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Cream soups: ’tis the season

soupA few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a long, curious story about home cooks who sustain injuries while operating their immersion blenders.

“Who are these people?” I wondered of the victims who recounted their visits to the emergency room as well as their ruined batches of Carrie-at-the-prom cookie dough. I have an immersion blender, but I couldn’t imagine putting my fingers anywhere near the blades without making sure it was powered off — just as I couldn’t imagine changing lanes on I-285 without taking at least a cursory glance in the rearview mirror.

But between the article and the snap of cold weather at the time, I did get a sudden hankering to use the immersion blender to whip up a batch of cream soup. This kind of soup is something that seems so old-fashioned I’m almost embarrassed to make it. But it always gets a thumbs up from the family. Cream of potato, cream of carrot, cream of cabbage: The more lowly and commonplace the vegetable, the warmer the welcome.

Let me lay down my quick rules of homemade soup: If I have a container of good homemade stock in the freezer, I will almost always turn it into a chunky bean, farro or vegetable soup to showcase its flavor and body. If I have a couple of emergency quarts of chicken broth in the pantry left over from Thanksgiving, then I hide it in a cream soup.

Many restaurant kitchens have taken the basic cream soup and elevated it to showcase-appetizer status. They mix the base in a high-performance blender, such as the Vitamix, until it becomes as soft and glossy as liquid silk. The soup may then get a last-minute spin in the blender or a visit from a cappuccino wand until the surface froths. And then the cooks garnish the soup — usually with something salty and crunchy to contrast its velvety texture and add another layer of flavor.

Without any disrespect to restaurant chefs, I think a home cook needs no garnish. If your soup looks like something that was served to 19th century farmhands by dour women in long aprons, all the better. Steaming, thick and army green, it should smell appetizing and have layers of flavor that open up on the spoon without any tricks.

To build these layers takes a little, not a lot, of patience. You need to really cook your base aromatics — onions, leeks, dried herbs — until they’re released and concentrated any juices. You need to simmer the starring vegetable with a little potato (for thickening) for a good long spell until it has given up any texture or fight.

Then you add the cream, which works like an Instagram filter — blurring the edges of these ingredients yet amping up their colorful essences. That touch of fat makes the leek and shallot jump from the background.

I do have a little trick here, which is I like to use Mexican or Salvadoran crema — a lightly soured cream that is a bit thicker than heavy cream and contains a natural emulsifier that helps keep the soup’s smooth texture after it boils.

There’s one more trick: I like to add a judicious pinch of MSG to give that canned broth a boost and keeps me from over-salting the soup.

If the thought of MSG weirds you out, then a shot of fish sauce gives the same flavor boost.

Cream of Broccoli Soup

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 40 minutes Serves: 8

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large leek, white and light green part only, chopped and rinsed
  • 1 large shallot, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 2 broccoli crowns, chopped
  • 1 large white or russet potato, peeled and chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ⅓ cup cream, sour cream or Mexican or Honduran crema to finish (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon monosodium glutamate (optional)

Melt the butter over medium-low heat in the bottom of a 5-quart pot. Add the leek, shallot and thyme and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are wilted, very fragrant and just starting to color — about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth, broccoli and potato, turn up heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the bay leaves and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are mush.

Remove the bay leaves and blend in the pot with an immersion blender until smooth. (Alternately, transfer ingredients to standing blender, blend, then return to the pot.) Add the optional cream or sour cream and season to taste with salt, pepper and the optional MSG. Bring just to the boil, check seasoning and serve.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

7 comments Add your comment

Lucy@acookandherbooks

February 4th, 2013
4:19 pm

Mmmm…love the tip about Mexican crema.

RK

February 4th, 2013
5:00 pm

I just bought a pressure cooker, and I’m trying my hand at some of the soups from Moderinst Cuisine at Home…

HotlantaHobo

February 4th, 2013
5:59 pm

The Mexican-style cremas are the closest we get to the French crème fraiche and are an excellent substitute. The main difference is the stabilizer added to the Hispanic product.

Most interesting is your near-apology/embarrassment in making an old-fashioned dish. Frankly I wish there were more restaurants serving high-quality “old fashioned” foods, especially those of continental European origin, rather than the trendy ephemeral contrivances that overwhelm this blog.

Kar

February 4th, 2013
10:13 pm

Tried a daal this weekend and you couldn’t come up with something simpler. Put lentils & chopped onion in pot, add seasonings and cook till they fall apart. Season with a can of spinach or lemon for variety.

Sharan

February 5th, 2013
4:19 am

Loved the recipe its nice!

Baltisraul.....

February 5th, 2013
8:39 am

John, great topic for discussion today!
My favorite is ‘Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese & Broccoli’ Soup (Ronald Reagen recipe) and who can forget The Coach & Six’s Black Bean Soup. It was the added Madeira wine that put it over the top!

Art

February 6th, 2013
3:37 pm

I know it’s out of the cream realm but I made split pea soup on Monday and it truly hit the spot… Next on the list is Matzo ball… While again, it contains no cream, I’ve been told that I make it the best of any Goyam around… and better than most Jewish versions… Soup is such a “soul warming” dish this time of year…