Soup's On

After 2 days of cancelled classes, all of us blizzard survivors were eager to get into the kitchen to begin making soups. Consommé, cream of celery, and miso soups were on the menu. The first order of business was to get the consommé on the stove so it could simmer and be clarified. It is a classic clear soup made from stock that is enriched with meat, vegetables, and aromatics, then clarified with a magical protein coagulation method. Sounds appetizing, I know, but it really was quite good.

To begin, each group added ground chicken, mirepoix, chopped tomatoes, and egg whites into a stock pot. We combined the ingredients with a gloved hand as if we were mixing meatloaf. Then the cold chicken stock (made in Monday's class) was added little by little until everything was well blended. In went a sachet bag containing peppercorns, parsley stems, thyme, bay leaf, and one clove. The pot was set over moderate heat and simmered for about 90 minutes. As the ground chicken and egg white mixture began to cook, a solid mass rose to the surface (called a "raft"). The raft serves 2 purposes—it flavors and enriches the stock and also draws out all the impurities, making the final product a clear golden hue. As a final step, we strained the consommé through a cheesecloth-lined chinois. The raft was discarded.

We broke through the raft to reveal the clear consommé

We broke through the raft to reveal the clear consommé

Consommé is a quintessential food of the privileged. The multi-step process not only takes a fair amount of time, it uses meat and vegetables only as flavoring agents—the solids never actually get eaten. Would you ever buy ground chicken, cook it, then throw it away? Probably not. But the pure protein and vegetable extract was created (like a lot of fine French foods) as a mark of distinction for the upper class. Eating consommé says "I'm so rich I don't even have to chew my food". As Michael Leviton said in our first class, rustic food would make the rich "shit funny".

Classical French cuisine was developed by chefs who cooked for the aristocracy, so it makes sense that there were elaborate processes and fussy preparations. Making consommé is an interesting hands-on history lesson and it provides quite a contrast to the contemporary American food I'm used to. I encourage everyone to try it to see how "fine cuisine" has evolved over time.

Another classic French process is making velouté as a mother sauce to be used in many dishes. We made a large batch of this thickened white stock to form the base for our cream of celery soup. Velouté is made from stock that is thickened with roux—cooked clarified butter and flour—and enriched with mirepoix and aromatics. It can form the base of many cream soups and sauces. In today's class we each made our own batch of celery soup, but each pulled from the large pot of velouté to complete the recipe. We discussed leaving the pureed celery solids in the soup (peasant style), or straining through a chinois (ritzy style). We did the latter, then enriched it with heavy cream.

For the miso soup we made a strong dashi first which is a traditional Japanese broth made from water, kombu (a type of dried seaweed) and bonito (dried aged fish shavings). Chef John showed us how to whisk in the miso paste just before serving. He also added a drop of soy sauce in each bowl. It was flavorful and comforting.

And lastly, we each brought a bowl of our cream of celery soup to the front table so that Chef John could taste each one. He thought mine needed a touch more salt. Some people believe that professional chefs become desensitized to salt because they use so much of it, but it's also just a matter of personal taste. Either way, after all the snow this week, I think we were all happy to be eating comforting soups.