Can your soup stop the traffic? These “traffic light” soups can!
I have a classic joke about soup, but many of my lady friends who have heard it said to me that it cannot be told in polite company – so you don’t get to hear the joke here, sorry.
It’s funny that I don’t really like soup, but I can prepare very good soup nevertheless – call me genius if you like. It started with me realising that many of the women in my life love soup, starting with my dear old mother, who is quite happy to have just a soup and bread for dinner every night.
Over the years, I’ve chalked up a wide repertoire of soup recipes – I suspect it was the conniving inner me scheming to worm my way into the hearts of the fairer sex. Needless to say, I love giving classes on making soup, as these are well-attended by women.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the soup that people enjoy most are the classics – the kind of soups I learned to make from the text book in cooking school. These are the nothing-fancy, time-tested recipes. These recipes work wherever I go in the world, in my work as a culinary consultant – everybody, regardless of age, finds great satisfaction in these basic soups which come in various styles.
There are clear consommé-type soups, creamy soups, hearty soups with meat added, and vegetable and lentil-based soups. You can also distinguish between smooth, blended soups and chunky soups with bite, and those falling somewhere in between.
For the recipes here – chosen for their colours, just for the sake of having a theme, but also because they are delicious – I have added an extra layer of complexity, pairing a classic soup such as chicken cream soup, with corn; tomato soup with capsicum; and broccoli soup with blue cheese.
Making soup is not just about knowing how to boil, as depending on the recipe, several cooking techniques may be called for, like sweating vegetables, and making a roux.
Sweating of vegetables
In cooking, the term “sweating” means to cook over low heat in a small amount of fat, usually in a covered pan. This usually refers to the way aromatic vegetables such as onion, carrot, celery and leek are cooked prior to adding other ingredients.
The objective in sweating vegetables is to soften them and release the moisture in them, not to brown them. This release of moisture is how the term “sweat” gets its name. Sweating can be done with oil or butter. Using butter will give better flavours – a more mellow, rounder and richer taste in your soup, especially in the making of a creamy soup.
Heat the fat over low heat – the lower, the better, but it will mean taking a longer time. You need to push the vegetables around with a spatula now and then for more even cooking. Cook for about 15 minutes – you can cover with a lid – or until vegetables are translucent and soft, and there is no water left in the pan. Now you are ready to add the other ingredients.
A pre-condition of successful sweating is how you cut your vegetables. Ideally, they should be cut to the same size, in small cubes of 1 to 1.5cm. The professional term for this is “mirepoix” (pronounced me-er-pwah).
How thick, or thin, you want a soup is up to individual taste. When it comes to Western, non-consommé type of soups, Malaysians tend to prefer a thicker consistency. While soups can easily be thickened by adding a flour paste, this does not make the best soups. Flour-thickened soup has a starchy taste that bloats you up and is associated with low quality.
Since the 1980s, and since people become more health-conscious, thickening with flour has disappeared from the best kitchens – it is also considered unethical to add bulk using flour. It would be better to boil down the stock to concentrate it. Such refinements, of course, are more the preoccupation of a fine dining restaurant.
The recipes here use two ways to thicken the soup – using a roux (pronounced roo), a flour-and-fat mixture, and adding cream. While cream has a slight thickening effect, today it is added more for flavour than as a thickener. Adding a higher ratio of vegetables can also have a thickening effect as many vegetables are starchy.
Making a roux
A roux is simply a cooked flour-and-fat paste. The method dates back more than 300 years in French cuisine and is still used in professional kitchens for good reasons – when properly cooked, roux imparts silky-smooth body and a nutty flavour while thickening soups and sauces.
While many websites still advocate making a roux from equal parts fat – butter or oil – and flour, chefs now prefer a ratio with less flour as the paste cooks better and is less lumpy. Traditionally, roux is made with clarified butter, which is also not considered crucial today. The paste just needs to be cooked to remove the raw taste of flour.
Over low heat, heat the oil or melt the butter and add the flour. Cook, stirring now and then with a spatula for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture turns “white”. Remove the pot from heat. The hot roux can be added to cold or room temperature stock to thicken it. If adding to hot stock, cool the roux first.
At home, if you find making a roux just too much bother, you can ditch it and settle for a thinner soup. Or you can thicken it the Asian way by simply adding a corn/potato/tapioca flour-and-water paste.
Using a good stock
The most important consideration in making good soups, however, is using a good stock. While it is not a crime to use good quality stock powder, homemade stocks are just better. If you have to choose where to invest your time, invest it in making a good stock from scratch.
