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!