Quick Cooking Part Two
When you come home at the end of the day it is easy to take one look at your kitchen and waves the white flag of surrender and pick up the phone to get take out.
But that need not be the case.
With a few pantry staples it is easy to make a completely satisfying meal in a matter of minutes.
Soup is a quick cooking life saver.
With endless permutations it is possible to serve a different, main course soup every night for months without repeating a single night. And I dare say you could probably do it for a year straight.
There are all kinds of soups. Winter soups, summer soups, hearty soups, light soups, and even dessert soups.
They are easy to improvise and with the help of a little canned stock, can be made in 20 minutes or less. Served with a side salad and some bread or noodles and you have a quick, nourishing meal without having to reach for the take out menu.
The problem with commercial canned broth, by which I mean the rectangular vacuum sealed containers not actual cans which taste horrible by comparison, is that it has a commercial and fairly bland flavor. It is however very easy to perk up the flavor of those broths and if not make them as good as home made, at least make them taste like they weren’t just poured out of a jar.
If the soup is going to be clear, the broth should be flavored with something, brought to a boil and allowed to simmer for 5-10 minutes. My favorites include garlic, dried porcini mushrooms, ginger, lemon grass, or herbs. These can be used alone or in any combination. At this step I generally season the broth and add any dried herbs allowing their flavor to infuse into the broth. Having been treated this way the commercial broth begins to take on a lovely subtle flavor that forms a complex base for the soup it is about to become. A slash or sherry, Mirin (Japanese rice wine), or wine is never a miss either, adding just that extra dimension of flavor that makes it seem like you have slaved hours over it.
If the soup is going to be creamy or based on a vegetable puree, such as pumpkin, then there is no need to enrich the stock as really it serves the purpose of thinning an already flavorful medium.
From there almost anything is possible. But I like to stick to a basic formula: three to four vegetable sources for every one protein source. This creates both visual appeal and textural contrast. I generally choose quick cooking vegetables that need not be in the broth for any more than 3-5 minutes. Since the veggies are cooked anyway this is a great way to use up leftovers from party trays or the bags of frozen things that have been sitting in your freezer. Or even the dried mushrooms that have been sitting in your pantry for a year.
Creamy soups are even easier as everything gets heated together until soft then dumped in a blender until smooth. I defy any picky eater to tell that a least favorite vegetable is lurking in the passionately orange depths of their pumpkin soup. This has zucchini in it?
With the basics in place, it is time to decide on a flavor profile. I generally pick a region and stick with it. After all, the people of that region spent hundreds of years coming up with those flavors, something which I am inclined to trust. I am not sure why, but for clear (or almost clear) soups I prefer an Asian or an Italian flavor profile. For creamy soups I like Indian or European.
To make things even easier on myself, I sometimes pre-blend my seasonings, even if it means using *gasp* dried herbs! In a lot of cases, it is just as easy to buy seasoning mixes. Garam Masala, Five Spice Powder, Herb de Provance, Taco Seasoning, and Italian Blend are easily available in most grocery stores. Added in the beginning of the cooking process they pack a lot of flavor for very little effort. Of course a fresh herb or two added just before taking the soup off the stove would never go amiss but it is also not necessary.
The thing is, no one has to know that the soup didn’t take all day. A quick cooking soup can be dressed up and primped any way you want to go from informal dinner in front of the TV to company food. The trick there lies in toppers. A pumpkin soup swirled with a little coconut milk and topped with some sweet crab pieces makes a spectacular and fancy start to a meal. A southwest flavored soup can be topped with chopped tomatoes, avocado, and cilantro and served with tortilla chips for a fun twist. Even a clear broth can be rendered elegant when it is served with hot noodles and pre-cooked vegetables on the side so that the diner can customize their soup their way.
Ok. Ok. I know. Talking about improvising is scary. There is no method to follow. No guidelines. Too many variables. So here are some examples from the above pictures.
Clear Broth Soup Asian Style
¼ cup Mirin
4 cups vegetable or mushroom stock
4 shitake or porcini mushrooms, slices
7 stalks asparagus, slices
1 cup corn
15- 20 pea pods
16 pre-cooked shrimp
½ teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Add the Mirin, mushrooms, spices (except salt), garlic, and stock to a medium sized pan. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Add the peapods, allow to come to a boil and cook for 1 minute. Once the soup is simmering again, add the corn and asparagus. Bring to a boil, add the shrimp and removes from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes.
Serve with a salad with peanut-ginger dressing and cooked Udon noodles. Pour soup over the top.
Make that Southwest Style
Change the veggie stock to chicken (or not)
Exchange the mushrooms with chipotle chiles in adobo, crushed
Exchange the shrimp for left over chicken or cooked ground beef
Exchange the asparagus for beans (about a cup)
Exchange the Pea Pods for tomatoes (canned is fine)
Swap the Five Spice powder for Chili seasoning
Follow the same directions.
Serve with tortilla chips and a little tray of garnishes such as dices tomatoes, dices avocado, dices chiles, grated cheese, and a little sour cream. Allow everyone to top it their own way.
Make that Indian Style
Swap out the Mirin for Sherry
Swap the pea pods for a cup of peas
Swap out the asparagus for cauliflower, divided into small flowerets
Swap the corn for a cup of cooked lentils or garbanzo beans
Leave out the corn
Swap garam masala for the five spice powder
Cook as above.
Serve with warm bread.
Creamy Squash Soup
2 cups pumpkin or other squash puree
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup corn
1 cup cauliflower, cut into small flowerets
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon curry powder
1 cup light coconut milk or half and half
1 inch piece of fresh ginger or ½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup jumbo lump crab meat
In a medium sized pot bring the chicken stock and pumpkin puree to a boil. Add everything except the crab meat and half of the milk or cream. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove the ginger. Using a stick or regular blender, puree the soup until it is smooth and velvety.
Serve topped with a little coconut milk or half and half and the crab.
I don’t like Pumpkin Variant
Switch the pumpkin with mashed potato, mashed parsnips, beats, butternut squash, or cauliflower
Add a cup of liquid
Continue as above