Roasted Red Pepper Soup and a Cooking Lesson

I know I’m not the fastest cook in the world. Most line cooks would put me to shame on a busy night when the tickets are hurling out of the printer. But…I can cook efficiently and reasonably fast. Now I’m going to attempt to show you how to cook a little smarter and faster.

I’ve chosen a recipe for roasted red pepper soup to demonstrate some techniques and how to think before you cook. All you need to do is read the recipe instructions carefully and follow step-by-step.

Like everything else in life, it may seem a little uncomfortable at first. Relax, in due time this will seem like second nature. in a little while you’ll be multitasking and cooking like a real line cook. Okay, not really, but you will learn some important lessons. Like mise en place, known to professional cooks as being ready with all that you need within mere steps of the stove.

Let’s go.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 large red bell pepper
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream

METHOD: First things first. Read these instructions closely and pay attention. Don’t even think of chopping up anything at this point. Now, get two large bowls, one 6 quart stockpot, tongs, a kitchen knife, a fine mesh strainer, a large wooden spoon or similar, a stick blender or blender, and a sheet pan. If this looks like a lot of equipment be quiet and stop complaining. It’s called preparation and I’m showing you how to cook efficiently and fast. This soup will take all of 40 minutes to make including roasting time and a glass of wine.

1- Preheat the oven on to 450 degrees F.

2- Put the four peppers in one of the bowls and drizzle just a little olive oil over them rubbing to coat them well. You won’t need much oil…maybe two teaspoons. Put the peppers on a sheet pan and put it in the oven for about 20 minutes. Turn them occasionally to prevent burning, but you do want a good char on them.

3- While the peppers are roasting mince the garlic and chop the onion. Set aside in separate containers.

4- Wash and dry the parsley. Mince it and set aside.

5- Remove the peppers from the oven, put back into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow them to steam for ten minutes or so. The skin that is not burned will look wrinkly as it loosens. When the skin is loose uncover and let cool for a few minutes.

6- Now it gets messy. Keeping the peppers over the bowl (you want to keep those precious juices you just roasted) start peeling the skin off. Yup, it’s sloppy. Make sure to get the seeds off the peppers also. The peppers will break apart, the tops will come out, and juice will be everywhere, but get as much skin off as you can. Don’t worry too much if there’s some black skin left…it adds flavor and color. Put the peeled peppers in the other bowl. Strain the juice, seeds, skin, and stems from the first bowl to the one with the peppers.

(Note: Whatever you do, do not rinse the peppers under a running faucet to make the job easier. You are wasting water and juice from the pepper and you don’t want to do that do you? I didn’t think so.)

7- Roughly chop the now peeled roasted red peppers and set aside.

Now you are ready to cook. Up until know you have been assembling your mise en place…that which you need to cook.

8- Heat the stock pot over medium-high heat for a minute or so. When you add the oil it should shimmer on the bottom of the pot. Okay, add the oil and butter.

9- When the butter is melted add the garlic and stir it so it doesn’t brown. Now add the onions and stir to coat. Cook until translucent and softened. This will take about three to four minutes. Go ahead and add some cracked black pepper, just a couple of pinches or twists. If the garlic looks like it is getting too dark go to step 10. (Smell the onion aroma? Isn’t that great!)

10- Now add the chicken stock, thyme, parsley, and the roasted red peppers…and the juice you saved. Simmer this for about four or five minutes.

At this point you are ready to whizz this up in a blender or use a stick blender. If you use a blender, whiz the soup up in batches making sure to put a towel over, and holding the top down. Otherwise you’ll be cleaning soup off the walls and ceiling…after your return from hospital for third degree burns. Return the puree back to the stock pot.

If you are using a stick blender whizz the soup right in the pot.

11- Bring the soup back to a simmer then add the cream. The soup will stop simmering when you add the cream so bring it back to simmer while stirring it to incorporate the cream. Adjust seasoning to your taste.

12- Eat.

Recipe adapted from Penzey’s Spices

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Sago’s Goat

Several houses down from my childhood home there lived an old Italian gentleman named Sago (pronounced SAY-go). He was a weathered old man bent from many years of hard work and we kids always imagined he was a classmate of Michelangelo.

