Saturday, February 28, 2009

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Sweet/Stinky/Ugly/Funky Root Vegetable Soup

Dear blog readers (if anybody is actually reading this), I have a confession to make. I have been holding out on you. Because of my selfish desire to keep it all for myself, I never told you about Persimmon.

I told close friends. I told my fish teacher. But I didn't tell you. Because I didn't want to face the day when I'd call for a reservation and not be able to get a table. But that was small of me, and I'm sorry. Well, maybe only a little sorry. :)

I've had a hard time putting into words why I love Persimmon so much, but I think I've stumbled on it. It's about simple perfection and harmony. Their food has just the right balance of exploration and simplicity: there's nothing extraneous, and nothing missing. I've eaten more impressive/virtuosic food, and these chefs are doing important work by pushing the boundaries of culinary creativity and technical skill.

But if there's anything that my dance career has taught me, it's that the most impressive performance is not necessarily the best one. At the end of the day, the best performance is the one with the perfect balance: one gives the audience just enough of what they want and pushes them just enough and is the most personal. It's the difference between receiving an elaborate floral arrangement, and simple bouquet of your favorite flower, perfectly arranged. That's what I get at Persimmon.

Of all the dishes I've enjoyed there, the soups shine the brightest. In fact, I've gained a reputation as That Crazy Soup Girl, since I have had the soup for both appetizer and dessert (on two occasions: the sunchoke soup with an island of fried oysters and caviar and pea/asparagus vichyssoise). So you can imagine how excited I was when they announced that their very first cooking class would cover soups.

The class was demo-based, rather than hands-on (I like to get my hands dirty), but it still told me exactly what was missing in my own soups:

  • how to make a rich, clean stock: choose high-gelatin ingredients, rinse away as much blood & marrow as possible, bring to a boil slowly, skim obsessively.

  • compositional ideas: make the soup taste truly like the main ingredient(s), then add solid or liquid toppings that allow the diner to make each bite be a different experience.

So if that class and the tips that Helen shared with me on her blog together comprised a university course, this recipe would be my final project.

In the last month, I've made it twice and eaten it five times, and it still hasn't paled in my affections. And my husband, who usually has to be tied to a chair to eat root vegetables, took one taste of mine, and demanded his own bowl.

Soup of Sweet, Stinky, Funky and Ugly Root Vegetables

Notes: I'll be honest. I eyeballed everything in this recipe. The measurements given here are approximate and highly suspect. But that's okay. Try it, and adjust. You can always add a more stock if it's too thick, or a little more cooked potato if it's too thin.

Substitutions and Riffs:

  • This would work really well with pretty much any root vegetables in the mix, so use your imagination. The basic idea is to use sweet vegetables like carrots to prop up those with a more stinky/funky flavor like turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips.

    Now, parsnips are sweet enough on their own, but I don't recommend omitting the carrots, since they give the soup a pretty color. If you used all-white veggies (ex: turnips, parsnips), the caramelization you get when you roast the veggies would give the soup a sickly beige color that wouldn't be all that appetizing. Celery root (simmered, not roasted) gives the soup a nice undertone too.

  • I used chicken stock for this, since it's what I had on hand, but feel free to substitute. Vegetable stock would also probably work very well well. Champe gave us a recipe for apple stock that tastes fantastic in my mind's mouth, but I can't guarantee it. I'm curious as to whether a mix of chicken and shrimp stock would work... If anybody tries alternative stocks, let me know how they go.

  • One principle that I took away from the soup class at Persimmon was to use two or more toppings to allow the eater to make each bite a different experience. Here are some flavoring ideas that I tried:
    - sage, apple, maple bacon
    - garlic, maple, balsamic vinegar
    - bacon and nutmeg
    - truffle salt and thyme

    I also bet that any of the following would be amazing, but I haven't tried them yet:
    - wild boar or other game, possibly with balsamic or citrus peel flavors
    - calves' liver, delicately fried, probably with the balsamic/maple reduction in v3.

