06 January 2012

3 Potatoes and the Truth: A Tale of Soup

There are actually very few areas of knowledge I will claim expertise – I usually, but not always can say something funny; I possess an encyclopedic knowledge of really bad Cubs teams from the 70s/80s; I can bore the most patient person with my Rainmanesque recitation of NBA stats; but here is my greatest strength – I know what I am doing in the kitchen. Sounds like a boast, but I could cook meals for my family before I was out of High School. After that there were jobs in restaurants, cooking school, more jobs in restaurants, but it wasn’t until I landed in a kitchen where I had to make two soups every day that I really learned how to cook.

Learning how to extract flavors from the most humble ingredients, leftovers and oddities taught me how to combine flavors better than any other cooking experience I have ever had. One day, my food budget spent for the week, I had potatoes, onions and garlic to work with. I started off thinking of a garlic Vichyssoise but who wants a cold soup in winter? I thought both the onion and garlic would add a complexity of flavor if they were caramelized and when I put the ingredients together, it worked. Necessity helped create a favorite first at the Cafe, then at home.

For all the fancy meals I can prepare, this soup is the single most requested item when I ask my friends what they want me to make. I don’t know if this has to do with flavor or it’s the communal nature of soup, a food that lends itself to closeness and friendship – I’m always unsure what they really crave.

The key to this soup or really any soup is a hearty foundation, a strong stock. Yeah, you can buy stock in the store – it comes out of cans and cartons, but so does soup. The pre-made stuff can be good or bad, but it’s never the same as doing it for yourself. This recipe for stock is easy and it makes a huge difference in the final product.

Before we get to the stock, start on the roasting the garlic: Slice the top ¼ of off 2 heads of garlic, make a nest of foil and place the garlic in it so the top is exposed. Pour a teaspoon of olive oil over the exposed cloves and place in a 375 oven, cook until soft and squishy and brown – depending on the garlic and oven, this will take about an hour. You can do this a few days in advance.

Back to the stock…

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

2 onions – medium dice

2 carrots – sliced thinly

2 stalks celery broken in half

12 parsley stems cut into 1 inch pieces, save the leafy part for something else,

3-5 sprigs of thyme or teaspoon dried

5 cups water

Salt and pepper

Heat a small stock pan to medium with oil, then add all veg, cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover with water, add healthy amount of salt, well not healthy in a visit to the Doctor sense, healthy as in generous and you still won’t come close to the sodium in canned stock or broth. 3-4 turns of a pepper mill.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cook for 20 minutes, turn off heat and cover until ready to use. (You can also throw everything in a slow cooker for 2-3 hours. The color won’t be as rich but the flavor is there.)

3 Potatoes, just like these

Roasted Garlic Potato Soup

1 small onion

1 tablespoon butter or oil

3 potatoes – baked potato sized – peeled and cubed

2 heads garlic – roasted as per previous instructions

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Salt pepper

1 cup cream optional

On Caramelizing Onions – Thomas Keller writes that it takes at least 4 hours to properly caramelize onions, the first hour requires constant attention. Lora Brody says it can be done, hands free, in a slow cooker in 12 to 14 hours.

Sure? Maybe? Who am I to disagree?

For this recipe we want color and a little sharpness from the onion, not onions so perfect that someone will write a 2,000 word essay about them in next quarter’s Gastronomica (Really good Journal BTW). 30-40 minutes should be enough time. Slice the onion thinly, add it to a small sauté pan with oil or butter, cook over medium-low heat, cook the onion until brown, stirring occasionally. Deglaze the pan with water or stock – get all the fond, as the French call it, that colorful, tasty stuff off the bottom of the pan.

While onions are caramelizing, place stock (strained) and potatoes in a stock pot together. Bring to a boil and cook until soft – just like mashed potatoes. Add onions, cooked garlic (cloves removed from skin) and puree. I like those immersion/stick blenders for the job but food processors, food mills and blenders all get the job done.

It’s not done, you’ll need to fine tune the soup. Taste the soup. It’s going to need something acidic like vinegar to cut through the velvety texture of the potato, but only a hint. Potatoes require salt. Don’t be afraid to season generously. Maybe the soup could use a little richness that only cream or butter can provide. Chopped herbs, maybe – Tinker, taste, test, don’t feel a need to be bound by the recipe above, any soup recipe is just a guideline anyway. My final advice; try not to eat this alone, it always goes better with people.