With the cooler weather upon us it's time to put soup back on the menu. Granted, there are light and healthy soups that are still tasty and satisfying. There must be. But that's not us. Soup is comfort food and as such, should have the element of indulgence.
Now you may recall a few months back I was bullied into adopting a low fat diet - no cheese, no bread, no fun. But that doesn't mean that the ship has to go down with the captain, and we'll prove it with today's recipe rich with cheddar cheese, hearty from potatoes and spicy thanks to roasted poblano chiles.
The first time I read a recipe using the techniques described below, it might as well have been written in Greek. Actually it was French.
Roux and veloutes show up all over the place not only in classical cooking but in most European cuisines. A roux is a mixture of fat - oil or butter - and flour that is usually cooked a little before being added to stock - chicken, beef, fish, etc. - in order to thicken it. This thickened stock is called a veloute.
There are a myriad of rules pertaining to this simple procedure ranging from the scientific to the superstitious designed to avoid the dreaded lumps in your sauce or soup. One book will tell you always add cold stock to hot roux while the next one will say to add cold roux to hot stock. Low heat vs. high heat for cooking. Whips vs. spoons for stirring. Incantations to recite while stirring. I'm here to tell you that I have had to break every one of these rules at one time or another out of necessity and it still works.
If you are going to add the stock to the roux as in today's recipe, stir in just enough liquid to make a thick paste before proceeding with the balance of your stock. If you are in a situation where you are making a few different soups or sauces over a period of time, it's best to make a batch of roux, allow it to cool, then add as much as you need to the hot stock. Roux will keep virtually forever and doesn't need to be refrigerated. In either case the veloute has to be brought to an easy boil to achieve the thickening.
Once you are comfortable with the technique there's a million ways you can use it. Let's say you want to make a broccoli soup. Saute your onions in the prescribed amount of butter then add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, cook the broccoli in a pot of chicken stock until tender. Strain out the broccoli and add the stock to the roux. Bring to a simmer then add the cooked broccoli. Finish it with a little cream or half and half. It works for any vegetable - cauliflower, squash, spinach, carrots - you name it.
There are some that claim veloutes and rouxs are old fashioned and not a part of contemporary cuisine. Once while being interviewed for a position at the Hyatt Union Square in San Francisco I was given this very lecture by the executive chef. While he was telling me how they do not use the old ways in his hotel, I was watching a cook no more than 10 feet away stirring what must have been 60 pounds of roux in a steam jacketed kettle. So blatant was the hypocrisy that I wondered if he was testing me to see if I had the cojones to call him on it. I did not and ultimately got the job.
Master this simple technique and you will be ready to open your own soup kitchen. Given the current state of affairs it might come in handy.
Cheddar and Poblano Chile Soup
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 ounce butter
4 ounce flour
2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
6 cups chicken stock
2 medium potatoes
1 cup whipping cream
2 poblano or Anaheim chilies
1 pound cheddar cheese, grated
1⁄4 cup dry sherry
For the chilies: If you have a gas stove, place the chilies directly on the flame of your burner. Using a pair of tongs, turn them in the flame until they are blistered and somewhat blackened all over. Place them in a heat proof bowl, cover with plastic, and allow them to steam off for 15 minutes. Remove the burnt skin by scraping with a knife or rubbing with a dry dish towel. Cut them open and scrape out the seeds. Cut into a small dice and reserve.
A broiler will also work for blackening the chilies, but it takes longer. If you don't feel like dealing with it, buy a can of Ortega diced green chilies, drain and rinse them then proceed.
For the potatoes: Peel the potatoes, cut them lengthwise and slice into 1⁄4-inch thick slices. Place the potatoes in a pot with the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cook until tender. About 20 minutes.
For the roux: While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a separate pot and saute the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent. Stir in the cumin and oregano and cook for one minute. Stir in the flour and cook over medium heat for about two minutes, stirring constantly.
For the veloute: Strain about 2 cups of the stock from the potatoes into the roux (flour/butter mixture) and stir with a whip until a thick paste is formed. Stir in the remaining stock, cooked potatoes and cream. Bring to a simmer. Cook for about 5 minutes until thickened and no longer able to taste the flour. Reduce the heat to low, spread the cheese over the surface of the veloute, wait a couple of minutes then stir the cheese into the soup. Add the sherry and taste for salt. Serve hot garnished with a little pico de gallo.
• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.