Cream of Jalapeño Soup


Soup Blog-0009

The soup of the day is cream of jalapeño – a soup I have always wanted to make. I love spice in food. The heat tastes great when balanced well. My interest in Chinese food has helped me grasp the wide varieties of flavor in heat. Authentic Sichuan cuisine tastes quite different than spicy Hunan dishes or Thai dishes. While the heat only comes from a small variety of peppers, the preparations vary and the combinations are limitless. So Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Mexican all balance spice in distinct combinations and have many different dishes built off the same core spice.

I also love spice that is tempered by a base like coconut cream, or milk/cream. The cream takes the edge off the spice and allows more room for other flavors. The cream also thickens while offering rich and tasty fat. A couple of years ago I had cream of jalapeño soup at a restaurant and thought it the best thing I had tasted in weeks. It was hot, but not too hot, and the cream and melted cheese were perfect. I wanted to attempt the soup but the ladies in my house don’t care for spicy food.

The idea was shelved until I invited Gary over for lunch and he jumped at the chance for a spicy soup. Gary is a co-sabbitcal-kindred-spirit and we needed to both talk about a future project and celebrate that we could casually gather for lunch at noon on a Thursday. It turned out we had also both exercised mid-morning, which is a further benefit of sabbatical life. Of course we are both working our tails off, but I embrace a contrarian schedule while on sabbatical!

I chose red jalapeños for the color. Red jalapeños are slightly spicier and a bit sweeter. They were seeded and roasted for 20 minutes at 400F. I wanted to take the raw edge off the peppers and cultivate caramelization. I then sautéed carrots, vidallia onion, and garlic for a good bit before adding the jalapeños. Two days earlier I made a rich chicken broth from drumsticks and chicken feet. Chicken feet are both high in collagen and make for a great broth (another tip I’ve learned from Chinese food). Chicken feet are cheap and sold in modest bunches at the Asian supermarket. I roasted the drumsticks and feet first to create a rich dark stock and then cooked them for a long time in my stovetop pressure cooker. This is my new method for making stock and I’ll write about it soon.

After bringing these ingredients to a gentle boil I simmered for 20-minutes and then used my stick blender till everything was smooth. I then tasted and it was overwhelming. The first second was OK and then the heat kicked in and obliterated every other flavor. Damn! I thought it was ruined and I had to remind myself this is a hobby and it is OK to fail. I had also not added the cream or cheese so there was still a chance for balance. I put the soup in the fridge as my plan was to make this base a day ahead of time. Most soups taste better when made a day ahead of time. The flavors mix, mellow, and mature and often the soup tastes better on day 2 or 3.

On the day of lunch I brought my base back up to temperature. I was delighted to see how gelatinous it was as that is the sign of a good stock. Then I put in a generous portion of white cheddar cheese, and some chopped up oxtail meat. I had made an oxtail beef stock earlier in the week but took the meat out before it lost all flavor. I thought it would be a nice addition to a soup with a chicken stock foundation. I also decided to put in cinnamon and a bit of honey. In the moment these felt like desperate additions in my hope to reduce or mask the heat. Lastly I put in more cream than I thought necessary. The soup was served with a garnish of pan fried sliced green jalapeños, and grated Jarlsberg cheese.

The soup was great! It was thick, rich, and well balanced. The spice did not overwhelm but my own itch for heat was scratched. The oxtail, cinnamon, and honey were good additions and made the soup much more complex than a straight ahead cream of jalapeño. I had some homemade pizza dough left over from family pizza night and made a fresh pizza to accompany the soup. The pizza had bacon, caramelized shallots, pickled pimientos, and green onions. It worked. The conversation was lively and Gary agreed to the proposed project. If homemade food was a bribe, it worked.

Pazole Verde

I have a special interest in soups that represent hundreds of years of cultural history and remain primary in a national cuisine. Something about the dish captures signature flavors and the technique has been tried and refined over long periods of time. Such dishes often require hunting for new ingredients and learning about unusual flavor combinations.  Learning international dishes is also one of the best ways to expand my understanding of ingredients and the lovely possibilities of unexpected combinations.

The Mexican stew pazole is built around stewed meat and hominy. I first read about hominy in America’s Test Kitchen Stews and Soups. I had to hunt for the few cans that can be found in a mainstream market (the local King Super keeps it on an odd shelf of canned vegetables – not in the ethnic food aisle). Hominy are dried corn kernels that are soaked in mineral lime bath. The process softens the kernels and they bloat to double the size. The calcium also changes the corn so that they are prime for masa – a maize flour that is essential for tortillas, tacos, tamales. Usually the hominy is ground for these other purposes but the original form of bloated and softened corn kernels is lovely for soups. It has a bit of a soft bite and absorbs the flavors of the soup while holding onto some of the corn flavor.

