Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Fourteen: Potages


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

The spring has been unseasonably springy. It's usually rather balmy this time of year, but it's been torrential and blustery -- lots of rain, great soup weather! Alas, the gods must hate me, it's muggy, steamy and hot -- so much so that the kitchen actually feels cooler than it does outside -- and we're making soups. What's worse, we are making classic, rich, hot soups! The Jedi Master noted all the people missing while she took attendance and commented that the weather is likely preventing people from feeling the Force ... I wonder how Master Yoda dealt with it all while on swampy, humid Dagobah??

She did promise to add some cold soups to the mix, and breaking from our usual routine, not every group of two would make every soup. She broke us up into three groups (the better to reduce the steaminess of our local environment, perhaps) and had us triple our recipe quantities for three classic soups: Crème Dubarry or Cream of Cauliflower, named for the mistress of a French king, and served either piping hot or chilled, with milk instead of cream; Gratinée l'Oignon or French onion soup, and I swear it's better than anything you would have gotten at any restaurant anywhere, but it's a rich, heavy soup; and Potage Cultivateur or garden vegetable soup, which while not served cold, is light. Those who finished their prep tasks went on to make Vichyssoise, a classic chilled French soup invented in New York city and Gazpacho, the cold, uncooked Spanish soup, in this case served with ice cubes. We'd also went through the steps of clarifying a veal stock to make consommé. Mostly, we would try not to melt down, physically or mentally.

In a way, the steps of soup-making is a normal thing, and should be second-nature to most of us now. We've all done the cutting techniques before, from knowing how to clean leeks, slice onions émincer, or paysanne. This class was run more like how restaurants run, where a line cook is given a task or set of tasks, food is prepped on schedule, and when your task is done, you move on to help others. Though soups are ostensibly the object of the lesson, the real lesson is a taste of the professional kitchen -- the only taste for many, especailly for those who don't go on toward Apprenticeship and Knighthood.

There were some interesting mishaps, that the rest of us had to decide how to deal with. For instance, Gratinée l'Oignon should be made with beef or strong veal stock, but one of the padawans measured out chicken stock. This results in a very light soup. We could start all over again, but that's a waste of ingredients, albeit cheap ones. Still, it represents a lot of work -- 6 kg of onions were thinly sliced by hand! The concensus was to rapidly boil down the chicken stock, measure out half the amount of veal stock we should have used and boil that down to half again, then combine the two. The result was not as thick, salty or heavy as the traditional all-beef stock -- a nice improvement!

In another case, one padawan had forgotten how to clean a leek -- whittle off the dark green top leaves, wash them and reserve them for mirepoix, then split the white part and wash to remove the sand. She threw out the greens, so that we ended up upending the garbage to retrieve and rewash them, then tried to clean the leeks without splitting them, resulting in a gritty bowl of emincer leeks. Nothing for it but to float the lot in a big bowl of water, work the leek to wash out the dirt, let the dirt settle to the bottom and skim off the slices, then dry them before sweating them.

For the vegetable stock-based Potage Cultivateur, the vegetable trimmings should have been put in water and simmered for 30 minutes to make a stock to flavor the otherwise bland soup. The padawans misunderstood and thought the carefully cut vegetables that are the base and garnish of the soup were the makings of stock ... so the soup was very bland. We considered sneaking in bouillion powder, but hesitated. We didn't want to be killed by the Masters! So we boiled down chicken stock to an almost demi-glace state (90% reduction) and added it by ladle fulls to the soup, then salted and tasted. Turned out like a very elegant chicken vegetable soup. Not bad, just not what was intended, but a good save.

In contrast, Vichyssoise should be made with water, not stock. Believe it or not, this recipe is just perfect with leeks, potatoes, water and salt, cooked till soft, then puréed in a blender. Chill it down, finish with cream if desired, reseason (cold dulls the taste buds, so you need to overseason to compensate), garnish with chervil sprigs (they're milder than parsley). It was invented in a New York City restaurant on a hot, humid day (typical of New York summers), which gives it American origins ... though the chef was French!

