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Learning to Cook: Building Flavor

March 3, 2011

There have been some new lurkers around here in the past few days. These have been readers who clicked through on Times Union blogger Amanda Talar’s post about her desire to cook more.

If you are one of these new readers, welcome.
If you are not, welcome back.

Today’s post is on a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but other things have always seemed to take precedence. However given:
1)    Amanda’s recent desire to learn to cook
2)    An unfortunate soup recipe I saw from another local blogger, and 
3)    The ever-shortening window to write about soups and stews,
The time is nigh.

Here’s the thing. More important than recipes is understanding cooking methods and techniques. And soups especially are one of those things that attract novice cooks. They’re easy to make, hard to mess up, and allow for a lot of creativity. But if you are working without a recipe, you should at least start with a basic knowledge of how to build flavor.

Don’t worry. It’s easy.

There are some foods that are cooked and then flavorings are added to them. Think about a grilled steak topped with caramelized onions or blue cheese. But there are other dishes likes soups and stews that should be deeply flavored at their core. This isn’t done by adding a sprinkle of this and a sprinkle of that at the end of cooking. This is done in the pan, and it starts with heating the oil.

Let me back up for just a second. Marcella Hazan discusses this using all kinds of fancy Italian words in the first few pages of her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. But despite her insinuations, the technique isn’t exclusive to Italian food.

Different cuisines have their signature combination of aromatic vegetables.
In Italy a soffrito is usually onions, garlic and celery or carrot.
In Spain a sofrito is onions, green pepper and garlic.
In France a mirepoix is carrots, onions and celery.
In New Orleans the holy trinity is green peppers, onions and celery.

First you heat the oil. Okay, really first you heat the pan. Then when the pan is hot, you add the oil, and when the oil is hot, then you add the aromatic vegetables. Marcella argues for adding them one at a time depending upon their cooking times. In her world, onions go first, followed by garlic, and then the celery or carrot. An attempt to cook all the aromatics simultaneously would result in either undercooked onions (they would fail to reach their translucent stage) or overcooked garlic (picking up a golden color and assertive flavor that would dominate the final dish).

I should also mention here that it is critical to salt as you go.

Salt helps break down the cellular walls of your vegetables, which allows their flavors to meld. Without salt you won’t have a soffrito but rather just some sautéed vegetables. Remember, salt doesn’t just make things salty. Salt helps the natural flavors of your food come through. It’s over-salting food that makes it taste salty. You have to keep tasting your food as you cook to keep your salt level in check.

Congratulations, your aromatics are softened and you have a flavor base! Now let’s build. Find some ground spices (coriander, cumin, paprika, black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, etc.) and hearty dried herbs (rosemary, oregano, marjoram, etc.) that sound appealing to you. Delicate dried herbs  like basil and parsley and their fresh counterparts will have to wait their turn. Create your custom spice blend and cook it into the flavor base over medium-high to high heat. You’ll smell those spices becoming more aromatic, and when your soup is done the spices won’t taste raw. Instead of having soup with spices in it, you’ll have made a deeply flavored soup.

Now what kind of soup is it? Take the hearty main ingredient, be it beans, carrots, potatoes, or winter squash, and add it to the flavor base and mix it up. While the pot is on the heat, and before putting any liquid in the pot, make sure your main ingredient gets slathered in a layer of your well-spiced flavor base.

Finally it’s time to add the liquid, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Mind you, the liquid can be water, broth or stock. You can add a rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a ham hock, a bay leaf, or even some roasted veal bones for added flavor.

More delicate ingredients like parsley, celery, basil, spinach, or cilantro come in at the very end, otherwise they will end up tasting stewed and slimy.

Leave the soup chunky and brothy, put a couple of cups in a blender and return them to the pot to add some body, or puree the whole thing until it’s silky smooth. Enrich the soup with some cream or a can of coconut milk if you like. Just remember before you serve your creation to taste it and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Now marvel at the depth of flavor in the bowl before you.

It’s not much harder than just throwing stuff in a pot. It just takes a bit more mindfulness. But it pays off. I promise.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 3, 2011 11:13 am

    And if there is meat in your soup, you’ll want to brown that up before the mirepoix, then remove it, then cook your base, then add the meat back (unless it’s already cooked or you want it boiled, in which case the flavor will be somewhat lighter than if you had browned it). Then there’s the question of stock vs. water. . .

  2. March 3, 2011 11:14 am

    Here is one of the easiest soups ever, courtesy of the Jean-Georges Vongerichten, via Metrocurean:

    2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks
    4 cups chicken stock [or veg]
    1 ¼ cup crème frâiche [or some heavy cream or Greek yogurt, or nada to keep it dairy free–maybe blended silken tofu could add some texture/creaminess though.]
    2 tbsp butter [or marg. Or evoo]
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper

    Garnish [read: I’ve always skipped it]:
    2 cups black trumpet mushrooms, washed (or use shiitakes if you can’t find black trumpet )
    1 shallot, chopped
    1 tbsp butter
    2 tbsp chives, cut into small pieces

    In a large pot, combine the squash and stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook for about 20-30 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Working in batches, purée the mixture in a blender. [Or blend in the pot with an immersion blender.] Return the purée to the pot over medium-low heat, and add the crème frâiche and butter. Season with salt and pepper to your taste.

    Garnish: sauté shallots in butter for 3-4 minutes over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté for about 3-5 minutes, until the mushrooms start to brown slightly.

    [Brackets are just where I haven’t followed instructions. Because cooking is about having fun, what you have on hand, and doing what works for you to see if it tastes good.]

  3. March 3, 2011 3:42 pm

    I’ll keep this in mind when I next make Chicken Soup.

  4. March 3, 2011 7:37 pm

    Here’s my favourite pumpkin soup recipe

    Pumpkin soup recipe ingredients: makes 2 servings

    1 pumpkin or winter squash
    2 stalks celery
    1 green pepper
    1 medium onion
    1 pint of stock (20fl oz)
    1 tbsp pumpkin spice
    olive or coconut oil for coating the veggies
    salt & pepper
    chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

    tbsp = tablespoon


    Preheat your oven to 180C (350f). Chop the pumpkin/squash in half and remove the seeds, lightly oil the cut side. Place cut side down on a baking sheet.

    Remove seeds from pepper and chop with the celery and onion into smallish pieces. Oil the pieces and place on the tray with the pumpkin/squash and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes until tender.

    Let cool, and scoop out the soft pumpkin/squash. Add to a blender or food processor with some of the stock and blend with the roasted veggies. Add enough stock until you get the thickness you prefer.

  5. John H. permalink
    March 4, 2011 2:25 am

    Profussor – how do you like to use leftover chicken bones/skeleton in making soup?

  6. Kerosena permalink
    March 8, 2011 1:19 pm

    In my most recent stews and soups, I have added reconstituted porcini mushrooms. I hydrate 1/4 – 1/2 oz. of dried porcinis in a cup of broth for about 15 minutes, then chop them incredibly fine(ly?), almost like a paste. I add the paste, along with the steeped broth to the pot of soup. It really brought another layer of depth to both my 10-vegetable barley soup and my beef stew.

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