About that soup

This is a combination of a reconstruction and a revision of the soup I made for Paul. It happened almost two months ago, so I don’t promise to be remembering everything accurately, but this should produce decent results. The goal was to make something rich, tasty, and soul-warming that would be a loose, easily-swallowed purée, without using any sodium. My goal here is to fix the mistakes I made then and help my sweet Blog Dad recreate the soup.

Mind you, all signs indicate that my blog dad is a good cook who doesn’t need the advice for beginners found below, nor can I stop myself from getting a bit preachy on the subject of food and cooking.

Roast all of the following. The meat will take the longest and benefit most from a righteous browning, so give it a head start. The quick and dirty way is to use an insanely hot wok and some peanut oil. Scoot a wokload’s worth around until it’s good and brown, dump it into your stock pot, and repeat in batches until you’ve gotten through it all. A roasting pan in a 500 degree oven or under a broiler ought to do the job, too, but it’ll take longer.

  • four oxtails, banged up a bit so that the good bits will get out
  • a head of garlic
  • a strong white onion (more if wimpy)
  • several stalks of celery, whacked into hunks
  • several carrots, similarly whacked (washing or peeling these guys before whacking is a good idea, too)

Transfer the roasted stuff to a large pot and cover with a few inches to spare with some combination of water and red wine. I used a 4Q saucepan but wished I’d opted for a big stock pot for reasons that will become apparent.

Rehydrate a big heap of dried shiitakes, preferably using some red wine as part or all of your rehydrating fluid. Put in a glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, bring to a boil in the microwave, and set aside.

Add ginger. I’m pretty sure I used ginger, but I’m not positive. My usual method would be to bang up several inches’ worth of coins with a meat tenderizer and then toss them into the pot.

The usual function of salt in recipes, without going into elaborate food-chemistry that I’d muck up anyway, is to “pick up” the other flavors. The usual elements to choose from for accomplishing this are sugar (in mushroom soup? no! ick!), salt (against the rules here), umami (a flavor the Japanese recognize, easily added with the dreaded monosodium glutamate or with more effort with the delicious kombu seawood, but this too involves some sodium), which leaves us capcaicin (the good stuff in pepper and chilis), and acid (typically vinegar, wine, lemon juice, other citric stuff, fruit). Therefore:

Add a stiff jolt of chili-orange oil and another of balsamic vinegar. Chili-orange oil is a staple from Barbara Tropp’s China Moon Cookbook, which belongs on every cookbook shelf. I might be persuaded to post the recipe here if you can’t google it up and leave me a comment to the same effect. To get vaguely the same effect without going to that much trouble, add a bunch of orange zest, a bunch of red pepper flakes (and szechuan pepper if you have them), and a bunch of sesame oil.

Add a whole bunch of pepper. I used freshly ground black Telicherry peppercorns, Szechuan peppercorns, green peppercorns, pink peppercorns, white peppercorns… A big melange. The more variety, the better. We’re trying to pick up the flavor without salt, remember.

It’s about mushrooms, stupid! Add a dash or three of truffle oil. Don’t have any? Try shaving a truffle in, or toss in a few morels. Don’t have truffle oil, truffles, or morels? What kind of kitchen are you running, anyway?

Don’t even think about button mushrooms. What’s their point? No flavor. Creepy spongy texture. A pain to wash all the dirt off. Not even cheap. They’re the iceberg lettuce of the fungus world. (Iceberg lettuce is good on a fried-egg sandwich. That’s probably about it.)

The usual green suspects. No self-respecting mushroom soup would leave the house without a bunch of green herbs. I’m pretty sure I used several bay laurel leaves (perhaps even harvested from the tree near my deck), some freshly crumbled sage and rosemary, a wad of dried parsley, and probably a healthy scoop of thyme and marjarom, or at least I should have.

Whatever else. I’m probably forgetting a few things. A nice addition, if I’d had some and weren’t on Atkins, would have been a hunk or two of potato. Potatoes are a great addition to soups that will be puréed, because they give off all kinds of starch that will thicken the final results nicely. They’re also good as chunks in non-puréed soups, of course.

