Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Full Flavor on a Tight Scheudle

I love soup.  It's one of the many reasons I'm extremely excited for fall weather.  At the end of a long day, it's just a great way to enjoy a warm, inviting meal that makes you feel comforted.  The downfall - most soups tend to flourish with a long, extended day of simmering on the stovetop to develop rich, intense harmonious flavors.  Well, after working a 13 hour day, I don't really have time for that.

There is the crockpot option, which I'm a strong advocate for if you have the forethought ahead of time to think, "hmm, I think I want soup for dinner tonight."  To my downfall, James and I can barely decide what we feel like eating at that moment, let along a day in advance.  So in theory, this is a great slow simmering method if you're open to planning ahead; the remainder of today's post will give you some clever options to develop deep flavors if you're a procrastinator like me.

So last night, I wanted a grilled cheese with tomato soup.  Not being one to stock canned soups in our pantry, this left me with two options: drive to the grocery store and buy a sodium and preservative laden can or make my own soup.  Being that I wouldn't be writing about Campbell's, I'm guessing it's rather obvious the route I chose.  The challenge was to get that rich, deep flavor that typically comes from slow simmering in a shorter period of time and I'd like to share a few of my tricks.

The first key to good soup making (slow or fast) is a good dutch oven.  Le cruset make the BMW of dutch ovens, but I personally don't have a spare $300 to spend on a pan unfortunately.  About a  year ago, I bought a "Cooks" version from JC Penny at Home ($40 during their 60% off sale) and it's a great piece of kitchen equipment.  Dutch ovens are great at maintaining heat and evenly distributing it on both the bottom and sides for even cooking.

So start by getting your dutch oven good and hot.  I leave mine on the burner for around 5-10 minutes before adding any of my ingredients.  Start with 2 tablespoons of good quality olive oil, 3 cloves of garlic, half a shallot and about a quarter of a white onion and sweat them out together until the garlic is a toasty golden brown and the onions and shallots are translucent.  Add one large can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes (if you can't find San Marzano's, any high quality canned tomato without added salt works well) and reduce the heat to a low simmer.

Now is where you get to play with some of the flavors I was talking about earlier.  If I was making a slow simmered tomato soup, I'd probably opt for a chicken stock as my base.  The extended time period would allow the excess water to evaporate and create a rich base flavor for the soup.  Instead, I opted to use concentrated veal stock (demi glace base).  Veal has a much more pronounced flavor than chicken so it will stand up to more water in the soup and using a concentrate, you have the control of how much water goes in in the first place.

Second, about 1/2 cup of a tannic red wine will help develop your flavors quickly as well.  The bitterness of the wine will help balance the acid in the tomatoes.  I also tend to look to other intensely flavored sauces and liquids to help the soup along - tamari, soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire, tabasco and balsamic are all great options.    When blended with the acidic tomatoes, these all bring what I like to refer to as "back flavors," ingredients that bring out that lingering aftertaste rather than being aggressive and upfront.  You want to enjoy the bright tomato based flavors on the forefront, and then have something interesting linger on the finish.  That's how to create a great balance in your dish.

Make sure your tasting along the way as well.  Although the ingredients have to "cook together" in order to really form a great soup, you still want to aim for balance along the way.  I'm an advocate of selecting your spices before you begin and slowly integrating them along the way, rather than just dumping a bunch of garlic powder in at the end.  This way, you maintain that balance through each stage of the cooking process.  I kept the herbs spices simple this time around: sea salt, cracked pepper, smoked paprika, and fresh basil.  Too many spices won't help mask underdeveloped flavors, they'll just give you an overbearing punch with each bite so be mindful of what and how much you're using.

My other essential soup  making tool is my stick blender.  I love this thing.  It may be my absolute favorite kitchen gadget ever.  I have a Kitchen Aid brand one that has a sturdy blade and a strong motor, which are the two major components you'll want to look for when selecting one.  Just emerge the end of the stick blender into the dutch over and blend your soup to a silky consistency.  The cleanup is also amazingly easy.

I added about 1/2 cup of 1% and 2 tablespoons of honey to my finished soup to add to the creaminess and cut the last bite of acid.  The finished product was velvety, bright and had a bit of heat on the finish that really paired well with the grilled turkey and cheese sandwiches.

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