We also realized that the cheese of choice in French cooking is gruyère. We grated a whole kilogram of it for the Onion Soup, and for surreptitious nibbling. A baguette was sliced very thin, then spiced with cayenne, sprinkled with cheese and toasted on parchment paper-lined sheet pans. These were put in the bottom of the crocks (you've all seen the classic onion soup bowl -- looks like a short, stubby pottery bean pot), the soup was ladled over, making sure you get a lot on onions, then another slice, then more cheese. It was put into the oven till melted and bubbling. The chicken + veal stock was a revelation -- delicious, rich, but not as heavy or slightly bitter like an all-beef stock onion soup can be.

The Gazpacho was made in a food processor. In professional kitchens, the brand of choice is not Moulinex, Magimix or Cuisinart; it's RoboCoup. You've seen it in some food programs -- a silvery or red or black motor housing with a big workbowl with a donut-shaped lid, so that ingredients can be added through the hole in the middle while it's doing it's thing. Even used and refurbished, these things are worth from $700 to $5000 ... It did pulverize all the vegetables and the ice cubes we added in for body. They remain uncooked, so you really do need a fine chop to break the cell walls to aid in digestion and to make a soup-like texture. Thanks to Tex-Mex cuisine though, it mostly tastes like drinking salsa. Personally, I prefer my gazpacho made in a mortar and pestle, to crush rather than chop the vegetables and herbs. But since today's metaphor was restaurants, we also learned that mortar and pestle is not a good idea in that sort of quantity!

As for the consommé, it's stock that has been clarified. Putting it through a sieve isn't enough. There are tiny particles of coagulated proteins, vegetable bits, etc. If you plan on making consommé, you need to simmer your stock, not boil it; the latter is energetic and will break up meat and vegetable bits and cloud the stock. Even after these precautions, the stock will still be cloudy, but as long as it's not overly cloudy, you can add what Diana calls a "flocculant/coagulant" to gather up the particles, and make them big enough to straing out. (I thought she was swearing at me when she said it, actually!)

You also "fortify" the flavors by adding aromatics and herbs cut into brunoise, the small dice that derives from julienne or matchstick cut vegetables, as well as very lean ground meat. In fact, instead of chopping, you can grind the vegetables, herbs, spices and meat together. You separate eggs and keep the yolks for some other recipe, but keep the whites and shells. Stir these with the flavorings and meat to make the "clarification mixture." It looks gross, but don't worry, you don't eat this. All the shells and egg whites will attract and trap the tiny particles that cloud the stock.

First, cool the stock to lukewarm at the hottest. Cold is even better, because if the stock is too hot, it will cook the eggwhites before they get a chance to trap anything, and your stock will still be cloudy. So put the mixture in the bottom of a cold, clean pot, then pour in the cool stock and mix well. Bring to a simmer slowly, stirring often. Once the eggwhite starts to foam, stop stirring and keep the pot at a slow simmer. You want a "raft" to form at the top of the stock -- this is "spent" eggwhite that has trapped sediment, then cooked and floated to the surface. Do not disturb the raft. Let it cook for about an hour to extract flavor from the clarification mixture. To keep the raft from drying out, moisten it lightly, or keep a lid on the pot, gapped askew a bit.

Carefully crack the surface of the raft, being careful not to dislodge any sediment. Prepare a chinoise and line it with triple layer of cheesecloth or muslim -- the cloth needs to be dampened -- do not use it dry. Carefully ladle the consommé through the cloth and sieve. This could take a long time, and do not agitate the stock or squeeze the cloth -- like jellying, this will force the fine particles you want to eliminate right into the stock, and why did you do all that work for?? So be patient. Go and do something else if you need to.

Note that you won't be able to get all the liquid. The Jedi Knight assisting the Master pointed out that eventually, you will start dislodging the raft, so you have to make a decision when enough is enough. The rest of the stock can be strained conventionally and used in any application where a perfectly clear consommé is not required. He said to expect to lose a third or more of the volume.

Is it worth it? When vegetables are cut into paysanne or brunoise and cooked gently, then scattered like confetti in a shallow bowl with a well-flavored consommé poured carefully over ... your sweetie will be impressed, is all I can say. And it's tasty but light, a perfect first course. It can even be chilled into a gelée -- like an aspic. The possibilities for artistic expression are greatly magnified if you have a good consommé on hand.

What else is cooking for? It's not just about nutrition, after all! Becasue it was so hot, the other padawans didn't want to take soups home, so I cadged it all. I shared it with other WookieeHut people (sent in 1-quart containers, wrapped well in plastic wrap), and they can't wait for more!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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