Simmer away. Pastry chefs are famous for infuriating amateurs who ask how long to bake things with, “Until it’s done.” They will not elaborate on that, because it depends on a zillion things and there’s just no point trying to enumerate and control all the variables when it’s plainly obvious when a thing is underdone, overdone, or done-done. Soup is the same way. Keep it going until it tastes good and everybody’s starving. I’d figure on at least an hour. However, Cardinal rule #1: simmering does not mean boiling.

Chefs auditioning for a restaurant gig will at some point be put in charge of a stock, and if that stock gurgles away at even a low boil, they will not be hired. There are a zillion good reasons for this, which all boil (as it were) down to this: you’ll torture the food and kill the flavor. For some of the ingredients, boiling them breaks down their structure and causes them to contribute things you don’t want.

Dig out the hunks. Remove the chunks of tired vegetables, ox tails, bay leaves, and all the other chunky things. The easiest method here is to strain the whole mess, keep the liquid, and dump the chunks. All these things, if they’ve been doing their jobs, have been giving up their flavor for the soup. They have nothing left to offer, so toss them. If you really want any of these things in your final product, you should start fresh with new ones. The exception here would be that if you added a potato above, you’d want to keep that to thicken the stock. It wasn’t there for flavor in the first place.

If you hate soup, it’s probably because you or the people who have made you soup didn’t know the previous two rules: don’t boil, and do throw out the tired stock-fodder and put in new stuff for the soup.

Puree. This step is what that Cuisinart is for. Run the mushrooms (and their liquid) in batches with some stock until you have the whole thing puréed up to a nice consistency. If it’s too runny, you could thicken it with a slurry of corn starch and cold water. Be sure to cook out the starch, stirring under fairly vigorous heat until the texture starts to get transparent-ish. This soup will never be transparent, of course, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. It will take several minutes once it has reached temperature for the miracle to occur; don’t lose faith.

Heat through. Don’t listen to Goldilocks. Soup is supposed to be HOT. It should be on the edge of burning your mouth if you’re not careful. If you don’t have to blow on the first few spoonfuls, you didn’t get it hot enough. Tepid soup is nasty. The product lost a lot of heat in the Cuisinartage, so put it back. Now’s also your chance to adjust the seasonings. That usually means add some more salt and acid, or it occasionally means soak up some of the excess salt and acid. In this case it means to add more of whatever it needs.

Serve. Blog Mom Kimberly was the one who put her finger on what was missing: sherry or marsala or similar. We added a dash of sherry (Emilio Lustau “Los Arcos,” if you care) to each bowl at table, and I recommend doing the same. Some of us like more than others, so call it a condiment. A nice fresh grind of pepper won’t hurt and looks nice besides.

Other condiment suggestions. Some sliced green onions or minced chives. A swirl of sour cream or plain yogurt or creme fraîche would be nice. Anything that goes in a soup makes an appropriate garnish, so some frizzled garlic or ginger would go nicely, or some more truffle shavings. A biting cheese such as parmesan reggiano or aged gruyere would be lovely (if salty).

Variations for those who have no trouble with sodium or swallowing:

  • Add back some of the oxtail meat after puréeing the rest and heat through.
  • Add a generous jolt of mushroom soy, or a few teaspoons of (say it with me!) kosher salt.

Warning! This is a reconstruction and revision from memory composed at the keyboard, not in a kitchen. I’ve probably forgotten something horribly important, and if you discover what it is, please for the love of soup leave me a comment!

Guidelines for beginners

Blog Dad Paul’s not-so-recent entry about a visit to my house (and a priori my new and improved kitchen) was touching. I vowed immediately to post a thank-you reply on MY blog with a reconstruction of the recipe.

So it’s been six weeks. In my blog, that’s almost prompt.

First, we must contemplate some rules for beginners, especially to cooking from Erin’s “recipes,” if you can call them that.

Trust yourself. I don’t usually measure stuff. You’ll have to use your judgment. As Dr Spock said, you know more than you think you do.

You should always taste the ingredients as you go. This doesn’t apply to things like raw chicken, but it does apply to raw garlic, onions, and pretty much everything else. Yes, you know what an onion tastes like. But do you know what thisonion tastes like? Different kinds have different characteristics, and they all differ throughout their life cycle sitting around in your pantry. If you make a habit of tasting a nibble of just about everything you put into a dish, you’ll automatically start adjusting your amounts of things and realizing what other things might be needed. You’ll also notice over time how much things that you think are the same aren’t. For instance, white and yellow onions are pretty much interchangeable in recipes in the sense that either one will end up tasting good, but they’ll taste good differently.

