12 October, 2012

Is It Soup Yet?

An American classic
Once upon a time, I was terrified of soup.

Not of eating it, of course, but of making it.  I don't know why, but the idea of preparing something that amounted to essentially boiling tons of water and making it taste delicious was daunting.

Ah, how times have changed.

First of all, I learned the true secret of soup- do not boil tons of water.  You will ruin the soup.

Soup isn't actually water with stuff in it.  It's a bunch of stuff that you add water to.  Do you see the difference?

Briefly, this is how you construct a soup, sans meat things:

1. Simmer some delicious vegetables in oil or butter
2. Add more delicious food items, including delicious flavory things
3. Add water/broth

So it turned out, soup was easy.

Really, soup is like a very wet stir fry.  In the fall, it is a fabulous way to get improvisational and creative in the kitchen.  And everybody loves a big bowl of soup on a cool autumn evening.  Maybe even with a hunk of fresh bread to go with it.

Here are a few of tips I've uncovered for getting the. best. soups.

1. To get the best flavor out of your mushrooms, roast them in the oven for about ten minutes before you chop them up.  I never have this kind of foresight, so I recommend just taking your mushrooms and roasting them as soon as you get home from the store.  They'll store pretty well post-roast if you stick them in the freezer.

I love mushroom soup, but it always felt like I had to add a million mushrooms to get a strong enough flavor.  But roasted mushrooms?  Perfection.

Mushrooms aren't the only vegetable that this is the case for.  Asparagus, tomatoes, lima beans, and peppers can also benefit from a brief roasting.

2. Seaweed is your soup's best friend.  Sound crazy?  I thought so too, when my mom taught me this one.

One thing that meat eaters frequently complain about when it comes to vegetarian soups is that they don't taste hearty enough- that there's something about a meat-free soup that isn't satisfying.  The reason for that is a type of taste that the Japanese call "umami."  It's that meaty flavor- that fill-up-your-whole-mouth flavor.  It's not sweet, it's not sour, it's not savory... it's umami.  And you can count on a culture that can name the mouth-feel of a kind of flavor to come up with ways to sate the need.

I recommend keeping a package of sushi nori seaweed in your pantry.  First of all, sushi can be a fun, quick, and diverse meal- so long as you've got that seaweed to hold it all together.  But secondly, that seaweed?  It's delicious.  And it's umami.  If your soup seems a little lacking, you can just throw a whole sheet in, and essentially let it dissolve.  And your soup will become instantly more umami.

3. Learn your starches.  Potatoes and rice and noodles are all excellent in soups, but not all potatoes, rice, or noodles are the same.  Take the time to think about how much time you have to make your soup, what the overall texture of your soup should be, and how thick you want your broth.  A waxier potato, like a Yukon Gold, will make your soup creamier than something like a russet.  Large rotini noodles might soak up a lot of your broth and turn your soup into a hearty stew (though there's nothing wrong with that!), rice that is overcooked can become mushy.

I've found that the best rice for soups is wild rice, because it's thicker husk maintains the flavor and consistency best when left in a pot of liquid for long periods of time.

4. Go totally overboard on your seasonings.  You know what you do if your soup is too strong?  You add water.  And then suddenly, you have more soup.  And what do you do with extra soup?  Stick it in the freezer.  Soup freezes really, really well, and it's as simple as dumping your soup-cube into a pot to turn it back into soup.

5. Broth powder.  So you've made a delicious sort of a stir fry in your pot, and you've added water, and the flavor is just... a little lacking?  Broth powder.  I'm a big fan of Osem, which makes an excellent vegetarian broth powder, but you can get any variety that you like.  You don't need to use nearly as much as you have liquid- you've half made your broth with the seasonings you've put in and with your vegetables- but some broth powder (to taste) can really finish the job well.

Oh, how I want one of these pretty blenders!
6. Get thee an immersion blender.  It's also called a stick blender.  It's a tiny blender, on a stick, that you immerse in your soup.  That way, you can turn a broth-and-solids soup into a creamed soup without having to transfer scalding liquid into your blender caraffe- which sucks.  Some vegetables that turn unbelievably creamy and delicious are chick peas and cauliflower.

Don't be afraid, like I was.  Soups aren't scary.  And best of all, they are flexible and forgiving.  Too salty?  Add a halved potato- that'll absorb it.  Then you can remove the potato and toss it/save it for some awesome mashed potatoes.  Too bland?  Broth mix!  Too flavorful?  More water!  Too thick?  More water!  Not quite savory enough?  Seaweed!

Ah, fall.

Soup's on.  :)

30 September, 2012

Aww, Honey Honey

Pooh Bear was onto something.
Let's talk honey.

It's been in the news a bit recently.  Turns out that a lot of the stuff on America's grocery shelves isn't *really* honey.

It's been so thoroughly over processed that all of the actual honey has been removed.  And you know what you lose, when you turn honey into not-honey?

