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on the downward side of the age mountain.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What I Learned from the Soup Sloth

The last time I went to the Farmer’s Market I bought 3 huge bunches of asparagus. One thick and the other two pencil thin. My imaginary eye saw NSSP grilling the fat ones to go with steak and I making a rich creamy chilled asparagus soup to be eaten al fresco with pollo tonnato and pinot grigio.

It’s been cold and rainy. We did eat the grilled steak and asparagus. But al fresco was in my dreams. Still the asparagus lurked in the fridge. Last night was soup night. I stared at the ingredients wishing they could conjure up a summer’s night.

Enough, it would be hot asparagus soup and pinot noir. As I cut the ingredients I thought of my soup evolution. Growing up, my mother made a mean beef and barley soup. This was augmented with Campbell’s best on school days.

Newly married to NSSP#1 I discovered turkey soup. Making stock from the Thanksgiving bones the soup took on huge proportions with the addition of barley. Who knew those little nuggets grew to three times their size? It was like a Lucy and Vivian moment. Every time I turned to the pot I had to grab a larger one dumping the contents and adding more water. We slurped, ate, drank, and froze the stuff. Finally we threw out the last remnants before we moved.

Soup took on bigger proportions when I worked as a prep cook in my first restaurant. 4AM found me in the kitchen bowels drinking coffee, listening to rock and roll, and slicing 50# of onions for French Onion Soup. Handfuls of seasoning went into the vats that I left for the night crew to finish and serve.

Each restaurant I moved through had different soup requirements but none with the volume of my first job. It was the era of Vichyssoise, Gazpacho, and Le Puys Lentil Soups. I was mesmerized by the variety.

Then I met the Soup Sloth. I landed a job in a French restaurant I had been lusting after (more the chef than the restaurant). The lusted chef was going to the Cape and I was to co-chef w/The Sloth. I had several restaurants under my belt, had built up line speed, and was ready to do the demi-dance and nap my plates w/beurre blanc.

Dupes came in and I was ready. Except- The Sloth had installed himself near the stove leaving me in cold station Antarctica. I was not happy especially when I watched his line dance. For a thin guy he moved like a lumbering well, Sloth. Sub-consciously he would nod with every sauce addition until his dish was finished. My salad plates had gone out, come back empty and he was still laboring over his emulsion. I realized it was going to be a long and ugly summer.

The next day with my happy face in place I came into the kitchen to prep for dinner. The Sloth was standing over a cauldron of that night’s soup. Sipping, nodding, sipping, nodding he inched along. I stood next to him and stuck a finger in the soup. Then after a few more additions I did it again. He was subtly changing the profile of the soup. This process took forever and obviously used all of his brain cells, but once complete, I hated to admit it, but the soup was perfect.

My tour of duty was short lived thank God and I too went to spend the summer cooking my brains out at a hotel. I did learn how to season a soup from The Sloth.

What’s the secret you ask? When I start a soup I have a flavor goal. Matzo ball soup is all about the best chicken broth, always from scratch and not rushed. Lentil soup? The balance between a piece of salty pork and sweetness of carrots and lentils. You need to focus on what is the standout flavor in your soup. If making a stock add a few pinches of salt. You don’t want it to taste like the finished product, just a nudge in the right direction. As the soup cooks and you add other ingredients another pinch or grind of pepper. Never be shy of salt, pepper,or lemon.

When the soup is done it is now time to gather the final ingredients. Perhaps some fresh cut herbs to be stirred in at the last moment, cheese or cream. White pepper for heat, black pepper for flavor, salt, and lemon juice are my arsenal. I guess you could say I go into Sloth mode… I empty my tongue of any flavors and focus on the taste. I think about what I want the end product to taste like and how I’m going to nail it. Taste and think, taste and think, I reach a point where salt isn’t bringing out the flavor I want and I squeeze lemon juice into the pot. The lemon opens up the flavor and gives brightness to the soup. Now for some pepper and another pinch of salt. I come back to the land of the living with a perfect offering for my family.

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A Small Batch of Cream of Asparagus Soup

1bu Asparagus, trim ends & cut into 1" pieces- save tips
1huge Russet Potato, peeled and chopped
2 Leeks, chopped and well rinsed
2ribs Celery, peeled and chopped
1/2 lg Onion, chopped
1T Olive Oil
1qt Chicken Broth, nothing fancy
2T Roasted Garlic (very optional, found hiding in the fridge)
Heavy Cream (another shy and optional ingredient)
Kosher Salt, White Pepper, Fresh Lemon

Blanch asparagus tips in salted water until crisp tender save for garnish.

Saute asparagus,potato,leeks, celery, and onion in olive oil until soft but not brown. Add broth and roasted garlic. Cook until the potatoes are soft. Puree w/ blender,food processor, or emulsion blender. Adjust seasonings with cream, salt, pepper and lemon.


Sheila said...

Nice pic of the soup!

Anonymous said...

Love your writing! Now time to try the soup...