Begin at the Beginning

Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all the best for 2012: May your bellies be always filled with deliciousness, your table surrounded by loved ones, and your hearts brimming with gladness!

After an all too short week of rest, I am set to start on solid footing: my 'stuff' arrived from Montreal mid-November; I've settled into my little nest; and now that I've had time to open all the cartons, my returns home from work actually feel like I've come 'home'. Sometimes I feel like a ball of confusion, contradictions and nonsense: here I am, preaching the virtues of sustainable living, all the while hanging on for dear life to the material possessions that surround me… But I have to admit, now that all my cooking knick-knacks are back in my hands, a little part of my soul is sighing with relief. I can putter about my kitchen once more, no more roughing it like we are camping.  Let the cooking begin!

Soups are a good place to start. They are great for clearing out the fridge, perfect for getting warm, healthful goodness into the body and the heart. They are especially wonderful at this time of the year, when all you want to do is curl up in bed under the duvet, or on the couch with a good book. And soups are great way to make winter vegetables shine. If you are still getting vegetables baskets from your CSA, you are probably receiving vegetables you are not familiar with: chop them into a soup, and you can discover the newbie in a gentle and non-threatening form.

Two of my favourite winter standbys are parsnips and rutabagas (also known as Swedes in the UK). I've mentioned them several times in the blog, but I have to admit that there is a dearth of recipes as I tend always to prepare them in the same manner (roasted or baked). If you are unfamiliar with either vegetable, a simple soup featuring one or several roots is a great way to familiarise yourself with them.

I have already posted several soup recipes, but I would like to expand on  the basic principles to great soup. Just because... a bookful of recipes is nice to have, but knowing the whys and hows is even better. It all begins with a few key ingredients: first of all, you will need foundation vegetables. In French and Italian cooking, foundation vegetables are present at the beginning of every good recipe. Called mirepoix in French or soffritto in Italian, they are the usual suspects of onion, carrot, leek and celery. They need not all be present, but at least two of them should make an appearance. Onions and leeks contribute a savoury earthiness that grounds the flavours; they also add sulfurous notes that add punch and vibrancy. Leeks are sweeter than onions, with a tinge of green freshness, whereas onions are the universal unifier. Carrots contribute a great amount of sweetness, and can be left out altogether if you want more savoury than sweet. However, the natural sugars in carrots are great for countering bitter and acrid tones in other ingredients. Celery is an unsung hero when it comes to flavour enhancement: it contains a great amount of natural glutamates, and brings umami to everything it encounters. Umami is a Japanese word that literally means 'tastes good', and is usually translated as 'savoury'. Celery also adds a good deal of fresh green notes, even when cooked to death. However, if you, like me, have a bizarre dislike of the green stalks, celeriac, its rooty sibling, does the same job with earthy tones instead.

Secondly, you need some fat: it can be any vegetable oil, butter, or even some kind of meat drippings. Any fat will do, but it needs to be there as it contributes flavour, and helps to blend everything into a harmonious whole. Although fat has been vilified, it is actually essential to flavourful cooking. While you needn't be as liberal with the stuff as a French-trained chef, fat is the best carrier for flavour: this ability explains why we all love fried foods, and are quite fond of creamy things. Most flavour compounds -at least those that persist after hours of cooking- are oil soluble, so the best way to hang on to them is to use a minimum of fat. And the tried and true method to draw them out of any food is to sweat them out in oil or butter. 'Sweating' vegetables merely means to cook them over a medium to low heat, to draw out their moisture, and to concentrate their flavours. It also mellows out any sharp or hard edge, like sulfurous overtones and squeaky green notes. Most vegetables will turn translucent, or at the very least, will take on an eery sheen; the vegetables are usually fork tender at this point, and they will begin to take on some colour. Fully sweated-out vegetables will have a good amount of flavour, but you can push them a little further by allowing them to caramelise a little: this will add deeper colour, and a slight bitterness, so use with extreme discretion!

