Sunday, March 21, 2010

"THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD" LIVES UP TO ITS TITLE


Despite being rather fearless in the kitchen, I lack the DNA for making soup. Maybe it is because unlike most people, soup is almost always my last choice as a meal starter. Perhaps it was because my mother, excellent cook that she is, rarely made soup from scratch (though I do remember a wonderful split pea and ham soup). She was a busy working mom who relied on Campbell's canned soups (I shudder at the memory of something called "Pepper Pot, which contained tripe!). I actually like soup. But it never speaks to me in the same way that other starters do. And to be frank, some of the most disappointing things I've attempted in the kitchen can be blamed on soup. Those who say soup is forgiving--that you can dump anything you like into a pot and it will still be delicious, have clearly never sampled my feeble efforts in the genre. Now along comes Clifford A. Wright's superb collection, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD (Wiley; ISBN: 978-0-470-18052-5) to finally set things right and help me conquer my fear of soup, instilling in me some culinary discipline and a desire for success.

Widely admired by food writers, this fine teacher and cookbook author should be better known to the public. I worked on Wright's last book, Bake Until Bubbly, the last word on the subject of casseroles (to me at least). Without resorting to any packaged soups or any other canned nonsense, he renewed and elevated this abused category without a whiff of pretension. That book received outstanding reviews and rightfully so. The casseroles I cooked from it swept me back to my childhood, reviving my love of this savory (and sweet) comfort food. He has admirably performed the same hat trick in THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD. Ranging far beyond the overly familiar Cream of Tomato, or French Onion Gratin (though these and many other favorites are here), Wright has assembled an imaginative collection of 247 superb soups from every area of the planet.

Dusting off the accumulated culinary cobwebs of some of the most popular soups, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD is divided into categories, i.e., broths, clear soups, chunky meat soups, chunky vegetable soups, smooth creamed soups, minestrone-type soups, grain-based, soups, chowders and bisques, cheese and egg soups, seafood soups and chilled soups. His recipe for Gazpacho combines the versions he ate in two different restaurants in Spain, and he insists that for the best results, gazpacho can only be made and truly enjoyed at the height of the late summer tomato season. How interesting to discover that Vichyssoise was not created in France, but in the kitchens of the Ritz-Carleton hotel in New York. He offers three recipes for Borshch, two cold and one hot with meat. There is a very charming recipe for Ike's Home-Style Vegetable Soup, written by Dwight D. Eisenhower and found in his presidential library in Abilene, Kansas (and staying with politics for another moment, there's also the famous U.S. Senate Bean Soup, adapted by Wright "to assure a delicious soup"). There are fourteen minestrone-style soups, many of them from Italy.

My favorite part of the book was to discover so many International soups, and soup lovers will want to expand their repertoires with Cambodian Stuffed Cabbage Roll Soup, Georgian Beef and Apricot Soup, Turkmen Boiled Soup, Kurdish Chicken and Yogurt Soup, Korean Bean Paste Soup, Spinach-Stem Soup of the Turkish Jews, Chayote Soup from Nicaragua, Fava Bean and Chickpea Soup from Andalusia, Congolese Peanut Vegetable Soup, Persian Greens and Barley Soup, Cream of Plantain Soup (Cuba), Venezuelan Creole Soup, Icelandic Curried Langoustine Soup, and so many others. Wright has thoughtfully included an appendix of soups by region. I list so many because Clifford Wright is such an entertaining writer. The headings of each recipe are full of lots of interesting anecdotes about soups discovered during his many travels, suggestions for making better soup, and other fascinating information.

I decided to make the Cream of Cauliflower Soup to illustrate this review. It was a serendipitous choice as I had just enough heavy cream on hand, and my market was offering heavy, snowy heads of cauliflower on sale. The recipe was a snap to put together and the resulting potage was an elegant and pleasing blend of cauliflower, potato, chicken broth, tarragon, a touch of curry and nutmeg, lemon juice and white pepper with chopped tarragon and chive for garnish. It pleased my guests but most of all it pleased me and is an encouraging start to what I hope will be a renewed commitment to making soup and often. Memo to Clifford A. Wright: I think you have converted me!

Cream of Cauliflower Soup

In the 1950s, when I was a child, my father was stationed in France with the U.S. Air Force, and we lived for some time in Beaumont-le-Roger in Normandy. Although I don't remember the food from those halcyon days of my rural French childhood, I have made many subsequent trips to the area and am quite fond of Norman food. The region is famous for its duck, apples and Camembert cheese. Norman soups, especially cream soups, have a lusciousness I always associate with French cuisine.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups chicken broth
1 cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed and broken into florets
1 small boiling potato (5 ounces), peeled and diced
Bouquet garni, tied in kitchen twine, consisting of 2 tarragon sprigs
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

1. In a large pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil over medium-high heat, then add the cauliflower and potato with the bouquet garni, cover, and cook until very tender about 15 minutes.

2. Transfer the vegetables to a blender and blend until puréed. Return the purée to the pot, add the cream and stir. Add the curry powder, nutmeg, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and heat over medium heat until hot. Serve in individual bowls sprinkled with the chives and tarragon for garnish.


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