Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cooking Basics #1: Soup Breakdown

Disappeared yet again due to my grandfather's funeral; apologies. He kinda croaked pretty suddenly and it's just been nothing but a hassle all week on top of all my other things to do. Anyway, moving away from recipes today and learning more about the fundamentals in cooking. It's fine to be able to parrot a dish, but you need to know the basics in order to start building your own dishes without stumbling on constant failures and mishaps.

There's a bit of a saying that I hear from a lot of my chefs that goes "Teach your kid how to make a sandwich and you feed them for a day. Teach them the basics of soups and you have fed them for a lifetime."

I agree with this; soups are inexpensive ways to fill a gut. Once you learn how to make soups from scratch you can pretty much make soups from anything as long as you know the flavor profiles and the proper steps to incorporating the ingredients you have on hand into the soup you have in mind. That being said, here are the bare bones to building a soup.

1. Vegetables and roux.
These are the base for you soup. The stock, the meats, the herbs, and the spices are all important, but your vegetable and roux are what give your soup its fundamental flavor and body. For those that do not know, a roux refers to a blend of fat and flour that is used to thicken the body of a soup. This can be anything from oil and flour to butter and flour. Normally what you do with these two things when a recipe calls for them is sweat the vegetables in oil on low heat to soften them and extract flavors, and follow up with either the spices or roux. When cooking the roux remember how done you want it to be; the darker it is the more it'll show in your end product. This being the case, you will want a lightly cooked, or white/blond roux for clear soups so you don't unintentionally darken it.

2.Main Ingredient and Spices
This is where the main content for your soup comes in. Whether it's potatoes or a vegetable puree, this is when you throw all that in to properly incorporate it with your veg and roux base to absorb the necessary flavors. The spices tend to come in at the end here, as the caramlization of such tend to leave a bitter and undesirable flavor. Pretty simple step; if you have a protein make sure to brown it as doing so will add so much more flavor to your soup as well as lock in moisture for the said protein. No matter how much broth you have a dry piece of meat is kinda bleh. Next is the cous de gras.

3. Stock/Broth
After you get all of your base and main ingredients/spices incorporated with each other you want to throw in your liquid; what makes the soup a soup. There is nothing special to this step; just use what matches with your current array of ingredients. If you have a vegetable soup, use vegetable stock. Beef soup, beef stock, etc. The main tip I have here is to make sure you have your stock heated up in a separate pan ahead of time so you don't have to spend so long waiting it to heat up after throwing it in cold with the rest of the ingredients. Doing so can also shock some ingredients and thus lower the quality of the end result.

4. Finishing Touches/ Garnishes
After you've let your soup go on for the amount of time needed, made sure to keep stirring and keep tasting to adjust seasoning levels (careful with salt in the beginning; your soup will always end up saltier at the end than how it was at the start due to the evaporation of liquid) it's time to throw in your last touches. This is where you lower the temperature of the soup and make sure everything is settled, for you will be adding ingredients such as green onions, cilantro, cream, cheese...whatever doesn't need to be cooked at high temperatures or cooked for very long. Doing so leaves you with undesirable wilted vegetable garnish or broken/curdled dairy. So, get that temp down, throw in whatever is left to be added, and be gentle with it. Many a cook I have known has failed in making a satisfactory product at this last step due to the nature of the last ingredients that tend to be added in most soup recipes.

So there you have it; the bare bones of making soups. There is naturally going to be more to be done with more complex recipes, but just keep these guidelines in mind and you can make some kind of soup out of most anything.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Shepard's Pie

This is pretty much one of those meat and potato lover's type of dishes. It's very nutritious and filling while being simple at the same time. You can do vegan variations with soy protein and non-dairy products too.

  • 4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 5 carrots, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 3/4 cup beef broth
  • 1/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add potatoes and cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. Drain and mash. Mix in butter, finely chopped onion and 1/4 cup shredded cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste; set aside.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add carrots and cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes. Drain, mash and set aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C.)
  3. Heat oil in a large frying pan. Add onion and cook until clear. Add ground beef and cook until well browned. Pour off excess fat, then stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Add ketchup and beef broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
  4. Spread the ground beef in an even layer on the bottom of a 2 quart casserole dish. Next, spread a layer of mashed carrots. Top with the mashed potato mixture and sprinkle with remaining shredded cheese.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. 
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