Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cooking at the Improv

I am a huge fan of applied knowledge.  I love being able to take something I have learned and use it as a frame of reference to learn or figure out something else. If I am really lucky, the knowledge takes on a life of its own, and I don't even recognize the extrapolation right away.  Instead there is just a natural flow from known into the unknown, which then turns into the known.  (Beats the unknown unknown any day of the week, if you ask me.)

That sort of extrapolation is exactly what has happened with my cooking, and I find it exciting.  I have reached the point at which I can think about recipes and techniques I have already used and create something new, or, even better, something familiar.  I think that I am even getting to the point at which I can look at a recipe someone did not care for and see why it did not work.

A couple of weeks ago it was time to make lentil soup again.  I make a lot of lentil soup, especially once the weather begins to turn colder.  I make big batches and then freeze individual portions that I take take to work for lunch.

So the time came to make another batch of lentil soup, and, horror of horrors, I couldn't find the recipe that I usually use (at least as a starting point).  This happened before my discovery of, so I had to search my cookbook collection the old fashioned way.  I checked Moosewood and The Joy of Cooking and Marcella and Julia and a few others.  No luck.  My usual lentil soup recipe was not to be found.

What's a hungry cook to do?

Improvise, of course.

Ingredients waiting to be chopped
I had the ingredients.  I had the skills and the knowledge.  I just had to figure out how to put the two together.  So I did.

I chopped up the magical trifecta that is mirepoix -- celery, onion and carrot -- along with a bit of garlic, added salt and pepper, and sauteed the lot in some olive oil, using Lynne Rosetto-Kasper's recommended method of lower heat and a covered pot for a longer period of time (15 minutes as opposed to about 5).  When things started to stick to the bottom of the pan -- an occurrence which I believe to be caused by my preference of using less than the recommended amount of oil for sauteing -- I deglazed with a generous splash of white wine.

Chopped ingredients
Any excuse to add wine, right?  Not that you really need one.  Wine is just as powerful a flavor enhancer as stock if you ask me, and I think that it helps all of the other flavors get along.  I have also discovered that, at least for white wine, the specific variety of wine isn't all that important, as long as it is something you would like to drink.  I have used Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and even flat Champagne (which can be seen in the corner of the ingredients photo), all to excellent effect.

Returning to the lentil soup at hand, while the magical mirepoix was sauteeing, I finished chopping up the rest of the vegetables -- mushrooms, cabbage, broccoli, zucchini.  Then I added a few tablespoons of tomato paste, paprika and some other herbs to the mirepoix and stirred everything until well mixed.

Sauteeing mirepoix
In went the vegetables, a bag of lentils, more wine, and vegetable broth made from homemade vegetable bouillon which I absolutely adore and is so easy to make (basically blend a bunch of vegetables in a food processor with a bunch of salt to preserve it and then put the lot in mason jars and freeze it).  I brought the whole concoction to a boil, reduced to a simmer and, as the saying goes, cooked until done -- which I have discovered with lentil soup is always longer than you think that it should be.  Trust me on this one -- if you taste the soup and it seems pretty good, tweak the seasoning just a bit more if you want to and the let it simmer another fifteen or twenty minutes before tasting it again.  The result is yummy, hearty, rich, melt in your mouth lentil soup.  Then again, I am not a huge fan of al dente pasta, so if you prefer a bit of toothsomeness to your soup, then you might not be a fan of that extra few minutes which really causes all of the ingredients and flavors to melt together.

So, to sum up: chop up a bunch of ingredients, saute the mirepoix, deglaze with wine, add seasoning, add rest of ingredients and liquid(s) of choice, bring to boil, simmer, sample and season along the way, and voila!  Soup!

P.S.  Just as I did when making the soup, I almost forgot the prosciutto.  I love prosciutto.  It's less fatty and more delicate than bacon.  If I hadn't forgotten it, I would have sauteed it briefly in a pan and then added it toward the end of the mirepoix sauteeing step.  But I did forget it until I was at the bring to boil step, so I tossed it in then, and it worked its salty, savory magic just as well.

If you are a big fan of meat, the piggy, savory sorts work well in this soup -- ham, kielbasa, linguisa, other sausage (though it probably doesn't need to be pork sausage).

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of how I feel when I make my grandmother's recipes. So much of old world cooking is done with the skill to add just the right mix of spices to a favorite dish. It's such a wonderful feeling, as the aroma fills the kitchen, when I know I've nailed the dish perfectly.