For a main dish, you could probably serve the game or liver on a regular plate on a nice little pond of the soup.


- 2 large turnips, cubed (you may substitute rutabagas, if desired)
- 1 lb parsnips (appx 3 big ones), quartered lengthwise
- 1 shallot, chopped fine
- 3 or 4 large carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 Tbsp sugar, optional
- 4 small white or yellow potatoes (or 1 baking-sized one), quartered
- olive oil
- about 2 qts unsalted chicken stock
(Homemade is best if you have it, otherwise the most flavorful unsalted variety you can find. It's best to have a little extra on hand)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- salt to taste


v1: (yummy)
- 1 strip bacon, fried until crisp and tossed in 1 tsp maple syrup
- 1/4 flavorful apple (I used a buttery apple sauce, but I'll bet roasted or glazed apple slices would be even better)
- 5 sage leaves, gently fried in butter
- 6 sage leaves for the stock (don't skip this step!)

v2: (okay)
- fresh-grated nutmeg or nutmeg-infused grapeseed oil (olive oil will work in this recipe)
- 1 strip bacon, fried until crisp

v3: (excellent)
- 3 roasted garlic cloves, skins removed
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar and 1/4 cup maple syrup, heated together until thick and syrupy

v4: (not that great)
- truffle salt or oil
- 1 sprig/serving fresh thyme for garnish
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme for the stock

Make the soup:

- preheat the oven to 425F

- toss the turnips and parsnips generously with olive oil. Sprinkle the turnips with sugar (optional). Roast (turning occasionally) until browned on at least one side (20-40 minutes?) They'll probably be tender at this point, but it doesn't actually matter.

- meanwhile, saute the shallots in olive oil in a large dutch oven until soft and lightly browned

- remove the vegetables from the roasting pan, and place in a large dutch oven. Ladle some of the stock into the emptied roasting pan, and deglaze by scraping any browned bits, encouraging them to dissolve into the stock. Pour the deglazing liquid over the vegetables.

- add the turnips, parsnips, shallots, carrots, and potatoes in a large dutch oven. Tie any topping-related herbs into a bouquet or in a cheesecloth sack, and add them to the pot. Add enough of the remaining stock to cover the vegetables generously, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently until the vegetables are very tender and the potatoes break apart when poked through with a fork.

- remove any topping-related herbs and discard.

- puree the soup in a blender. Work in batches so it doesn't explode. Pulse first to mush it up, then puree on highest speed to make it smooth and add air. And more stock if needed to make it smooth and fluffy.

- strain through a fine mesh sieve, stirring with a ladle, and pressing the back into the sieve to help it along.

- return the strained soup to the sauce pan, add the cream, and heat over medium-low, stirring frequently, until hot. Meanwhile, prepare the toppings.

- salt to taste

- if desired, run through the blender or immersion blender on high speed just before serving to add more "fluff"

- ladle into soup plates and top with desired toppings.

Serves about 8. Maybe.

Wine Pairings: I still haven't figured this one out. I tried it with an off-dry riesling first. It had enough sweetness and acidity to stand up to the dish, but it's more subtle flavors were lost in the big, earthy POW of the soup. I also tried a Chianti that I had on hand. It had enough body, but was too dry and astringent. My guess is that a big fruit-forward California Zinfandel would do the trick, but I haven't confirmed it yet.

UPDATE: the Zinfandel was a step closer, but still a little dry compared to the soup. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

Reheating Tips: The silky texture is a big part of this soup. Microwaving, even on lower heat, tends to give it a dried-out, thickened "skin" around the edges that isn't very appealing. I'd recommend reheating it on the stove-top, stirring frequently. Or if you must microwave it, skim off the skin before serving. Either way, give it a run through the blender (immersion blender comes in handy here)

If you try this, let me know:

- which ingredients you used
- what you used for toppings
- which wines you tried and how they worked out

1 comment:

Matthias said...

sounds nummy, thanks for drawing it to my attention.