Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mulligatawny Soup

Edited to add: All you Chicago-dwellers! It's election day. The ballot is very short, and it's important to vote whenever they give us the chance to do so. So take the time and vote. You have until seven pm. to get in line tonight, so hurry!

Baby, it's cold outside. The brief spurt of warmth has been taken over by fog and hail: check out this intense picture from last Saturday. It's not grainy because of effects: that's hail, and the light inside of a fluffy cloud. Living where I do, I spend a lot of time in the clouds -- literally. Goes well with my nature, I suppose. It can get exhausting, always seeing white and nothing else when you look out the window. When it's clear, though, it's a different story. It looks pretty nifty, doesn't it? Better to look at than to walk through. Fog and general dreariness such as this always calls for soup, of any kind, and while I ate my easy to make and we already have all these ingredients matzo ball soup on Saturday I was secretly dreaming of mulligatawny.
I have a wonderful, dog-eared little book that was originally a gift from me to my mother, The Soup Book: Over 800 Recipes by Louis P. DeGouy, that I used exclusively throughout my young adulthood in the kitchen. My mom and I would try to make a new soup every week, and some of my favorite soup standbys are from this book: Manhattan clam chowder, mulligatawny, leek and potato... the list is nearly endless. They even have recipes for calf's brain soup and other oddities. It was published in 1974, before people were worried about eating cow brain, but most of the recipes are still good. Now, the book is in my hands -- my mom isn't much of a soup-maker, and when she does make soup, she's more into the "refrigerator soup" type of deal -- throw whatever you've got in there and let it boil. I'm all for that (in fact, I saw a great episode of Fast Food My Way this past weekend where Jacques Pepin did just that -- but he grated all the vegetables and served the soup over cheese, yum) but sometimes? A real, bona fide soup with a recipe is what I need.
I do this thing with soup, as with sauce, where i make as much as my dutch oven can hold -- sometimes it spills over the sides and causes the flame to go out. Then, I freeze the bulk of it. A few minutes in the microwave on a busy day and I've got hot, fresh soup, ready to go. A hunk of bread and dinner's been made with zero effort and no time. The reason I'm saying this is... I don't have any pictures of this soup. We ate the last of it nearly a month ago, before I owned a digital camera. But the next time I make it -- most likely soon, since now it's in my mind -- I'll update this with some shots. It's a pretty standard-looking soup though: vegetables swimming around in broth. The first time I made this in Chicago it was just after St. Patrick's day, when we boiled corned beef and were left with some amazing beef stock. After throwing it in the fridge, which helps the fat coagulate at the top to be skimmed off, we used it as the base for this soup. God, it tasted fantastic -- a cultural faux pas, most likely, but yummy all the same. It's a chicken-based soup, so if you have the wherewithal and necessary tools to make real chicken stock, go for it.

Mulligatawny Soup
The literal translation of mulligatawny is "pepper water," and although this dish contains little pepper, it's still full of fragrant spices and interesting vegetables. I'm fairly certain that this recipe is totally atypical and far from traditional -- I've had it in Indian restaurants and the experience was wildly different -- but it tastes great all the same. It's a pretty intensive recipe, calling for lots of chopping and stirring and roux-making, but it's well worth the effort. Make a big lot of it, freeze the remainder, and you'll be happy the next time a cold snap strikes.
Cut up 2.5 pounds of chicken "as for a fricassee," as the book says. I don't do this, because I'm not about to haul an entire chicken home. Instead, I use a combination of thighs and breasts and slice them into long, thin strips. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet or a dutch oven and add 1/4 pound of diced salt pork. I don't do this part either: it's hard to get salt pork around these parts. The butcher pretends he doesn't know what it is, and the closest I can seem to get to it is bacon, which doesn't work for this dish in my opinion. So I use a bit of olive oil, which doesn't taste nearly as good as salt pork fat, but it does the trick in a pinch.
Add the chicken to the oil and fry, lightly, over a low flame until it begins to color. Turn the pieces very often -- almost constantly -- to ensure an even coloring. After the chicken begins to color, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour mixed with 1 heaping tablespoon of curry powder into the pan. Continue cooking and turning until the meat is firm but not quite done.
I like to use my dutch oven for the whole process rather than doing what the book instructs, so I simply skim out most of the fat -- if there even is much -- and then add 10 cups of stock. Chicken, vegetable, or veal stock will all work here; like I mentioned, I used beef stock and the results were fabulous. Add 1 cup diced carrots, 1 small diced onion, 2 whole cloves, 6 bruised peppercorns, salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of cayenne pepper. The recipe also calls for a bay leaf, but I never use bay leaf in anything I cook. Maybe it makes me less fancy, but I am not about to fish around for that darn leaf right before I serve the soup. That's the point when I'm the hungriest and have no patience left!
Now comes my favorite point in the recipe. DeGouy uses wonderful language when writing about soups, although it's a tad bit confusing and stilted at times. Case in point: "[b]ring to a rapid boil, reduce the heat and let simmer very gently as slowly as possible for one long hour." I don't know if it's all those modifiers or what but that is a crazy sentence. Try diagramming that one, Sister Bernadette! (God that book rocks my world.)
After the long, slow hour, which passes like years if you're hungry, taste for seasoning and correct if necessary. I often find it imperative to add more curry and cayenne, and I usually do so closer to the beginning to give it a chance to soak in. At this point, add the following garnishings: 3 tablespoons cooked rice, 1 eggplant, diced and sautéed in butter slightly after being parboiled, and 1 cup leek sautéed in butter. I often sauté the leek and eggplant in the same pan at once. To parboil the eggplant, simply throw the chopped pieces into a pot of boiling salted water for about 3 minutes. Cook the soup for 10 minutes longer or until the garnishings are all cooked. DeGouy suggests serving it "piping hot with a side dish of plain rice," but I often settle for just the piping hot part. No side dish is necessary, really: this soup is full of flavor, teeming with vegetables, and can stand up on its own.

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