Everything that makes honey awesome.

You see, honey is fascinating stuff.  It's got so much more than being a "natural" sweetening agent going for it.  Honey tastes like whatever plant the bees collected the pollen from, and contains those allergens so it can actually help you with your allergies.

Amazing, no?

Most of the honey going around in America is clover honey.  That is, the pollen that the bees collect is predominantly from clover plants.  And that's... fine.  But oh, honey, there is so much more to you than that.

Honey was used by ancient Egyptians as an embalming fluid.  Honey kills bacteria.  Honey is pretty much more awesome every time you learn something new about it.  And no, honey is not bee poop.

I've always loved honey.  As a kid, my favorite sandwich was white bread, smothered in honey, with another slice of white bread on top.  My mom thought I was nuts.  I knew better- honey rocks my socks.

Manuka honey
When I was on my honeymoon (so aptly named) in New Zealand, I fell in love with Manuka honey.  Manuka is the New Zealand tea tree.  The honey had flavor, the closest American comparison I could come up with was buckwheat honey.  But unlike buckwheat, Manuka has less bitterness.  It's truly amazing stuff.  But it's a fortune in the United States- with good reason!  Transporting honey is tricky.  You don't want it to get too cold, or too hot.

And again, if you're eating honey that comes from the other side of the planet, you're boosting your immunity to the allergens on the other side of the planet.  Sort of counter intuitive, no?

For that reason, the best honey in the world is always local honey.  The closer to where you live, the better for you it is.  That's because the plants that go into the honey are the same plants giving you hay fever.  It's pretty cool.

So what kinds of honey are there?  Let me share a few of my favorites.

Buckwheat honey
Buckwheat is number one on my list of American honeys.  You would never confuse it with clover honey in a million years.  It's a deep, amber brown.  And it's taste is rich and full- a whole mouth kind of a flavor.  I love eating it with something already sweet- like apples or bananas.

Of course, most southerners who know their honey would consider it blasphemy to say that any honey other than Tupelo honey reigned supreme in the USA.  And they're onto something.  Tupelo honey is so smooth.  It's color is very similar to clover honey, but it is much sweeter.  If it's hard to believe that something is sweeter than honey, then you can rest easy that the sweeter substance is still... honey.  Aside from its sweetness and amazing texture, another thing that Tupelo honey has going for it is that it tastes good with absolutely everything.  Seriously, you could glaze garlic in the stuff and have the yummiest garlic of your life.

Tupelo has a remarkable amount in common with Manuka.  It's a tree, for starters.  That means that if tree pollen is a bigger problem for you than grass or hay, Tupelo honey might be beneficial for you.  Kiwis and Elvis fans can agree on one thing- those fragrant trees?  They make amazing honey.

Speaking of fragrant things making good honey.... orange blossoms.  OMFG orange blossom honey.  Remember when I said that honey tastes like the plant it comes from?  Well, orange blossom honey tastes just like that.  Orange blossoms.  That makes it an excellent accompaniment to things like cornbread, and fruity teas.  It also completely widens the range of its use as an ingredient in other foods.  For example, I have a bean soup that calls for orange peel.  But instead, I can use orange blossom honey, add a little cayenne, and BOOM!  I've got a sweet and spicy bean soup that still tastes amazing. Heat really brings out the fruity, orange notes in orange blossom honey.

Amazing stuff.

One of my favorite places to get
honey in the midwest-
My last favorite honey is goldenrod.  Now, goldenrod honey is kind of hard to get your hands on.  That's because, typically, the goldenrod honey season is SHORT.  And unfortunately, goldenrod honey doesn't keep well- it granulates really quickly.  (Keep in mind, granulated honey is still delicious and nutritious, it's just... harder to use.)  However, it's a very light honey with a kick to it like buckwheat- and the best part of goldenrod honey?  Goldenrod is a serious allergy problem.  So keeping some goldenrod honey in your diet come summer is a great idea.  Bonus?  There's a lot of mead makers out there who would argue that goldenrod honey makes the *best* mead.  So if you're considering brewing at home... I'd recommend goldenrod.

One other honey recommendation: whipped honey.  Basically, that granulation problem I mentioned briefly?  You do that on purpose, in a climate controlled environment.  The result is something frequently referred to as "honey butter."  It's creamy and spreadable, with a waxier texture.

Whipped honey
As you might imagine, any variety of honey can be turned into whipped honey.  But there's another perk as well.  In whipped honey, other flavoring agents keep better.  So you might be able to find things like chocolate or vanilla honey (vanilla whipped honey in a cup of rose tea anyone?) at a local organic friendly store.  It's much less drippy that regular honey, which makes it ideal for dipping things into it.

So go out there, find your local bee keepers (there are more of them than you might think!) and make yourself some toast, tea, and even ice cream to put that honey on.  Because honey in amazing.