by Maria Lagalante Schulz
I finally went to my soup-making class last week. I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas Day, when my husband handed me the gift certificate.
It was a bit intimidating walking into a room full of people that I didn’t know to try something new. The teenager in me HATES going “solo” when everyone around me has a friend. But I figured that this was some kind of soul growth opportunity (plus nobody I know wanted to take a soup class with me), so here I was.
My dear friend, Lisa K., promised me that wine would be flowing at my cooking class since it had flowed at her “How to Make Duck” seminar. Unfortunately, there was only a carafe of water and a tureen of cream of broccoli soup on the table when I got there. I thought that was too bad, since the people in the room were as animated as mannequins.
There was not a lot of laughing or joking around at my soup class. Our instructor, Chef Brian, spent a great deal of time trying to convince us that we:
1) Should not be afraid of cooking
2) Would find our lives forever changed thanks to his class
3) Must buy all of the knives, accessories, and soup stock we could carry from the gift shop conveniently located just outside the door
Chef Brian was a fun-loving guy who was doing his best to lighten up this crowd, but my fellow classmates looked terrified. Everyone there seemed to believe that we were about to perform life-saving brain surgery on the butternut squash.
Unlike the other students, I am not afraid to get into a kitchen and court imminent disaster. If I was, I would have never taken that deli cook job a thousand years ago, when Imus in the Morning did his shtick and “Some Guys Have all The Luck” by Rod Stewart played incessantly on WNBC-AM.
By the time I made my way to the demonstration counter, there were no more spots left. I had no choice but to stand next to Chef Brian. My initial thought was, “You can’t stand next to the teacher. HE’LL SEE EVERYTHING YOU DO WRONG,” but apparently all of the other students had the same thought, and beat me to the spots further away from Chef.
So, I took my spot next to our Chef instructor. He demonstrated how to hold a knife, and made us chant this phrase over and over: “First we go up. Then go down.”
There was something about the way he said it that reminded me of the scene from The Freshman, when Clark Kellogg brings his friend with him to drop off a Komodo dragon, and Larry London keeps saying, “Carmine said one boy. Here are two.”
When I was done giggling to myself, I actually learned the proper way to cut a butternut squash; saw the way to julienne a carrot and chiffonade sage. According to Chef Brian, you shouldn’t chiffonade basil, because it will bruise and then turn black. Who knew? Here I was thoroughly abusing my basil all these years.
Here are some tutorials on how to chiffonade: http://localfoods.about.com/od/basics/ss/Chiffonade.htm
And how to julienne:
Chef Brian made me join a young couple’s group, which I could see they were really, really happy about. I stood off to the side while this couple fought with one another, until it was time to start cutting our vegetables.
The man, who I will call Mr. Grabby-Hands, immediately grabbed all of the vegetables he could lay his paws on while his girlfriend repeatedly said helpful things like “I can’t do this.”
I left them to her existential meltdown and attended to the few vegetables I could wrestle out of Mr. Grabby-hands’ hands. I took a leek because I rarely get to work with them. I washed the sand and grit out of the folds and cut off both ends, reserving the now shiny leaves for a future soup stock. Then I rough cut it. I decided then and there that I was the master of the rough cut.
Chef Brian then showed us how to take garlic, smash it, add kosher salt, and drag it on the cutting board with the edge of the knife until we formed a paste. This technique is perfect for garlic bread, or for people who love the taste of garlic but don’t want to eat great big hunks of it.
Since my Chef instructor was standing so close to me, he saw that I was manhandling my garlic and not giving it the love it so richly deserved.
“Do it like this,” he said, as he gently pressed the knife on the cutting board and magically dissolved the garlic into paste.
I tried to duplicate his technique, but manhandling food is in my genes.
“Like this?” I said.
“Okay, your way is fine too.” He replied.
When it was time to cut up my celery, my teacher ran over and congratulated me.
“WOW! That’s excellent.”