His house was like something plucked out of a remote, old-world Tuscan village. Garlic and peppers were braided and strung outside on ancient wooden beams, thinly sliced tomatoes, placed carefully on cheesecloth wrapped taut around wooden frames, drying in the sun. It was sight to see. On the left side of the property was a garden several hundred feet long, planted with a dozen rows of garlic that, come harvest time, the owner would knot into braids and sell at the market to supplement his retirement income.

Sago also had a goat, from which he got his daily milk. She was free to roam the property but like a good goat never ventured past the boundaries. Sago would find this was her one virtue. On occasion, she would flip the latch on the rickety screen door and wander into the house. Once inside she was able to sample pantry items, carpet, wall paper, or the odd bit of clothing. When Sago finally noticed the goat was inside, the whole neighborhood would know at the same time. We could hear him yelling obscenities in Italian at the goat and chasing her around the house all the while threatening her with a cast-iron frying pan. Furniture would topple and at random intervals one could hear pottery breaking as the dance got underway. Eventually, bleating in defiance, the goat would make her exit out a door or screen window to take refuge on the roof. Presumably safe from the old man, she would stare at Sago as if he were a madman while he lobbed rocks and potatoes at the goat and insults at her lineage. This was always great entertainment for us kids and we would all come running to watch the show. Occasionally the goat wandered into the garlic beds, only to be chased out before any damage could be done. This was a line the goat was forbidden to cross.

One hot summer afternoon, while Sago was napping in the shade of the overhanging braids of garlic and peppers, the goat wandered into the garden again. Fortunately, she tired of garlic before Sago finished his siesta. At milking time however, Sago soon realized what had happened while he had been snoozing. For two days the milk was garlic flavored and Sago cursed every squirt into the bucket. The battle was to escalate into war. A length of steel rod was driven into the ground and the goat was put on a length of rope just out of reach of the garlic and screen door. This would show her. She can see the garlic, but she can’t reach it. It was a solid victory for the old man.

The next morning Sago woke to find the goat casually chewing on his bed sheets. The frying pan was called into action and, amid more broken pottery and bleating, the goat once again made safe passage to the roof. It was now obvious to the old man a chain would need to replace the rope if the contents of the house and the garlic beds were to be protected from this unholy beast. My uncle Bob, who lived next door, supplied a length of light chain and the battle was over. Try as she might, the goat could not chew her way through the metal to freedom. Every few days, under the unwavering glare of the goat, Sago would pull up the steel rod and move it to a new patch of grass. Fresh milk and a goat free house were assured.

It was the morning of a cool early fall day when Sago decided he would have pheasant for dinner. At about eight o’clock in the morning he grabbed the double-barrel shotgun, a few rounds of ammunition, and headed out the door shambling past the goat and toward the cornfield in back of the house. Most likely he made some disparaging comment to the goat. A few steps later he noticed his boot had come untied. As he bent over to re-lace and tie his boot the goat saw her opportunity to lodge a complaint. A quick gallop connected her head with his backside and launched the old man on a short flight. The trip ended against a very large rock, which broke his leg. The goat, now just a few feet and out of Sago’s reach seemed pleased in having the last say. She stood gazing at the man who took her roaming rights away and let loose several jeering bleats of satisfaction at a job well done.

Most everyone in the neighborhood heard the two shotgun blasts. Uncle Bob had just finished a cup of coffee when he heard them. He rushed outside to see who on earth was firing a shotgun so close to the houses when he noticed Sago near the goat, waving the shotgun in the air to draw my uncle’s attention. The ambulance was called and Sago was carted off to the hospital to have his leg set.

Later that night, Sago hobbled around his kitchen on crutches as he prepared dinner. He wouldn’t be having pheasant. Earlier in the day he decided to have goat.

Blueberry Epiphany

While attending classes at the Culinary Institute of America I took a trip to Red Hook, New York. There was a u-pick blueberry farm just off the main drag with the biggest blueberries I’ve ever laid eyes on. Blueberries were never high on my list favorites. Granted they taste terrific, but I could pass on them without blinking an eye.

