One thing I like about cooking is the power of being able to transform disparate ingredients into an organic whole, something that has all of the nuance and integrity of each of its constituent parts but ends up as something greater than any of them alone, something that satisfies you as a cook and pleases the people for whom you created it.
With that power of transformation comes the responsibility of respecting what you’re cooking with and the techniques necessary to create the organic whole. If you don’t have that, forget it. Details matter; you can assemble ingredients of the highest quality, but if you don’t treat them right, you will be less than happy with the outcome.
I’ve lately been going back to “The French Laundry Cookbook,” which a friend gave me a few years ago. It is one of my favorite cookbooks, but I have never read it from beginning to end – I am doing so now, and cooking from it. This week, after rereading the section in Michael Ruhlman‘s great book “The Soul of a Chef” on Thomas Keller, titled “Journey Toward Perfection,” a passage about soups stuck in my mind:
Mr. Keller loves soup, and he might begin a meal with a dazzling quartet of contrasting flavors that arrive in espresso cups. Fresh slightly bitter sorrel soup, the essence of green, is quickly followed by tomato consommé that is crystal clear but tastes bright red. Two thick soups look similar, but one is an ineffably rich lobster bisque, the other a clean smooth puree of cranberry bean.
In “The French Laundry Cookbook” is a recipe for Cream of Walnut Soup. I did not have walnuts, but I had some shiitakes, so I made a soup using Chef Keller’s recipe as a guide, with mushrooms instead of walnuts. And I made a few changes, not to make improvements, but because my ingredients called for them.
And that takes me back to detail and technique. One thing that all great cooks and chefs have in common is paying attention to both. No shortcuts, no half measures. The ingredients, and you and whoever is going to eat your food, deserve nothing less. You will need at least one strainer or chinois for this recipe, and if you have more than one you will be the better for it. If you have only one, make sure you clean it thoroughly each time before using it.
Take about 20 or so shiitakes and brush them clean, then chop coarsely and set them aside. Next, mince a shallot and sweat it in some butter in a medium sauce pan until soft. Add two cups of heavy cream to the pan and about 1/4 cup of milk. Next, split a vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the mixture. Finally, add the mushrooms and bring all to a simmer, then turn down to just below simmer – you’ll let the flavors meld for about 45 minutes or so.
In his Cream of Walnut Soup, Chef Keller uses pear purée, and I thought it would go well with the mushrooms, so while the cream mixture is gaining strength peel and core one pear and cut it into eight wedges. In a medium saucepan, bring to boil one-half bottle of dry white wine and skim any foam that rises to the top. To this add 1.5 cups of water and 1/2 cup of sugar. Return to the boil and stir. When the sugar is dissolved add the juice of one half of a lemon and to this mixture add the pear pieces; cover with parchment lid (or loosely cover with lid if you don’t have parchment paper) and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 15 minutes, until pear wedges are soft to the tip of a knife. Remove the poached pears from the heat and return your attention to the cream and mushroom mixture.
It’s coming together now, and if it has been about 45 minutes since the cream-mushroom mixture has been on the flavors will be wonderful; it’s amazing how the shiitakes impart their earthiness to the cream, and underneath it all is the essence of shallot. Pour this mixture through a strainer into a clean pan and discard the mushrooms. You’ll end up with about 1.5 cups of liquid. Taste it now for seasoning; I added a pinch of salt at this point.
Going back to the pears, transfer the wedges to a blender; pour about 1/3 cup of the poaching liquid through a clean strainer into the blender, then purée. If your mushroom cream has cooled reheat it, gently; then, with your blender motor running, pour the hot cream into the blender.
Finally, using a clean strainer, strain the soup into a clean saucepan and reheat gently. As Chef Keller does at the French Laundry, I like to serve the soup in warm demitasse cups as the first thing diners taste at the table, other than Champagne or wine. It is rich, the poached pear brings the slightest touch of sweetness, and the umami factor will have your guests thinking, “I can’t wait until the next course.” (It’s best to serve this soup immediately, but you can cool and store in the refrigerator for one day. Reheat gently.)
To end, I’ll touch one more time on detail and technique; you will notice that I strain the pear purée and the cream mixtures more than once. What you are after is a smooth, almost whispering touch on the tongue, so any specks or particles will ruin the effect. You must strain the liquids, through a clean strainer or chinois, showing your respect for the mushrooms, your guests, and your craft.