“Thanks!” I replied, heady with success.
I was momentarily delighted, and then I realized that I hadn’t done anything except cut the celery into chunks. I wasn’t sure why he was so excited, except that he had no yardstick to measure my cooking ability up against other than my prior mangling of the garlic clove.
I realized that my classmates and I resembled Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees when they learned for the first time that if you stick a piece of wood down a termite hole, you can get food. We all looked equally confused and delighted by this process known as COOKING.
I turned to my partners to see if they needed me to do anything. “Can I chiffonade the pancetta?” I said, but Mr. Grabby Hands pulled it out and began cutting it furiously. “How about the carrot? Can I julienne that?” Mr. G.H. grabbed it and handed it to his girlfriend, who dissolved in a pool of panic.
I grabbed the last thing in the basket: an onion. I cut the ends off just like my teacher told me to and peeled it with ease. Then I chopped it roughly.
“Good job!” Chef Brian said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Chef Brian that this was not my first onion. But he looked so delighted by my newfound abilities that I didn’t bother. I mean, no one has ever complimented me on my onion-chopping abilities before.
I never got a compliment from my first Chef instructor, the unforgettable Nancy from my deli days. She used to cry whenever I was around, but it wasn’t from the onions.
It was usually because I cut things like shrimp or chicken way too big and caused a serious dent in her overhead margins. That, and I was often on the verge of burning her store to the ground while “Every Breath You Take” played for the millionth time.
When we finally got from the counter to the stove, we started to make a Roasted Butternut Squash with Pancetta and Fried Sage Soup, Shrimp Bisque with Crunchy Fried Leeks and a hearty Vegetable Soup.
Mr. G.H., Miss “I can’t cook” and I brought all of our ingredients over to the pots and started to add everything. Miss I.C.C. kept saying, “What if I ruin everything!”
Everything was fine until we got to the Shrimp Bisque, and Mr. Grabby-Hands tossed the shrimp in before we pureed everything.
“I tossed in the shrimp already,” Mr. G.H. said. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.”
He began to panic, as if he’d just pulled the wrong wire on a car bomb. “What are we going to do? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?” He began to sift through the soup with a spoon, trying to pull out every last bit of half-cooked shrimp.
I flagged down Chef Brian and asked him to talk my classmate off the ledge.
“It’s okay,” Chef said. “You’ll just have smaller bits of shrimp in your soup because you’ll be pureeing it.”
Mr. Grabby Hands looked reassured while his girlfriend wiped the sweat from her brow, as if we’d just survived annihilation. I got back to seasoning the soups.
To fill in the uncomfortable silence, I made the mistake of trying to chit chat with my co-Chefs (that’s what Chef Brian told us to call one another).
“So, are you two getting married?” I said.
The young man burst into nervous guffaws and said “NO!” before running back to the soup pots and stirring furiously.
His girlfriend accosted him. “What’s so funny about that question? Now you know how I feel when people ask if we’re engaged. I thought if we took a cooking class you’d get ideas.”
I realized that I’d asked the worst possible question, so I apologized and quickly tried to change the subject.
“I think we need salt and pepper,” I said to the young woman. “Why don’t you taste this and see what you think?”
“I can’t cook!” She wailed, for the billionth time.
“But you know how to eat, right?” I replied. “So taste it and tell me what you think.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” she said, as her boyfriend grabbed a spoon and tasted the soup.
“It needs seasoning,” he replied. “Why can’t you just taste the soup?” he whispered, furious.
At this point, she pulled off her apron and left the class.
Mr. G.H. and I proceeded to cook together, which was incredibly awkward and amusing all at once. I thought about giving him some helpful advice, and then decided that I’d done enough to ruin his relationship for one day.
When his girlfriend finally returned, she said, “I don’t know why I have to learn how to cook. He’s going to do everything once we’re married.”
