By OWEN MORRIS
"So I hear there's this bug going around the school."
Those are the first words I hear upon entering the classroom/kitchen for this week's class on soups and sure enough, several people do not turn up. Normally the news would worry me but I have something else on my mind I'm much more afraid of — a French broth soup called consomme.
It's not supposed to be a difficult class, either -- at least not as difficult as last week's nine-sauces-in-three-hours marathon. Besides consomme, our teams of two have to make three other soups: shrimp bisque, spicy black bean soup and corn and crab chowder. These soups are easier to make than sauces -- or at least they're more familiar. The meat and potatoes and carrots and celery add loads of body and are virtually fool-proof to add. Even the French bisque is reassuringly simple. But consomme is the exception, and one reason why this week's class is the hardest one yet. For the first time, I feel a tinge of actual pressure and worry.
To an untrained eye, consomme looks a lot like brown water. It has no vegetables (save for a garnish), no meat, no cream or puree. It's the simplest-looking thing that you can set in front of someone -- but the taste, oh the taste! A consomme made from beef stock will brim with beef flavors that a piece of meat itself often lacks -- a little fatty beef taste, that red meat taste appearing and then just as quickly disappearing on the tongue. It's delicious but extremely tough to make.
I've tried making it before and have failed. The problem is the raft — a mixture of meat, vegetables, acids and egg whites that coagulates on top of the consomme when the consomme starts to
boil simmer. A hard boil will cause the raft to break. So will stirring the consomme once it starts to form. Even moving the consomme can be a nail-biting experience. If the raft breaks, it causes all of those proteins and fat to mix with the liquid, making the consomme murky and ruining it. The murkier a consomme, the worse it is. That's why the garnish is put at the bottom of the bowl, to show that the consomme is clear enough that you can see all the way to the bottom.
I've had the raft break on me nearly every other time I've tried to make consomme. But I had an idea on how to prevent that from happening again.
"I really don't know how to do consomme," my partner confessed to me. "Don't worry," I told her. "Just take care of it and I'll work on the bisque and chowder."
That's right -- I was passing the buck. But I didn't feel particularly bad about it since I knew I could make a really good bisque and chowder. At least I could if I had been able to find the ingredients in time. It was my third week in this kitchen and the ingredients are never in the same place. Also, it's now my belief the school is secretly preparing its students for cooking jobs aboard submarines. There's no other way to explain why the quarters in such an advanced cooking class are this cramped — last night, ten students were working on two stove tops. Anyway, I had trouble finding my ingredients but really, I caused my own biggest problem. One of the main points of the lecture before we started cooking was how inexpensive soup is to make. "Yet!" the teacher warned, "I've earned my gray hair by not having enough made for banquets... always leave yourself some extra room."
My partner and I added an extra half-cup of beef stock to our four-cup consomme to make up for evaporation and spillage, what distillers refer to as the "angel's share." Because I had so much trouble finding the ingredients for the other soups, when I did I always took an extremely liberal share just to be on the safe side. It was quite a shock that after cooking for two hours, my partner and I poured the four soups into the quart containers and the consomme only came up to the two-cup line. Same with our shrimp bisque. "Got to have a quart. Got to add stock," the instructor said.
Adding beef stock bulked up the size of consomme but the stock by itself didn't have the same flavor. Also, I knew it would cloud the consomme that my partner had been delicately moving around on the stove-top for 40 minutes. But you have to do what you have to do. So I faced my demons and put the consomme back on the stove-top on a low burner. I then filled up an entire quart with beef stock and put that in a separate pot on high. As the stock started heating up, I strained any little bits of fat off the top, trying to keep it as clear as I could.
In ten minutes, the beef stock was simmering and ready to add to the consomme. The problem was that the stock was still murky. "Use a coffee filter," the instructor said, having come up behind me and realized my problem. Cup by cup, I strained the stock through a coffee filter. It helped clear the stock a little and so I started to do it again when the instructor started shouting to the class, "Five minutes to plate! I want two cups of each with garnish."
"Crap. How'd I forget about garnish?" I said to myself. Fortunately, my partner had not and she was furiously pureeing avocado and slicing leeks. Not having time to strain the stock once more, I mixed it with the consomme and left it on the stove while I plated the black bean soup, the chowder and the bisque. When I went back to the stove, it had just started simmering. As I carried the consomme from the stove-top, I noticed I had left the coffee filters out and I realized that I could use them once more in the actual serving bowls.
So that's what I did. I layered the China bowl with a coffee filter, poured in the stock/consomme and sure enough, the color turned out better than expected. "Nice and hot," the instructor said as he tasted it. "The color is a little dark but overall, decent job."
"Decent job." That might not seem like high praise but with consomme, it's praise that I'll take any day.