Introduction : Soup
It might be the perfectly cooked piece of meat or homemade sourdough bread that attracts the oohs and aahs at a restaurant, but more often than not we’re most impressed by the way chefs can get so much flavour into seemingly simple elements on the plate.
While at home we might fret over which seasonal vegetables to serve with our pigeon starter or how best to present a bowl of stew, professional chefs are focusing on how to intensify the sauce for their veal or make the carrot and ginger really sing in their soup.
With all the recipes and ingredients available to us today, it’s important to occasionally take a step back and make sure we’ve got a grasp of the basics. Without mastering these, it doesn’t matter how good we are at plating up or how many different types of paprika you’ve used in your main course. Here are five soups and sauces that should be in the repertoire of any accomplished home cook.
1. French onion Soup
Onions tend to play a background role in most dishes but in this classical French soup they’re put centre stage, allowing their deep sweetness to shine through. While it might seem a bit simple from the outset – a combination of stock, wine, onions and herbs – it’s the way the soup is made that makes it such an important dish. The onions need to be cooked for at least an hour on their own until they turn sticky, dark brown and release all their flavour. Only then can they be simmered in stock and wine, rounded off nicely with herbs and seasonings. This is a dish that separates average cooks from great ones.
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2. Espagnole sauce Soup
You might not recognise the name, but this is actually one of Auguste Escoffier’s five ‘mother’ sauces that lay the foundations for all classical French cooking. It all begins with a roux, which is cooked until the butter browns before being topped up with either veal stock or water. Bones, beef trimmings, vegetables such as carrots, onions and celery and herbs are added and the liquid is left to simmer and slowly reduce until thickened, at which point a little tomato purée is added.
Espagnole itself is rarely used as is – it’s flavour is incredibly strong and risks overpowering everything else on the plate. Instead, it is used as a basis for all sorts of other sauces such as demi-glace, and combined with red wine, mushrooms or spices to suit different ingredients.
3. Bisque Soup
This rich, creamy soup is so silky and smooth it’s often served like a sauce, so being able to make one from scratch opens up all sorts of culinary doors. While you can make a bisque from all sorts of ingredients, these days the word is usually associated with shellfish, particularly crab, lobster and prawn. Shells actually contain lots and lots of flavour but they’re pretty unpleasant to eat, so French chefs discovered that by roasting them and then simmering in stock, they could extract all this and make a wonderfully aromatic broth. Some would even grind the shells down afterward and use them as a thickener.
The resulting liquid is then thickened with rice, which is either left to simmer and leech out its starch in the soup before being removed, or simply cooked and puréed into the bisque itself. Today, bisque is often made even richer with the addition of cream.
4. Gravy Soup
The French may have their mother sauces, but for most of us a jug of decent gravy will beat a thin jus any day, and making it at home to go alongside your Sunday roast means all those delicious juices won’t be wasted.
It helps if you throw in a few roughly chopped onions, carrots or other root vegetables into your roasting pan before cooking your roast, as they’ll caramelise and add further flavour. Once the meat is removed and resting, put the pan over a medium heat and sprinkle over some flour. Add some wine or alcohol of your choosing then stir constantly, scraping the bottom to make sure all those lovely little bits of caramelised meat and veg are flavouring the liquid. Top up with stock until it’s the right thickness, add whatever herbs and seasonings you like, then strain.
5. Vegetable Soup
Probably the most useful recipe in a cook’s repertoire, vegetable soup can make the most of any vegetables in your fridge that you can’t find a use for anywhere else. However, it’s often maligned as a disappointing or ‘needs must’ dish that’s eaten out of duty over anything else. But that’s only because we don’t give it the care and attention it deserves.
A good vegetable soup should taste more intense than the ingredients it’s made from, and requires other ingredients to help bring those flavours to the fore. Roasting your star vegetable can bring out its sweetness, while simply boiling it in stock (either vegetable to keep it meat-free or chicken for a richer flavour) will retain its freshness. Frying onions and garlic in butter is essential, as they are the perfect companion to almost any vegetable, and adding herbs and spices will keep things interesting.
Cream can be added for an extra-rich soup, and blending it with a little butter or olive oil will emulsify the ingredients and result in a very silky finish. Finish the soup with something acidic, such as citrus juice or vinegar, to cut through the vegetal flavour, then garnish with something crunchy for a contrast in texture.