Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Things I know II: How to make soup

Everyone ought to know how to do this. Real soup, made from meat bones and vegetables, is like bread, one of those foods that forms one of the most ancient foundations of communal human life. It predates civilisation. We humans started making soup immediately after we learned to cook food over a fire. It's what to do with the leftover mammoth once you've eaten everything else. Making real soup creates a kind of temporal connective tissue to the lives of our remotest ancestors, to the deepest realms of human antiquity. Soup is a piece of the Ancient Real.

You start by making stock. Making soup is a long process and cannot be rushed. You make the stock one day, and the soup the next.

In a large pressure cooker place

4 knuckles of veal or beef
1 whole carrot, sliced in half lengthwise
1 whole onion, with the paper still on, cut in half
a handful of leek greens
a couple of sticks of celery
mushroom stems and asparagus ends
sprig of fresh thyme
4 bay leaves
1 whole clove (and only one!)
4 or five whole cloves of garlic
a few whole peppercorns
1/2 a large apple, unpeeled
water from the filter jug to the top of the pot

Bring it all to a boil and cook with the lid and the valve on at high pressure for at least one or two hours.

For some years when I was learning to do this, I would make the soup from the turkey carcass and the stock never turned out as nice as I'd hoped. This was because I was not leaving it to boil long enough. A good turkey broth can take as much as five hours of boiling. Beef or veal even longer. This is why you need to get a pressure cooker. It cuts the cooking time in half. Since my pressure cooker is very old (1950s, I think) and the seal ring is old, I have to periodically add more water. Don't let it boil dry, but don't be too eager to add water. A big part of the goal here is to get a very concentrated meat essence, so you want it to cook down quite a bit.

The "meat" of a good broth is the marrow contained in the cell structure of the bones. This substance is a pure form of animal protein that, by the time the broth is finished, is almost totally fat-free. The marrow is water soluble and the long boiling time is requuired to draw out all of it from the cell structure. Soup stock is not, therefore, merely meat juice and a soup made from real stock does not need any extra meat added to make it nutritious. It is, essentially, liquified meat protein. Soup made from meat without bone marrow is what the Victorians called "beef tea," a hot drink given to invalids, but having only a fraction of the nutritional value. (No one makes beef tea any more since someone invented Bovril.)

Once the marrow has been boiled completely out of the bones, and the veg is boiled to a paste, allow the stock to cool and strain it through a colander and discard the bones. You can either discard the veg or put it through a food mill or blender and return it to the soup later.

Place the stock in the fridge over night. The fat will rise to the top and solidify as the meat gels. The goal is a jellied stock. The more jellified, the better the stock.

In the morning, just lift the big white hockey puck of fat off the jellied stock. You can either discard this or keep it for "dripping" (later we'll talk about an English delicacy called "fried bread").

To make the soup, heat the stock. If you want it more clear, strain it once it has warmed through cheesecloth.

Bring it up slowly to a low simmer, and do not allow it to boil. An English housewife's maxim is "A soup boiled is a soup spoiled".

Add to the simmering stock

1 or two beef cubes
shot or two of ketchup
Lea n' Perrin's
a teaspoon or so of brown sugar + a little red wine vinegar
dried shitaake mushrooms, broken into small pieces
chopped onion
chopped carrot
diced beef or veal
2 or 3 handfuls of pearl barley
basil, marjoram, red wine

or whatever nice soup-like thing you happen to like. Simmer all together until the barley is chewy and/or the meat is tender. The soup process takes about an hour. All of the above in the second half is optional. Soup depends entirely on what you like and takes practice and commitment.

Make a habit of collecting vegetable left-overs and keeping them marked "for stock" in the freezer. I save the tough green tops of leeks, celery tops and leaves, the stems left over from making stuffed mushroom caps for parties, and the tough ends of asparagus. (These, btw, are not very good to puree and add back into the soup, since they are very fibrous and don't break down sufficiently, even after several hours of boiling.) Avoid anything starchy like legumes or potatoes, since the idea of stock is to go for highly flavoured things. But avoid brassicas (cabbage, brussel's sprouts, broccoli) since their flavour will overpower everything else. Hard fruit, like apple, is often a very nice addition. So is a piece of salt pork or bacon, but remember that these will significantly increase the salt, so adjust for it.

Soup bones can be had in most meat sections and butcher shops on request. In Italy, people still seem to know how to cook, so they are regularly available in the supermarket meat counter. They are incredibly cheap. The last ones I bought were in cello packages and were less than 1 Euro. I used to get beef bones from Gerry the Butcher in Tattenhall for nothing, since he said that no one in England does this any more. (He also used to save me lamb's kidneys and hearts too... the English have forgotten how to cook their own food.) I boiled stock on Saturday night, using veal knuckles and frozen veg-ends, and the whole thing cost me no more than 2 Euros. I expect to get at least two very nice and healthy meals out of it.

Soup-making is an art and requires practice. The precise balance of flavourings, bringing out your favourite nuances, is tricky and depends on your taste, (so the second instructions above are nearly all optional.) I always use ketchup, since there is a chemical in tomatoes that enhances other flavours. I have been using shitaake mushrooms lately, that you can buy from the Korean grocery downstairs from the office in Rome, but watch out; they have a very strong flavour and you have to really like them. Barley will make a soup quite thick and too much will turn it into barley stew. (No bad thing.) A little brown sugar will also take off the edge in case you have gone too acidic, or have overdone any hot spices.

Go very easy on each thing you use, especially at first. The idea is to get a blend that is even and very rich.



Zach said...

Mmmmmm. I must do this more (or encourage others in the house to take up the habit). My parents and siblings do think we're a bit strange for grabbing the turkey carcass after holidays, but they've learned to accept it. But we haven't really gotten in the stock-making habit yet.

Does your second step to make it be soup use raw or pre-cooked meat dices?


Christine said...

Before you make your stock stick the bones in a roasting pan and baste them in olive oil. Add some savory veggies into the pan and roast at around 400 degrees fahrenheit until the bones are a nice nut brown color. Takes about half an hour to fourty five minutes. Adds a whole new dimension to the broth.

Bill White said...

A good soup not only connects us to what is human, it can also furnish us "the strength of the hills" - see this quote attributed to CS Lewis:

"Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood—they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, and Australian wine today) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours."

Fr. T. said...

Beef cubes? ketchup? boil? lea and perrins? Come on. Read Julia (who even late in life used to sign herself, Mrs. Paul Child.)

Christine said...

Well, Fr. T, I was thinking the same thing but then I thought, maybe it's just an English thing?

Hugh McDonald said...

Low heat (simmer) is better than a vigorous boil. That is because proteins can get longer in high heat. Otherwise, it is like trying to melt a hard-boiled egg. Beans only get harder, and an old rubbery chicken only gets more rubbery in high heat. And the pressure cooker business hardly seems pre-historic.
Hugh of Niagara
(verification word "hando")