Why I bought a quart is still a mystery to me, but I did. Back at the apartment Scott, my classmate and roommate at the time, and I laid into them with a fervor that could get you arrested in most states. The next day I went back for more. My life was changed by food yet once more.

Berries in upstate New York this year have been incredible. Large, full of flavor, and fat with color, they scream to be made into jam. The blueberries, while not as huge as the Red Hook gang, are especially tasty. Ergo, jam!

Making preserves is so easy it’s almost silly not to make your own. There is not a lot of equipment you need, the process is relatively quick, the ingredients are easily found, and the jars are reusable. But the best part is opening a jar of blueberry, raspberry, peach, strawberry, or whatever your fruit choice is in the middle of winter. Believe me, its like opening a jar of summer everytime.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 cups blueberries, chopped to yield 4 1/2 cups
  • 2 tablespoons lime, fresh squeezed
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 package pectin
  • 3 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons lime zest

METHOD:

1 – In a food processor, pulse the 6 cups of blueberries until chopped but not totally liquified. You will end up with 4 1/2 cups, if not add more blueberries.

2 – Add all ingredients and 1/2 of the sugar and all the honey in an 8 quart or larger stainless steel pot. Bring to a roiling boil over high heat, stirring constantly with a long handle, stainless steel spoon. Add the remainder of the sugar and bring back to a roiling boil. Let it boil hard for one to two minutes, stirring continuously, checking the consistency to watch for jelling.

3 – Ladle in to 8 ounce jars, cover and process in a water bath for 15 minutes.

NOTES: If you are going to make any amount of jams or jellies there are a few tools you should invest in. First is a large stainless steel stock pot, a two gallon would be fine. Next you should have (you DO have one, don’t you?) a restaurant grade stainless spoon so you can check the sheeting and jelling action of the fruit as its cooking. When the fruit slides off the spoon in a nice sheet and starts to jell around the edges of the spoon, you are ready to pack the fruit.

You should also invest the two or three dollars for a canning funnel. It makes the work a whole lot cleaner and simpler to clean up.

Personally, and I’m far from a germophobe, a water bath pot or another large stock pot is handy to process the jars once filled and sealed. Is it necessary? Many people preserve without a water bath so probably not. It just makes me feel better.

Let’s Get Something Straight

Rant time.

If I see one more food website (read All-Recipes, Recipezaar, and yes, the Food Network) call the janitor/secretary/insurance salesman from the suburbs a Chef I’m going to blow a major freakin’ gasket.

Granted there are some pretty talented home cooks out there but one doesn’t get the title Chef until one’s ass has been thrown around a professional kitchen on a busy night, multiple times, with the temperature at 100 degrees plus, fifteen tickets in the window all due within minutes of each other, and lives to cook again.

Restaurants are tremendously difficult places to work in. That goes for FOH as well as BOH. Sure, there’s an incredible adrenaline rush when things go right. But there are dozens of things that can go wrong every day. In restaurants self-preservation is called mise en place. If you have a passing knowledge of this term you get points but nothing else. If you don’t, calling yourself a Chef is sacrilegious. Being organized and ready is the only thing that’s going to save your ass and everyone elses around you when it gets busy.

Chefs are there, body, mind, and spirit.

I’m sorry dearies, the term “Chef” is one of respect in the professional restaurant world. Chef is a title one earns. You don’t get it out of a box…it isn’t semi-home made. (And what the hell is semi-home made anyway!)

So when the previously mentioned suburbanite “Chef” learns how to cook any dish from memory, manage food cost, manage labor cost, build a staff of dedicated cooks, bakers, and dishwashers, order case loads of food, work 12 to 14 hour shifts days on end, and earn a profit for the enterprise, then they can be called a Chef. Oh, one more thing. You have to figure out how to make a family life outside the restaurant as well.

If you can’t handle any of the above, no toque…no title. It’s that simple.

Books You Need to Read

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The Devil in the Kitchen, Marco Pierre White. Chef White looks back at his beginnings and tells the story of the first British Michelin Four Star Chef. He was the youngest as well.

Lessons in Service, Charlie Trotter. How and why of superb food and service. If you are in, or plan to be in, the hospitality business read this first. I love Trotter.