've done this several ways.  I may add a leftover boiled potato to the purée, and then purée the potato in the vegetable mix until it is entirely amalgamated with the original purée.  Or I may cook a potato or two (often in its jacket in the microwave) as the soup ingredients cook, and then peel and add it to the original purée and purée the potato into the first mix.  I have also added a potato to the vegetables as they cook, so that the potato is puréed along with the other ingredients at the initial stage of blending.

For those trying to limit saturated fat in their diets, the advantage of a creamed potato as opposed to a beurre manié is, of course, that the former contains no fat.  The disadvantage is that you lose the gorgeous taste and mouthfeel of butter, which enhances many of the cream of ------ soups you'll want to make.

And now you're almost finished.  You have your purée made and you've added the thickening ingredient(s).  All that's left is to add some milk, or, if you prefer, cream, heat the soup to a point just below boiling, adjust your seasonings and add, if the soup seems to want it, a persillade or other toppings, and serve.

How much milk or cream?  That depends on how thick your purée is and how thick you want the final soup to be.  I'd add at least a cup, if I had begun with two cups of stock--perhaps more than a cup in most cases.

I have tried almond milk (the unsweetened variety, needless to say) as a substitute for milk proper in some cream of ------ soups, and it worked well, though it has a thinner taste and feel to it than milk itself, to my palate.  You can--you should--try what works for you.

And that goes for the vegetables with which you want to make your soup.  The variety I'm willing to try (and have tried) is wide.  When mushrooms are on sale at our grocery store, as they often are at the start of the week when the weekend mushrooms have begun to fade a bit, we buy several cartons of them, freeze them, and then turn them into mushroom soup down the road (that is, when we don't chop them into sauces).

I often make cream of carrot or cream of pumpkin soup in winter, usually adding either ginger or curry and some spices to the soup.  When we cook greens like turnip greens, collards, kale, etc., the leftovers often end up becoming cream of greens soup, usually with a good dollop of cayenne to kick up the earthy flavor of the soup.  Cream of broccoli, cream of asparagus, cream of tomato, cream of turnip: these and more are all staples of our table, and may well be our main meal, with bread and cheese and a salad on the side.

And what better way to assure that our diets contain a steady supply of fresh, local vegetables?  And what better way to beat the blahs that are down the road for many of us, as winter nears, than with a pot of steaming, fragrant soup, beautiful soup, soup of the evening?  With perhaps croutons or freshly chopped herbs or shavings of cheese sprinkled on top, to add interest and flavor . . . .

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