Soups and Stews
A recent issue of the New York Times (mid-Feb 2004) featured comments from a number of prominent chefs including Andre Soltner, founder of the once visionary New York restaurant Lutece, and patron saint of American cooking James Beard. The pretext was to praise plain food. There was quite a lengthy discussion in praise of 'boiled' meat.
The truth is that without some saucy component no set of dishes is much more than half a meal. Most of the flavor is in the sauce and not the solid food. No sauce; no flavor. But sauce does not necessarily mean 'complex.' Choose a cooking method that naturally produces a liquid component and the job is taken car of.
It is no accident, therefore, that soups and stews have enduring culinary value; for they do exactly this.
- They are easy to prepare.
- They scale well, allowing one to easily prepare food for crowds.
- They can easily be nutritionally complete.
- It is easy to achieve sublime results because of the integral sauce.
These facts may be obvious to many accomplished chefs. But we have been conditioned to believe that foods prepared by other methods are superior because they are less 'homey.' The funny fact is that as I approach my fifties is recall that it was not my mother but my grandmothers who excelled at this 'homey' cooking. So most people younger than myself may not reflexively consider good soups and stews to be somehow inferior to more complicated dishes because they once ate them at home.
In my own opinion, the rule of good soup and stew-making is balance. These dishes often stand on their own as whole meals, so it is important that they contain nutrients from a number of different food groups. Here are some examples of classic pairings.
- Meat, carrots, potatoes
- Milk, potatoes, seafood
- Meat, leafy green vegetables
- Meat, tomatoes/peppers, and possibly beans
- Meat, green vegetables, and noodles, dumplings or cooked grains
- Winter squash and pomme fruits
When soups or stews serve up all the nutrients our bodies need we find them more satisfying. Humans lived on stews and roasted meats for millenia, so these preparations are well suited to serving our nutrition needs.
Soups and stews benefit from many of the steps one uses in preparing other sorts of dishes. Here are some ideas.
- Bones of beef, veal, chicken or turkey can be browned to produce a dark broth.
- If shrimp are used their shells are sauteed to make the broth.
- In general, the meat or poultry is browned first.
- One may flour meat sometime during the browning to help thicken any sauce or soup. This cooks the flour at a high temperature , ridding it of a 'pasty' flavor.
- Sauteed vegetables including carrots, onions, and celery are essential ingredients in almost any soup or stew.
- Thicker soups and stews are frequently better, but don't thicken just for texture; paste is not a desired food. Some thickeners substantially add flavor: A good roux, for instance, will add the flavor of browned butter and flour. If you cannot thicken and flavor simultaneously, then leave the preparation as is.
- Even after careful preparation one frequently finds that flavor needs to be enhanced just before serving. Here are a number of tricks which can be used one or two at a time:
- Add a tablespoon of butter
- Two tablespoons of heavy cream.
- Add chopped fresh herbs: dill, parsley, chives, chervil, or cilantro.
- Add dried herbs: parsley, thyme, chervil, shallots
- Serve with a dollop of sour cream.
- Stir in some tamari.
- Add bovril, marmite, or some other salty extract, only if the soup needs salt.
- Stir in some balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
- Stir in a few drops of Worcestershire sauce
- Grind in a bit of fresh pepper and maybe some salt.
- Add a pinch of cayenne pepper or tabasco.
- Add tomato paste or sauteed chopped garlic.
- Stir in some sherry, port, or mirrin.
- Garnish with chopped nuts
- Garnish with barbecued or roasted meat
- Add cooked noodles or rice .
Remember that with many soups and stews time is a crucial ingredient. You cannot rush the preparation. The chemical and physical transformations required to meld a melange of ingredients into a unified whole can take a considerable amount of time; sometimes many hours. Don't cheat.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.