As for that raw chicken or fish or whatever, smell it. What are you smelling for? Preferably not much. Most raw critter flesh (yes, including fish) shouldn’t smell like much of anything, and that more that it does smell like something, the more you should be worried. You’ll get better at this over time. For now, just start adding to your own personal smell memory library.

Use kosher salt. No matter what. Throw out that other crap you have. Run it down your drain to help combat any tree roots that may be attacking your sewer. Use it to de-ice your driveway or to melt ice in your ice-cream freezer. Use it to kill slugs and snails in your garden. Use it in craft projects. Do not let it near any of your food. It’s nasty. If you don’t believe me, taste a dab of it on your finger tip, then do the same with kosher salt. You’ll become a believer. If you need culinary authorities to convince you, get either of the late Barbara Tropp’s fantastic books (Modern Art of Chinese Cooking is the bible of Chinese cuisine for Westerners, consciously modeled after Julia Child’s famous volumes on French cuisine for Americans; China Moon Cookbook is a collection of recipes developed at the late, great China Moon Cafe in San Francisco) and look up “salt” in the index.

Oh, all right. You may also use sea salt that is uniodized, or fancy-schmancy uniodized designer salts that you can buy in high-end stores. For extra credit, build up a salt collection, get in that habit of tasting your salts regularly, and you’ll become a more intelligent user of salt. I don’t generally give salt quantities, except when I’m afraid people will use too little, but it’s important to note that my quantities will always assume kosher salt or state otherwise. If you’re substituting some other kind of salt, you’ll need to adjust. No, really; this is true.

Use the damn salt. Unless you’ve specifically received medical advice against consuming normal amounts of sodium, as Blog-papa Paul has, you should stop worrying about the sniveling amounts of kosher salt I recommend and instead start worrying about why you consume so much sodium in crappy prepared foods, when you could instead be making much better food for yourself.

While we’re at it, salted butter is the only stuff I even buy, unless I’m committing the rare act of baking from a recipe that calls for unsalted. I don’t believe in margarine, and I especially don’t believe in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (e.g. Crisco), which are basically a clogged artery waiting to happen and taste nasty besides. I have successfully made many a pie-crust and cookie using chilled butter instead of shortening.

Don’t fear your food. Food can smell fear a mile away, and it will eat you alive. Cooking is not that hard. You’ll be fine. If you’re not sure, try something, or look it up in one of the bibles of basic methodology (such as The Joy of Cooking, but be sure to get an older edition. The current one hacked up and dumbed down TJOC). Either way you’ll learn and do better next time.

Heat the pan, then the lubricant (butter, oil, or whatever), and then add the food. This seems silly, right? But it’s crucial! Many people put the pan on the burner, add the oil, add the food, and let them all warm up together, but this results in mushy, sweated stuff that sticks to the pan.

Your burners are probably too low. Unless you’re doing something that especially calls for medium or low heat, such as sweating some onions or braising some meat, neither of which I’m likely to recommend very often, you’re better off cooking things more quickly at higher heat. In general the reason for this is to get firmer, juicier, more flavorful results, especially when meat is involved. I’ve recently learned, however, that I cook bacon too fast. My more patient sous gets much better, crisper results from cooking it slowly over medium heat.

How could I have forgotten pepper?

Pepper! Early and often! Insert pepper in all the logical places in that chicken recipe below. I recommend freshly-ground Telicherry pepper–such as that carried by Peet’s, where you should also buy all your coffee. And as a special guilt-induced bonus link, I also recommend buying a pair of Peppergun salt and pepper mills. Fill that salt mill with kosher salt and never look back. More salt preaching in my next post.

Faltering new life for a blog?

An unbelievably touching post on Blog Dad Paul’s blog from embarrassingly long ago gave me an idea about the next phase of the blog, since the kitchen remodel is over and even the deck remodel is almost done: I might post the occasional recipe that emerges from the new kitchen. Paul, I owe you a reconstruction of that soup, and I’ll do it someday, I promise. For now, here’s a recipe from the weekend.

