Sunday, September 30, 2012

Soup and Simplicity

You really can't get more basic than soup and, through a unique set of circumstances, I've found myself exploring the creative possibilities of a stock pot and a variety of ingredients almost on a daily basis. I've also come to realize the true value of even a rudimentary knowledge of cooking. Being able to look at a pantry of ingredients and making the most of what you have is a skill that will become very important in the coming years.

And making the most of what you have is what soup is all about.  I start all soups pretty much the same way and then vary the finish with what I have on hand or what I'm try to achieve. Coat the bottom of a pain with oil (olive, sesame or butter) and dump in an onion (red, white or green) and start it over medium heat (that's 5 on a number dialed).  There's some potential in your combinations even here and your decisions largely depend on taste. Olive oil is healthy and flavors vegetables well.  Sesame has a nutty, asian flair that also works with potatoes. Butter has a horrible reputation but adds a richness that's hard to replicate otherwise.

The choice of onion gets interesting as well. Reds have some heat and green onions taste, well, green.  White onions are your workhorse, general purpose onion and good for about anything that an onion is good for.

So a little bit of oil and the onion of your choice cooking over medium heat.  Call it sauteing or sweating or whatever but the goal is to break down the onion and other ingredients just enough to release the flavors.  Onions usually take the longest so you always start them first. You can add other ingredients to the cooking onions as you finishing slicing, dicing or grating keeping in mind that you don't want to cook everything to death.  Most recipes suggest cooking the vegetables until tender or translucent.

So let's do a beef stew.  Get the onions going and add a pound of beef stew meat. If you have mushrooms, a cup or so should go in now (chopped or not)  I add a couple of shakes of cajun seasoning at this point and then brown the meat. If you have fresh parsley and rosemary handy, add a sprig or two of parsley and chop up a twig's worth of rosemary and toss it in.  The meat will make it's own gravy of sorts and if you want to get fancy you can add a cup of red wine and let it reduce by half (which means boiling away the liquid until only half remains.)

While the meat and onions and wine simmer away, slice up a pound of potatoes (golden yukons are my personal favorite or the little red ones work well), about three carrots (or have a bag of baby carrots handy) and about three stalks of celery.

Now, with all this chopping and slicing, try to keep everything a uniform thickness.  This ensures that everything cooks evenly.  I tend to toss the carrots, celery into the meat and onions to let the flavors mix  for a minute or two and then add beef broth, about two quarts.  Your can use cans, cartons or bouillon cubes and water.  Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a simmer (That's 3 on a numbered dial) and add the potatoes. Cook until everything is tender and salt (carefully) to taste.

That's a basic beef stew.  You can add to or take away ingredients due to availability or a whim and you'll still have beef stew.  Want chicken soup?  Switch out the beef for chicken and the red wine for white and maybe the potatoes for cooked rice and you have chicken soup.  Want it thicker or with more body? Add about six or seven teaspoons of cornstarch to a cup of cold water and mix thoroughly before added slowly to the soup towards the end of cooking. From this point on, the longer it cooks, the thicker it will get.

Want to make it creamy?  At the very end, add a quarter to half cup of cream or half and half and bring it back to a simmer. This works especially well with the chicken soup.  Go extra heavy on the mushrooms and you have cream of mushroom soup. Drop the cream and add extra rice, sausage and maybe a can of Rotel and you are really close to a jambalaya.

Or keep it really simple and fast:  Cut up half an onion, add two or so cups of broth and throw in some rice noodles . Eight to twelve minutes later you have lunch and it's not ramen.  You could even cook the base  ingredients at home and make the broth in the microwave at work.  The noodles get soft by soaking, not boiling so it makes for very convenient, fast food. Fast as in fast. Not fast as in fast food.

The possibilities are literally endless.  Crank up your knowledge of spices, work on your flavor combinations and don't be afraid to experiment and you'll soon have a recipe box worthy of passing on to children.