Friday 9 March 2012

Ten top tips for making memorable soup, and MasterChefSA blogging

My Roast Ratatouille Soup with Basil Mayonnaise
There's an agreeable crispness in the air in the mornings here in Cape Town, a sure sign that autumn's on its way. Never mind Keats's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness; all I'm really looking forward to is making and eating more soup. The older I get, the more I enjoy soup, and during winter often have a bowl of it for breakfast - I think of it as a sort of hot smoothie. But making a really good, well-textured, flavour-packed soup does require some effort, and I hope you'll find my top tips for memorable soup (below) useful.

Before we get to them, though, some news. It's been a very busy six or seven months here at Scrumptious HQ, and with so much freelance work on my plate I've not had the time to compile my usual newsletters (each one takes me up to a week to put together, and I haven't had a single one of those to spare!). I hope to resume sending you them as soon as the dust settles.

I recently joined hopping Cape Town digital agency Liquorice as a social media strategist. In another exciting development, I've been appointed one of four official bloggers for Woolworths, who are a main sponsor of MasterChef South Africa. This action-packed reality show starts in South Africa on 20 March, and I am certain that it's going to cause a sensation when it airs: there's already much talk and speculation in social media circles. You can follow MasterChef on Twitter at @MasterChefSA  (and the hashtag #MasterChefSA), and Woolies at @WOOLWORTHS_SA A link to my Twitter profile is on the top right of this page.

Now to the important business of making soup.

It’s an old-fashioned notion that soups need to be boiled for hours. Good stocks certainly require slow simmering, but many soups need less than 25 minutes’ bubbling after the initial softening of aromatics such as onions, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, and so on. A speedy cooking time helps to preserve the colour and vibrancy of fresh ingredients.

Soups should never cook at a furious boil. A gentle, rolling, burbling boil – a notch above a simmer – is ideal. Take time to skim the foam off soups as it rises.

Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs
Cream of Watercress Soup with Wobbly Eggs
Some of the heartier soups (as with many stews, casseroles and curries) improve enormously on standing: their flavours mellow and mature as the ingredients have time to mingle. Meaty soups, spicy soups and soups made with pulses are often tastier the next day, so feel confident making them in advance if you're cooking for a crowd. Lively vegetable soups that don't require long simmering should be served on the same day they're made.

Invest in a good-quality stick blender. Stick blenders have a huge advantage over liquidisers and food processors in that you don’t need to remove the soup from the pot when the time comes to purée it, so there are fewer things to wash up and a lot less mess. A powerful modern stick blender can quickly produce a very fine purée – finer, in fact, than one produced by liquidisers and food processors, which can be reluctant and often need stirring or scraping down during the blending process.

A soup – or a stock – is only as good as its component parts. Avoid the temptation to use supermarket ‘soup packs’ or ready-chopped bags of vegetables. Soup packs often contain unimpressive specimens of vegetables left over from the supermarket packaging process, while ready-chopped vegetable cubes have such an enormous combined surface area that they quickly turn slimy in the fridge. Take the time to hand-pick the best, freshest, snappiest ingredients.  When it comes to deep flavours, there is nothing quite like a good home-made stock.  Although not every fine soup requires a stock, they do add body and complexity, and it really is worth taking the time to make them -  even a quick stock made with six chicken wings and a few well-chosen aromatics is better than no stock at all (or, worse, a salty stock cube).  Here's my recipe for a chicken stock that's partly made in the oven.

When seasoning a soup with salt and pepper, always do so judiciously, adding a pinch at a time. You or your guests can always add more seasoning to a soup, but an over-salted soup cannot be rescued. Not even with slices of raw potato, as many older cookbooks advise.

Many soups are improved by a squeeze of lemon juice added just before serving; this little spritz of acid can really lift a soup that’s punching below its weight. The same applies to cream - even a few tablespoons can magically mellow and bring together the flavours of a soup.

Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls
My Chakalaka Soup with Little Boerewors Balls
If your soup seems too thick, thin it down with a little hot water, stock or (in the case of creamy white soups) milk. If it’s too watery, put a tablespoon or two of cornflour or flour or arrowroot in a jar, add double the amount of water and shake vigorously until the mixture is smooth. Add this, a dribble at a time, to the simmering soup, stirring constantly, until it reaches the desired thickness.

Soup must be served either piping hot or ice cold – there really are no half-measures. Heat the bowls in the oven before you ladle hot soup into them or, if you’re making a cold soup, chill the bowls in a freezer an hour before you dish up. When you're serving guests, don't overfill their bowls: soup is very filling and not everyone fancies downing litres of it at a time.

Beetroot and Gin Shots
My Iced Beetroot and Gin Shots
A lovely way of serving soup at a feast is to treat it as a snack course. Halve the quantities given in the recipe, and pour the soup into small, sturdy glasses (or even teacups) that you’ve heated in a gentle oven. Add the toppings specified in the recipe and serve immediately. I often serve vegetable soups as snacks with toasted-cheese fingers: grate some Cheddar or Gruyère over a few slices of toasted bread, cook under a hot grill until bubbling, then dust with paprika or cayenne pepper and slice into strips. Balance a cheese finger across the top of each glass, and provide a few extra for hungry guests.

For more soup recipes from my blog archive, click here.

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Nina said...

Well done Jane on all your achievements.... you are so worthy of everyone of them. I just look at all the soups and it is proof of my statement!!

Jeanne @ CookSister! said...

Wonderful tips, one and all - and yes, isn't the arrival of cooler weather a great excuse to make a big pot??