Our spring weather has been so lovely lately, that even though I love my indoor grill, I was actually inspired to go outside, dust off my piece-of-shit 18″ Weber grill, install the various smoking/roasting widgets my parents bought me on their visit last November, and make a nice, smokey, roasted chicken. It was wonderful!

Here is your first recipe:

  • Remove giblets and nastiness from chicken, rinse
  • Loosen skin all the way around
  • Sprinkle kosher salt everywhere imaginable
  • Line skin with crushed garlic, fresh minced rosemary and marjoram, and thin slices of Meyer lemon
  • Stuff with a mixture of:
    • shiitake mushrooms (rehydrated in white wine)
    • minced shallot
    • minced fresh rosemary and marjoram
    • crushed garlic
    • butter
    • white wine
    • chopped celery
  • Roast on grill, with a wood-chip-smoker doodad in action. Getting it to 180 took me about two hours, perhaps because I underestimated how much charcoal it would take to bank up the sides of the 18″ POS Weber
  • Sip Fenestra Viognier on the spiffy new back deck
  • Make a basic gravy from the drippings
  • Serve with more Viognier, artichokes, and Meyer lemon garlic butter.

Here’s why I refer to the POS grill so disparagingly.

Most Weber charcoal kettle grills are wonderful. I loved my first Smokey Joe to death, even using it in Chicago during a blizzard to sear some delicious Valentine’s Day steaks. It finally rusted itself into crumbs.

So, one fine day about seven years ago, my ex the chef (who wasn’t my ex at the time) went out and replaced it with an adult Weber. Great, right? Well, we both thought so, but no. Turns out she’d gotten the medium-sized Weber kettle grill, the 18-incher. That thing is a pain in the ass. For some reason the charcoal never quite works to its full potential. Even starting the charcoal is unusually difficult, whether you use the chimney-and-newspaper method or the stack-and-scout-juice method. Either way works just fine on a Smokey Joe and abysmally on an 18-incher.

Unfortunately, I got the grill in the divorce.

Finally I went out and bought another Smokey Joe, so now I have three grills:

  1. the Smokey Joe, whose meaning in life is now questionable, since I now have an indoor grill on my
  2. Wolf range (an 18-gazillion, okay thousand, BTU infrared charbroiler), and
  3. the dreaded 18″ Weber POS

Even Dad concurs it’s a POS. He heard me whingeing about it a few years ago when they visited and marched outside to prove me wrong. I’m sure he figured I was just being feeble, and frankly I would have agreed with him if my friend Alicia hadn’t made the same observation about 18-inchers just not working right. Still, I hoped Dad would figure out what my problem was. Eventually he came back inside bearing delicious elk burgers and an expression of disgust.

“Erin, I’ve figured out what’s wrong with your Weber.”

“Oh? What is it?” I asked, surprising myself with my hopefulness.

“It’s a piece of shit.”

So there you have it. Even the man who taught me how to grill agrees that 18-inch Webers don’t work.

I guess the Smokey Joe will be the backup-grill for entertaining with an outdoors barbecue, when an alternate (such as vegetarian) option is needed for people who don’t want their food to touch the main option (such as critters), or to throw in the trunk and take car-camping.

The 18″ POS will get the occasional use for roasting mediumish birds. The other problem with an 18-incher, you see, is that big birds like even a modest-sized turkey don’t fit. The lid is too low. It’s too big for steaks, unless you know a lot of people and can afford that many steaks, but it’s too small for a turkey for 4. It’s big enough for a chicken, and that’s about it. So I have a fantastic searing grill inside, an adorable searing grill outside, and a POS roasting grill outside.

Dad was disgusted enough that when they came back for another visit last fall, their plan was to buy me a proper large Weber. I talked them out of it, though, figuring that I needed a fourth grill like I need a hole in the head, and they got me the smoking/roasting accessories and some indoor-kitchen widgets instead. However, after this weekend’s chicken success, I’m realizing that I was an idiot. Cleary the proper course of action is to salvage the smoking and roasting accessories, buy a big Weber, and give the 18″ POS to someone I don’t like very well.