Soup: glorious, versatile, wholesome. Smooth, refined and velvety, soup can be served in your finest china. Chunky or spicy, it can be spooned from your favorite thermos. It is cool, crisp and refreshing in the summer, warm, hearty and nourishing in the winter.
Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) puts it this way: “Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don’t catch steak hanging around when you’re poor and sick, do you?”
Soup is the perfect B.O.B.S. meal—short for “Best of a Bad Situation.” My husband Tim and I coined this phrase while traveling in Costa Rica. At a nondescript restaurant, we were served something that looked like it was resurrected from the compost pile. Tim took the slop on my plate, mixed it with the slop on his plate, added every hot sauce and spice he could lay his hands on, tossed it vigorously and voila! Sure, it still looked like compost, but the taste was out of this world.
With a little stock, some spices and a blender, you too can transform random leftovers like chicken carcasses and limp vegetables into a lovely soup. Add a simple salad and a warm baguette, and the situation goes from bad to great.
Great situations notwithstanding, I have a confession to make. In 21 years of cooking, I have never, ever, made my own stock. I know, I know–it is supposed to be easy and it gives that essential depth of flavor that makes a soup sing. But I have always opted for the lazy way out: I pull back the plastic box tab and pour.
It is with this guilt that I walk into Day Three of my “Back to Basics” cooking class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Instructor Steve Nill stands at the front of the classroom with a tray of tiny plastic cups filled with chicken stock. He hands out four samples to each of us. Three are store-bought: Pacific Foods Organic, College Inn, and Swanson Certified Organic; the fourth is homemade. For the record, toothpaste and chicken stock aren’t the best taste combination at 9:30 a.m. However, the winner is obvious—the homemade. As for the others, Swanson Organic tastes the most like chicken. One other, which shall remain nameless, tastes a bit like the water that splattered into my face when my husband cleaned the gutters last spring.
After our taste test, Steve asserts that anyone who likes to make soups will eventually be drawn to stock making, because great stocks mean better soups. He continues, “Stock is a flavorful liquid resulting from the proper extraction and concentration of fats, oils, juices and liquid compounds from various organic sources; generally bones, vegetables, meat and fish. Spices, herbs and aromatics are often added to create more complex flavors. Water and sometimes wine are used for liquid.”
Meat stocks, we learn, take at least three hours to make. As we don’t have that much time in our class, Steve gives us detailed instructions and some tips: 1. Always add cold water to the meat or poultry when making stock. Water should barely cover the bones. 2. Add vegetables/aromatics after initial skimming. 3. A stock is simmered, not boiled. 4. Don’t add salt. Always season the sauce or soup later. 5. Strain everything. 6.When stock is cool, the fat will rise to the surface and can be removed.
Then, we head over to the kitchen to try our hands at soup making. Christian, a student in the professional program at the school and an old friend of mine, has made the stock that simmers on the stovetop. As my partner Lauren and I dice bacon and peel potatoes for fennel corn chowder, Christian breaks out in song. His voice is like the stock on the stove–rich, clear and full of depth. There is nothing better than this–a simple recipe, a homemade stock and a singing chef.
Finally, my favorite time of class arrives. We sit down to eat our soups: southwest squash, fennel corn chowder, lentil and brown rice, panade, onion au gratin, and cream of potato with pesto. It is true; they all have a depth of flavor that I don’t get at home. Maybe during the next blizzard, when I can’t leave the house, I will try to make my own stock. Until then, with two small children and a busy life, I’ll probably continue to go store-bought. Shhh.