I wanted to say, “At this rate sweetheart, I wouldn’t count on him giving you change for the bus, let alone marrying you,” but all I said was, “You might have to cook for yourself or your family some day. Just try it. You might enjoy it.”
Instead, she walked away from the stove, sat at the table and waited to be served some soup.
We pulled our butternut squash from the oven and picked off the skins. Then, we chopped them up and put them into the soup pot. We grabbed an immersion blender and began pureeing our butternut squash soup and our shrimp bisque. We threw in the last of our ingredients into our Vegetable Soup and let it simmer.
And then, it was time to eat!
The first soup we tried was the Butternut Squash, and it was fantastic. I’m not sure what we did exactly that made it come out so good, but I really enjoyed it. The pancetta on top added a crunchy texture, and the fried sage was out of this world.
Next we had the Shrimp Bisque. It wasn’t as thick or creamy as I would’ve liked, but it was still tasty. We put Crunchy Fried Leeks on top, and they were delicious.
Finally, we had our Vegetable Soup. It wasn’t a hit with the rest of the class, but I thought it was hearty and satisfying.
So what did I learn when from my Soup Class?
1) How to julienne and chiffonade—and how to make garlic paste
2) Four new soup recipes that I will add to my repertoire (including Cream of Broccoli Soup with Lemon Pepper Croutons)
3) That chefs call bouillon “cubes of death” because of all the preservatives and additives in that little, hard block ‘o flavor
4) That you can go to Chinatown and buy chicken feet for 25¢ a lb. and make a hearty soup stock from them. Or you can save the carcasses from your next lobster bake (?) and make a seafood stock. I think I’ll go to Walbaum’s for College Inn with no MSG instead.
5) That I can overcome my shy nature and have fun even in a room full of stiffs
6) That I will not be the next Julia Child, and there won’t be a future movie called “Marie & Maria” where a young girl is inspired by my cooking escapades and goes on to make money off me, ala “Julie & Julia.”
7) Sometimes, strangers are the friends you haven’t met yet. Other times, they’re just the people you never wanted to meet in the first place.
Recipe: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
I made this soup again tonight and we really enjoyed it. Give it a try—you won’t be sorry.
1 Butternut Squash, cut in half and seeded
4 medium shallots, peeled and left whole
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 oz. pancetta or bacon, diced
1 cup diced leeks, white part only
1/3 cup finely diced carrots
1/3 cup finely diced celery
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon dry white wine, of drinkable quality
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons maple syrup
Canola oil for frying
¼ (packed) cup fresh sage leaves
Fine sea salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 425°. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
Place the squash, shallots and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper, tossing evenly to coat with oil.
Put the squash and shallots onto the lined baking sheet, putting both halves side by side (skin side up) along with the shallots. Roast until tender (about 30 minutes). Remove from the oven and pull the skins off (they should come off easily now). Put aside.
Heat a large saucepan over medium heat; add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and heat through. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring until the fat has rendered and the pancetta is crisp. Remove from the heat, then transfer the pancetta to a paper-towel lined plate; set aside.
Return the saucepan to the heat and add the leeks, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft but not browned (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and sage and cook, stirring, until very fragrant, about 1 more minute.
Add the wine, scraping up any browned bits that have formed on the bottom of the pan to deglaze. Cook until the wine has evaporated, then add the stock.
Slice up the squash and add it, along with the shallots, to the pan; put in the maple syrup. Bring the stock to a boil. Immediately reduce to a simmer and cook another 30 minutes.
Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or puree in batches in a blender or food processor (be careful because this will be hot). If you think the soup is too thick, add some more chicken stock to thin. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
You can add nutmeg, cinnamon or more maple syrup for flavor.
For the sage: in a small, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat 1 inch of oil to 365° and fry the sage in batches, stirring to separate the leaves, until crisp, about 3-5 seconds. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with fine sea salt while still hot. Yum!
So, hungry lifers…do you have a soup recipe you’d like to share? How about a funny story about learning something new? Post your comments here and let us all in on it.