Hominy also helps preserve the corn and increases its nutritional value. It is a bit of food chemistry magic that dates back to mesoamerica around 1500 BC. Here is a lovely primer on hominy. I am curious about such forms of food transformation that date centuries. How was this discovered? How was it trusted? How long was the technique refined? How many people groups did this migrate to and was this simple technique a saving grace during any portion of their history? This simple process also directly connects us to a people group from 3500 years ago. And I’m guessing that little of its tradition has been written down until the last couple hundred years. This bit of food magic has been transported from one person to another without the aid of a super market, cooking book, or web search.

Pazole is cooked red, white, or green. They represent the primary ingredients added which change the overall color. Pazole Verde involves a mixture of tomatillos, green jalapeños, and cilantro which is blended and added at the end of the cooking process. This mixture is bright and spicy at the same time. The stew already tastes magnificent but the addition of this vibrant concoction adds exciting new layers of flavor. The soup is then served with an array of garnishes and warm tortillas. The garnishes – lime wedges, avocado, onion, jalapeños, cabbage strips – interestingly overlap with several garnishes for Vietnamese Pho.

The core process of making pazole is like many world stews. Chunks of meat (usually pork) are browned in batches, onions and garlic are sautéed, add some sort of bone broth, and the whole thing simmers for hours. Make it a day ahead and the flavors will be even richer.

I almost always make Pazole Verde because I love the process of husking tomatillos, rough chopping, and blending them into a vibrant sauce. This time I served this stew to a group of students from my First Year Seminar. They offered nice comments but I could not tell if the stew pushed their comfort zone. I loved it and heaped on avocado, sliced jalapeños, and squeezed lime.


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Why Soup

Soup is basic. It shows up in every cuisine and spans millennia of human history. One pot. Rich, poor, simple, complex. The best of a culture’s food are often highlighted in distinctive soups. Layers of flavors can be cultivated and nuanced over days or one bold ingredient can shine in a few minutes preparation. Soup can set the stage for a magnificent multi-course feast just as easily as a stew can contain the feast in a spoonful. A good soup is magnificent. It should have a perfect balance of flavors, the right ratio of ingredients, a suitable thickness and texture. On Top Chef Season 4 Tom Colichio said “Want to show me you can cook, make me a good soup”. The best soups take skill, patience, a developed palette, passion, maybe even obsession. And there is room for variation, improvisation, and personality. Soup is home cooking at its best.

When I began to learn to cook some 12 years ago I was drawn to soup as a practical way to feed a large group. One big pot of chili is enough to satiate a group of 20. For several years we hosted a Thanksgiving Eve movie night for around 30 friends who would be tied up with family for the actual holiday. We wanted to see our friends on a holiday often reserved for family, and soup seemed simple enough to not spoil the giant feast that marks Thanksgiving. I made 2-3 big pots of soup and let the house fill up with wonderful smells all day. The meal is so simple one does not even need a table.

Then soups and stews became a way to feed my family for a few days. A Sunday afternoon soup still tasted excellent on Wednesday and with enough skill we didn’t tire of the same soup. In my desire to learn new things I learned the popular basics. I picked up red chili, green chili, chicken and wild rice, beef stew, potato soup, 7 bean, beef and barley. Then I started exploring foreign dishes like pazole, curries, pork vindaloo, Pho, beef bourguignon, French onion, South China Portuguese chicken stew. My soups were good. Sometimes they were amazing. I picked up books like America’s Test Kitchen and learned the reasons behind the various steps. I didn’t cut corners and took great care in the early steps of each soup to build a good foundation. I browned beef bones, patiently caramelized vegetables, toasted the spices, built up glorious fonds. I began collecting turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving and making all day broths. They would get frozen in batches and treated like precious caviar saved for the best occasions.

One year I attempted to recreate my grandmother’s Christmas Day oxtail soup and learned how to make a true French consume. I was proud and nostalgic when I served it to my family one Christmas Day some 15 to 20 years after we had last had it at my grandmother’s table. It was one of the most satisfying dishes I ever cooked and had the immense pleasure of sharing it with people I love.

Cooking soup satisfies core needs and combines many passions. It takes me around the world while learning the mysteries of ingredients and technique. I get to exhaust my creative urges with meticulous care and thankfully it is not my livelihood. Indeed it pulls me away from my studio (I am a composer by profession) where my paycheck and reputation are on the line. It pulls me to the heart of our home and allows the freedom of imitation, experimentation, and mistakes. Then the food must be shared with other people. The labor is for the pleasure of those who sit at our table. Soup is the pure expression of everything I love about cooking and food.

This is the beginning of a year of soups. Once a week I will make soup and invite people to share a meal. Once a week I will write about all of this. I won’t repeat any soups in the blog. There will be the bedrock of the soup and stew repertoire. I will include all of my favorites. There will be some new adventures internationally and many soups I have always wanted to attempt.

Thanks for joining me!

“Of all the items on the menu, soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention.” — Auguste Escoffier

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