29 June 2007

On Salting

When you're in the process of putting together a soup, stew, or chili, make sure to lightly salt as you go along. What you want is for the salt to get into the components, but not to the point where you're making a pickle! Instead, take your time, and add gentle additions of salt with every new ingredient that goes into your pot.

For example, let's say we're making a soup with aromatics, root vegetables, tomatoes, and leafy greens. Let's take this step by step, and see if we can't make sense of it, shall we? As with any soup or stew, we're going to be going in the proper order of oil, then spices, then deglazing, then long cooking vegetables, then short cooking vegetables.

Start with oil in a deep stock pot. A good peanut or sunflower oil should work ideally. Turn the burner's heat dial as high as it can go. When a small wisp of smoke escapes the surface of the oil, add your whole spices (like mustard seeds, sesame seeds, and cumin seeds). Wait for about 30 seconds or so. You should hear them popping and crackling like mad. If you have them, pitch in a healthy handful of curry leaves. If not, skip this step.

Now in come our aromatics. Add your chopped or minced aromatics (maybe some onions, garlic, carrots, and red peppers this time?) to the hot fat. Stir everything around in the pot until everything is combined with the oil. Sprinkle in some salt. You just want to add enough to draw out some of the water from the aromatics. Drop down the heat on your burner to medium low. Put the lid on your pot, and get to work on chopping your other ingredients. These are going to cook for about ten to fifteen minutes, or however long it takes them to get softened. If you'd like some colour, this would be a good time to add some turmeric, and stir it through. If you want more of an earthy flavour, this would also be a good time to add your favourite dried herbs. Thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf works for a deep, rich stew.

Start with your tomatoes. If you're using canned tomatoes, skip this step, and just get them ready to add to the pot. If you have fresh tomatoes, roughly chop them up into 1 inch cubes. Don't worry about getting them perfectly chopped--we're going to end up cooking them down in any case. Reserve about a cup and change of water at this point.

If you're like me, the chopping of the tomatoes is done around the same time that the aromatics are nice and soft in the pot. Once the aromatics have softened, add your diced tomatoes to the pot, and increase the heat to high again. Add a little more salt, and stir everything to combine it with the oils and flavours. You're going to start to discover the delight of the smell of tomatoes with garlic and spices. Savour that aroma. Once your tomatoes seem to be incorporated into the dish, turn the heat back down to low, and put the lid back on. You've got another good fifteen or twenty minutes to go before you have to bother anything. If you're nervous about the tomatoes getting too dried out, check every five minutes or so, and have that reserved water at the ready to loosen things up as needed.

Next come the root vegetables (how does a nice blend of radish, potato, and turnip sound) into roughly the same sized cubes. You want to go for about 1/2 inch all around, to get relatively quick cooking times, and still give the final dish something with some oomph to bite into.

Around the time that you've diced your last potato (or a bit sooner, if you take a little longer in chopping root vegetables), your tomatoes should be ready for the next step of the soup. At this point, there's a couple of different things that you can do. If you notice that there are quite a lot of vegetables left over to cut up, feel free to buy yourself some time by adding a few cups of water to the pot, leaving the lid open, and dumping in the vegetables as you go along. Because they're going to cook for another hour or so, you don't have to worry overmuch about cooking times.

If, however, you've finished chopping your vegetables, dump them into the pot, add a couple of litres of water, and crank the heat up to high. While you're waiting for the first boil, start loosely chopping up your leafy greens. Again, you want it to be small enough to fit on a spoon, but large enough to make an impression.

Once your pot starts boiling at a full, strong boil, add a few more pinches of salt, and let it sustain that rolling boil for about five minutes. Quickly taste the soup for salt. If it tastes salty at this point, there is too much salt, and you've got time for damage control. Grab a couple of cans of beans, and tip the contents into the pot. If, however, your soup just barely tastes salted, and is a little on the bland side, you're in good hands. Why is this? As the soup continues to cook, the water will evaporate, and the flavours will concentrate. You want to know how you're doing at this point, because damage control is far easier when you're still early on in the game, rather than at the last minute when you're scrambling.

But I digress. Once you've gotten that full rolling boil sustained for about five minutes or so, drop down the heat to medium low again. Put the lid back on. Finish chopping any final greens you want to add. While you're here, you might as well wash up some of the dishes you've generated along the way. You've got a good forty five minutes to go. Pour yourself a nice cold glass of the drink of your choice, and clean up at leisure. Why leave the mess for later, when you'll be tired?

After about forty five minutes, test the largest piece of vegetable you can see in the pot. If it's done all the way through, you're good to go. Add the leafy greens to the top, and increase the heat back to high. Put the lid on, and let it come up to the boil again. Let it boil, uncovered, until the greens are done through.

When the greens are done, let the soup sit and settle for about fifteen minutes. It's just had an exciting journey in becoming a wonderful dish. Letting it settle for a bit gives the soup (and you) a chance to just relax and mellow for a few minutes. Take the time to set out the table with some nice dishes and your place settings. You've spent all this time on your dish--why not enjoy it properly?

There. Soup is ready. Test it for salt once more before serving. If it's a touch on the bland side, just perk it up with some more salt. Just make sure to let it come back up to the boil after you've added as much salt as you think you'll need. That final boil will make sure that the salt is properly incorporated.

Enjoy your meal.