> Jean Michel is the director of The French Culinary School in Asia which conducts regular classes for professional and home cooks. Tel: 03-2026 9188.
Creamy Chicken And Corn Soup
30g all-purpose flour
800ml chicken stock
200ml UHT cream
400g fresh sweet corn, cooked (see note, or use frozen or canned)
Salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste
Coriander oil (optional)
50g coriander leaves
50g olive oil
Salt to taste
Salted popcorn or croutons
For the soup: This will make about 1.5 litres of soup so you can use a medium-sized saucepan, stockpot, or any deep, preferably heavy-based pot.
Over low heat, melt the butter and add the flour to make the roux. Cook, stirring constantly with a spatula, for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture turns “white”. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the stock to boil. Add the roux and cook over medium heat, stirring now and then, until it is smooth and thick.
Add the cream and sweet corn, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Season to taste before blending to a smooth and creamy consistency – use a handheld or stand blender.
For the coriander oil: Combine all the ingredients and process in a blender.
To serve: Ladle warm soup in a soup plate or bowl. Drizzle with coriander oil if using and top with popcorn or crouton.
Note: Fresh sweet corn can be cooked whole, and the husk can be removed after cooking. They can be cooked by steaming or boiling. To boil, bring water to boil and add the corn; bring back to boil and cook for about 5 minutes, or until tender to the bite. Drain immediately. To remove the corn kernels from the cob, simply slide a knife along the cob to shave them off.
Buying tips:Buy corns with kernels that are plump and milky, in tight rows right up to the tip of the ear of corn.
Tomato And Red Capsicum Soup
50ml olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
50g onion, diced
75g carrot, diced
100g red capsicum
500g canned peeled tomato
50g tomato paste
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
1 bouquet garni (see note)
15g rice flour
50ml UHT cream
Salt, pepper, sugar to taste
30ml olive oil
50g red capsicum, seeded and diced
100g tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
2-3 sweet basil leaves, chopped
50g cooked rice
Fresh sweet basil for decoration
For the soup: In a stock pot, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Add in the garlic, onion, carrot, and capsicum, and sweat until soft.
Add the peeled tomato, tomato paste, stock, and bouquet garni. Bring to boil.
Mix the rice flour with a little water to form a paste and stir it into the soup to thicken it. Season to taste and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the bouquet garni, and blend the soup with a handheld blender or in a food processor. Pass it through a strainer for a smoother taste.
Return the soup to the pot and add the cream. You may need to adjust the seasoning. Bring to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and set aside.
For the garnishing: In a sauté pan, heat up the olive oil. Add in capsicum and cook for 5 minutes. Add in tomato, chopped basil, and season to taste. Cook for 2 minutes and set aside.
To serve: Ladle just slightly warm soup in a soup plate or bowl. Add a tablespoon of the tomato and capsicum garnishing and some cooked rice. Decorate with basil leaf if you like. This soup can also be served cold if you prefer.
Note: To make your own bouquet garni, which is a bundle of herbs, simply tie together a sprig of thyme, a (dried) bay leaf, and 2 to 3 parsley stems.
Creamy Broccoli And Blue Cheese Soup
100g leek, sliced
800ml chicken or vegetable stock or milk
100ml UHT cream
Salt and pepper to taste
100g broccoli florets, blanched (optional)
100g blue cheese, diced
Walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
For the soup: In a stock pot, melt butter and sweat the leeks until soft but not coloured. Add the stock or milk and bring to boil. Add broccoli and cook until soft. Blend until smooth using a handheld blender or food processor.
In another stock pot, make a roux by melting the butter over low heat, and add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly with a spatula, for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture turns “white”.
Add the blended soup and the cream, season to taste, and simmer for 5 minutes.
To serve: Ladle quite warm soup in a soup plate or bowl. Top with cubes of blue cheese, broccoli florets and walnuts.
1 old chicken, cut into pieces, or 2 chicken carcass including wings, feet and some skin
1 onion, cubed
1 carrot, cubed
1 celery rib, cubed
1 bouquet garni (refer tomato soup recipe)
2 litres water or enough to cover
You can make chicken stock with an old hen or chicken carcass, but the old hen will give you a more superior stock. However, it takes longer to coax the flavour out of the old hen. Place everything in a large pot, bring to boil for about 10 minutes, and simmer over medium heat – about 1 hour for the carcass and 2 to 3 hours for the old hen. Skim the scum that rises to the top from time to time and top up with more water as necessary. Cool and strain before using or storing.