Building Blocks

Slurping into springtime

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Spring has begun its tantalizingly slow reveal, but winter isn’t quite done with us yet. This means soup can shine for a few weeks longer before it’s time to think about salads.

At the final winter market last week, I found carrots, onion and celery root, which were all I need to make anything into soup. These three ingredients are what you need to make mirepoix (“mere-pwah”), a chopped mixture of aromatic vegetables used as a base for many soups and sauces.

There are many regional variations of mirepoix that go by different names and involve the occasional substitution of ingredient (leek for onion here, bell pepper for carrot there). Today we’ll stick with the French way, which is how I learned about it.

Cheater’s Chicken Soup makes use of one of my favorite ingredients: rotisserie chicken. The other recipe, Haut Ramen (that’s “Top Ramen” in French) employs mirepoix in the preparation of packaged Ramen noodle soup.

Since both recipes include the part where you have to make the mirepoix, let’s review that step.

Trim and mince equal parts onion, carrot and celery (or celery root, aka celeriac). If using celery stalks, include the leaves. Cut it all into consistently sized chunks, large or small as the recipe calls for. The Haut Ramen recipe requires a brunoise, which is French for “finely diced.”

Cheater’s Chicken Soup. One cook’s value-added product is another’s raw material. Rotisserie chicken, cooked long and slowly enough that the bones are almost spoon-tender, can make a really good soup. I can cheat my way into a pot on just half a chicken.

In addition to the poultry, ingredients include the mirepoix (larger chunks), tomato (canned or frozen), spicy things (optional), salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic powder, herbs and other flavorings, plus olive oil or butter.

Pull the chicken into pieces, and remove the bones. Snip the bones and tendons into small pieces with cooking scissors, and place them into a pasta basket or similar arrangement that can be submerged in boiling water, along with its contents, and can just as easily be removed from the water. Heat the water and simmer the bones while you get the rest of your mise en place, which is French culinary-speak for arranging your cooking materials.

The next step is to cut the mirepoix and sauté it gently in olive oil, allowing a mild brown to develop.

While the mix is browning and bones are simmering, cut or pull the chicken meat apart to the consistency you wish, and add the meat to the browning mirepoix, allowing it all to cook together for a moment. This would be a good time to play around with herbs and spices. I like thyme, but you could go ginger/lemongrass, or dill.

The soup can now be taken in many directions. Remove the pasta basket with bones inside, add the mirepoix and chicken to the pot, and replace the basket of bones back in the pot. At this point, I add some frozen tomatoes from last summer’s stash to the basket, so the tomato skins can be removed along with the bones and skin. I also add a pickled jalapeño or two, allowing it to contribute gentle heat and acidity to the pot.

The soup will be ready as soon as the carrots are soft enough to eat. But if possible, take a little extra time and let everything cook together for an hour or so. As it cooks, tweak the seasonings as necessary: a little salt here, a bit of garlic powder there, a dash of soy sauce, a squirt of fish sauce, squeeze of lime, until it tastes right. Then drop a dollop of mayo on that masterpiece, and you’ve got some evidence in hand that sometimes cheaters do win.

Haut Ramen. While it’s true that a good mirepoix elevates the ingredients around it, there’s no reason to use Top Ramen when there are others to be had, like Sapporo Ichiban, or pretty much any other random brand you might find, that will be better in quality. And if you’re up to a challenge, start with mirepoix and add what you need to make a broth that’s yummy enough that you can skip the flavor packet.

You’ll need one package of ramen, one cup mirepoix (equal parts carrot, celery and onion, chopped into brunoise), sesame oil, seaweed (a ripped-up sheet of nori, or furikake seasoning), and an egg (optional).

Heat the water. Add the mirepoix and, if necessary, the flavor packet. When the water returns to a boil, add the noodles. When the noodles are done, add your egg, if using. Wait a moment, then turn of the heat. Leave the egg whole, or give it a minimal stir with a fork, depending on how you like your yolk, then put the lid on for two or so minutes. Remove the lid. If the egg is done to your liking, sprinkle with seaweed, drizzle with sesame oil, and keep slurping until the birds are chirping.

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