This part of my life began when my very sick partner was diagnosed with Celiac. Even the slightest exposure to gluten can make him very ill for several days, so I have pursued gluten-free options with thorough aggression. In the U.S. a recent surge of gluten awareness means we have more choices than ever, but it still means hunting and analyzing and tracking down parent companies. After several years now of doing so, I want to share my tricks and tips with others who are still struggling.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Recipe Box: How to Build a Perfect Soup (Block Method)

I think that many people just learning to cook think a soup is a mysterious high art, or a ridiculously complicated all-day project.  It can be, but it doesn't have to be.  There are a few basic building blocks which, when made in the right order, can give you perfect results every time. 
Setting up each block ahead of time in bowls will make the process really fast and simple, and minimize any problems. 

Try to use the soup pot for the entire cooking process.  All the flavor on the bottom of the pan after cooking meats and vegetables goes to waste if you use a separate pan.  Alternately, you can add water to the frying pan after cooking each step, cook off the nice caramelized bits into the water (deglazing), then use it as your water for the soup.

I use parboiled (instant/10-minute) rice, or cold pre-cooked rice, because I have thrown away too many pots of soup already in my lifetime.  If the soup thickens too much when cooking the rice, it will spend an hour as grit, then go directly to mush.  If you're using raw rice, set it to cooking before you start the soup, and add it last (block 7).  

Block 1:  Protein

This is essentially meat or soy.  It does not include shellfish, as these cook so quickly they should be almost the last thing in the pot. 

Fry up your protein to golden brown in oil, and set the cooked meat and juices aside in a bowl.  If there are a lot of fat drippings (as in bacon or hamburger) reserve a few tablespoons and discard or store the rest.  

Block 2: Root Vegetables you want fully cooked

Potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, celery root, etc. These take longer to cook, but have enough starch to crisp up nicely.  Have these cut into small bite-size pieces or thin slices for fast cooking. 

Fry in a little oil or drippings over medium heat in the same pan you used for the meat (uncleaned) until golden (2-3 minutes) then add 1/4 cup of water to the pan and cover for five minutes.  Check to see if the vegetables are fork-tender.  If not, continue cooking until they are.  Set aside in a bowl.

Block 3: Other sturdy vegetables you want browned but not soft

This can include broccoli, zucchini, green beans, peppers, garlic onions, and anything else you want to get a little "fried" flavor before they go into the soup. Do not include delicate vegetables such as leafy greens or mushrooms, as they will over-cook.  Don't fry leeks, as they will turn really bitter when browned. 

Brown these on medium-high heat in a little pre-heated oil or drippings (2-3 minutes) using the same pan as you have been. Don't over-cook, or they'll be mushy by the time they get out.  Set them aside in a bowl. 

Block 4: Liquid

Generally this is water flavored with meat and/or vegetables.  You can spend all day creating homemade stock from scratch, but this is the one area where prepared versions are worth the time/taste tradeoff.  This means canned or boxed broth or stock, bullion, or soup base.  In the U.S., I use the "better than boullion" paste, because one jar lasts a long time, takes up a small amount of space, and ends up costing less than buying liquid broth.  They are good about declaring gluten-containing ingredients, but note that they do not declare gluten-free because they do not test.

If you've used a pan other than your soup pot for cooking blocks 1-3, add the liquid to this pan and cook off any drippings or cooked-on bits from the bottom before transferring to the soup pot.  That's good flavor you don't want to lose!  Otherwise, add liquid to the soup pot and bring to a simmer.

Block 5: Rice or Noodles

Blocks 1-4 all go into the soup pot once it starts to simmer.  Add additional liquid if it looks too thick.  Add parboiled or COLD cooked rice, or noodles at this point.  (hot cooked rice should go in block 7)You are about 10 minutes from the soup being finished!

Block 6: Delicates and Shellfish

5 minutes from the end of cooking time for your rice or noodles, add your delicates.  This includes spinach, chives, or other tender greens, shrimp or other shellfish or delicate fish, mushrooms, leeks, and fresh herbs.

Block 7: Thickeners

Noodles and parboiled rice may take a few minutes longer to cook than in pure water, so test to make sure they are done before beginning this block.

If you are adding starch to thicken the broth into a stew (corn and potato starches work well), mix the starch in cold water to make a slurry first, then pour that into the soup while stirring.  This prevents clumping.  Keep the soup cooking and stir regularly until it reaches the consistency you want.  If it doesn't thicken in 2-3 minutes, add more starch. 

Add any freshly-cooked rice or noodles at this point.  You can also put the rice directly into the serving bowl and pour the soup over, for a nice presentation. 

For a cream soup, remove the soup from heat and let it rest five minutes before adding dairy, as it can curdle if it continues to cook. My favorite method is to just dump a small container of sour cream (about 1 cup) into a two-day batch of soup, and stir until it is evenly distributed.  This adds a light tang and a lovely smooth cream texture.  You can use heavy cream if you don't want the flavor of sour cream, or whole milk if you want a lighter texture.   Adjust quantities to taste. 

For a cheese soup, try a mix of cream cheese for texture and a smaller amount of finely shredded strong flavored cheese (asiago, cheddar, etc.) for flavor.  This can help prevent the cheese from getting stringy or granulated from lack of fat. Stir into the soup until it smooths out. 

Block 8: Garnish

Garnish doesn't re-heat well, so add it to individual bowls on serving.  This includes tortilla strips, bread cubes, crackers, fresh herbs or vegetables, shreds of cheese, and dollops of sour cream. 


Creamy Chicken and Chorizo Chowder
(Mix up the vegetables according to what's seasonal!)

Block 1
1 whole chicken breast, sliced into bite-size strips
1 pound package chorizo sausage, cut into bite-size chunks

Block 2:
2-3 medium-size yellow or red potatoes, sliced thin
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes

Block 3:
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 zucchini, cut into bite-size chunks
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced thin

Block 4:
8-10 cups chicken broth or stock

Block 5:
2 packets parboiled (instant) rice or 2 cups cold pre-cooked rice.
1-2 leeks, white and light green part sliced

Block 6:
1/2 lb fresh spinach (medium-size bag) or 2-3 cups chopped fresh kale, stems and large veins removed
handful of white mushrooms, sliced

Block 7:
1 and 1/2 cups sour cream (adjust to taste)

Block 8:
Optional dollop of sour cream and minced chives


(set rice to cook if you are not using instant)

1.  Fry meat, preferably in soup pot, until chicken is cooked through. Remove to bowl with drippings
2.  In the same pot without cleaning, fry up potatoes until starting to brown.  Add 1/4 cup water, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.  If they are not tender, cook up to an additonal five minutes, stirring, until they start to break apart. Remove to bowl.
3.  Add a little oil to the pot and fry Block 3 veggies on medium-high heat until starting to brown, stirring constantly.  Remove to bowl.
4. Pour chicken broth/stock into pot and bring to simmer over medium heat, scraping the bottom to stir up anything that has stuck from steps 1-3.
5.  Add rice and all ingredients prepped so far (steps 1-3)
6.  Bring back to simmer, add spinach and mushrooms.
7. When rice and spinach are both cooked, remove the pot from heat and let sit for 3-5 minutes.
8.  Add sour cream and stir until evenly distributed and creamy.
9. Serve with garnish in individual bowls.  Reheat leftovers in the microwave or stovetop.  Freezable.

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