Next, a flavour enhancer, such as salt, herbs, or spices, is always welcome, but it is not absolutely necessary. Well, except for salt: unless you are on a salt-restricted diet, salt is essential to truly let the flavours sing. It brightens, highlights, unifies, intensifies: it's basically an all-around workhorse. But only in small doses: start with a teaspoonful first (when making a litre of soup), and adjust by the pinchful. If you have reached the point of 'salty enough', but feel that something is still lacking, bring in the big guns: herbs and spices. Everyone has their favourites, and many are wary of them, but I absolutely love herbs and spices. I have my favourite standbys, the ones I always bring out when something needs tweaking. Thyme is a good all-around herb, and most people find it rather pleasing: it's not as brash as rosemary, nor as show-offy as oregano; it's understated, yet it will let you know when it's there. Cumin is another regular: it's earthy, literally -people who do not like cumin often complain that it tastes muddy, but when it is toasted it has the ability to gather every other flavour into its arms, and hug your taste buds. Flavour enhancers are best added while you are cooking off the vegetables to bring out the best in them.

You might be wondering which place I give to stock, but I have written time and again, that plain tap water is a perfectly acceptable liquid for soup. I do not deny that a good stock contributes a boost of flavour, but if you follow the guidelines above, your soup will be lovely, even with regular water. Stocks are great for using up bits and pieces of left-overs, such as peelings from vegetables and carcasses from roasts, but if you do not have the time to make stock and have yet to find a good store-bought one, use water. From the tap. It will be divine. Milk, cream and any other liquid are also quite lovely, but should never be the bulk of the liquid, as they can weigh down the end result: no more than half should be the upper limit.

One last element that can be of a certain importance is the way the vegetables (and meats) are cut. Chunky cuts give you a rustic soup that is great in its own right. A fine dice, where everything is dispatched with military precision gives the appearance of refinement, while still giving you something to chew on. Blending everything into a smooth purée is supposedly the height of fine dining, but is actually a quick (and lazy, but no less useful) way to foodie Nirvana. Knife (and blender) work may not seem all that important, but professionals will disagree: the way food hits your taste buds and nasal receptors plays a great part in how you perceive the flavours. A smooth soup that you simply swallow needs to be quite intensely flavoured in order to have enough impact in its short trip down your throat. Whereas one can play it little more subtle if you need to chew on the ingredients to release their essences. To prove my point, next time you have a bit of spare time -and soup- try this little experiment: leave part of the soup chunky or diced, and blend smooth the other. Try them side by side: even though both soups are basically the same, they will taste different. The same principle applies to different shapes of pasta...

The icing on the cake, err soup, is the garnish. I usually like to blend the dairy into a smooth soup, but will dollop the stuff at the end when serving a chunky soup. It's lovely to look at, and it also lets the eater play around with the flavour combinations. If you want to go lush and cheesy, use it as a garnish: unless I am making this soup, I don't think that cheese should actually be inside the soup, as it can get too messy. Slivers of green onions adds a splash of colour and notes of freshness (it's not purely decorative). If you have left-over roast chicken or turkey, it can be shredded or diced into the soup at any time, but is quite pretty when it makes a lacy appearance over a smooth lake. (By the way, if you want to add raw meats to your soup, it should be browned in oil just before the mirepoix is added to the oil: browning the meat brings out its best flavours and looks.)

Bon app'!


  1. Nice post. I think if we add litte cream in it while cooking, it will be softer & tastier. thanks for this sharing.

  2. I wanted to let you know that I really like your blog! Your writing flows well. It's informative without being dense.

    Are you in Montreal?

  3. Thank you for all the comments!
    Jessica, unfortunately, I am no longer in Montreal, though a big part of me hopes that I will be back home some day...

  4. Oh, too bad. I just returned to Montreal after over three years away, and I really missed it! It was good to spend time in a different part of the world, though.

    Keep up the good work!


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