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By Dave DeWitt
Soups are the elegant side of a chef’s kitchen. In professional cooking, tradition holds that the head chef always makes the soup. In fact, if you catch the chef eating something in his kitchen, chances are it will be a soup. Why do chefs love soups? Because it gives them a chance to recycle some of the byproducts of the main dishes, as well as take advantage of seasonal ingredients. Chefs believe that soups are the everyday practice of the art of balancing flavors, and the same concepts used to make great sauces will work to make great soups. Soup-making is an elegant art and an understated way to show off one’s culinary expertise.
Chefs also love soups because they are make-ahead meals that can be held for a long time before serving. A soup to open a meal signals that what follows will be an elegant feast. Yet soups are also basic comfort foods, and can become a full meal when served with the right accompaniments. Also, soups are a great way to use up supermarket loss leaders or special sales. For example, salmon does not freeze particularly well, but salmon stock does.
Making Good Stocks
It is an axiom of soup making that a great soup starts with a great stock. So, if a cook is going to go to all the trouble of making a soup from scratch, first make a good stock. It doesn’t take very much time to make good stocks, and in many cases they are the keys to the vibrant flavors of soups. Stocks store well and freeze well, so they are worth the effort it takes to make them.
To make a good stock, use real ingredients—do not use bouillon cubes or powders, or canned stocks. Use fresh garlic (not granulated), and fresh celery leaves. Always use fresh herbs unless they are unavailable; if using dry herbs, double the amount in the recipe.
Chefs believe that the trash can or garbage disposal is the enemy of a good stock, so try to recycle as much as you can in the kitchen. In professional chef competitions, the trash is weighed and chefs have points deducted for disposing of too much. We keep several plastic bags in the freezer for trimmed and leftover ingredients that can be used in stocks. We save such things as the end pieces of onions and carrots, the trimmings from celery, parsley stems, mushroom stems, and shrimp skins (for seafood base). Always save bones for meat stocks, and fish parts, bones, and trimmings for a seafood stock. Sometimes seafood butchers can be talked out of their trimmings, such as fish heads, shrimp peels, fins, bones, and you can turn them into great stocks.
Stocks should be concentrated, so be sure to boil them down. This is classic French reduction technique and the cook can always add the water back to the concentrated stock. Soups will taste better using concentrated stocks, and they take up less room in the freezer.
After the stock has been reduced, cool in it the freezer; any fat fat will rise and congeal and it can be removed with a spoon. Instead of using bouillon cubes, freeze the stocks in ice cube trays and remove the cubes to zip bags. Then you can have small amounts of stock when you need them.