Saturday, January 20, 2007

More Soup for You! Tasting for Dine

I've finally recovered from all the soup we tasted last week while judging Dine Magazine's Best of Indy. While I can't give away any advance information, the experience was a great course on the basics of what makes great soup --and more importantly, how many ways there are to screw it up. Soup isn't easy to make. Great soup is a subtle art and one of the hardest dishes for home cooks and professional chefs to learn correctly. Even great chefs get nervous when they can't oversee every aspect of its preparation and presentation. But as we learned last week, a technically correct soup can travel, be rewarmed, garnished and present incredibly well even without a chef on site supervising (or "soup"-ervising, as it were). In the end, quality and technique will out every time. We were very impressed with the wide range of establishments who did great soup and the wide variety of soups we tasted -- everything from delicate purees and broths to hearty chowders and chilies.

How did it work? We scored each soup on a 100-point scale with differently weighted categories for appearance, aroma, texture/consistency, flavor, and overall impression. While you'll have to read the upcoming Dine issue for the individual best soups, I can describe what I felt were the most ongoing, consistent problems we saw in the roughly 75 soups we judged:

* Too much salt! I'm a believer that most soup is woefully undersalted, but my o my did we a taste a lot of soup that was so salty, the original flavor of the ingredients was completely lost. The problems were most prevalent in bisques (the omnipresent over-salted lobster bisque), cream soups, and soups involving potatoes. When you're spicing, try backing off just a bit to let the real flavor come through. Keep in mind if your natural ingredients are already heavy in salt.

* Too much heat! Who says Hoosiers don't like spicy food. I was amazed by the prevalence of hot spice in the vast majority of soups we tasted, many too spicy to eat. I have nothing against peppers -- from cayenne to poblano -- but once you're gone too far spicing your soup with heat, there's nothing that can be done. Always go easy on the spice -- and keep cleansing your palatte between tastings if you're adjusting for heat. Your own tongue can get coated and you become oblivious to a flavor that will be most unenjoyable for your guests. (Also remember that if you have allergies or smoke, your taste buds may be dulled. Have someone else check it out for you.)

*Not enough of a flavor base to hold heat: If you're going to add heat to your soup whether fresh, roasted, or powdered chilies, you must have a flavor base that will hold it such as a sweetness. Sweet isn't the only option, savory can work too, but you need a base to hold the spice and give it depth. Otherwise, you just get a flat, unpleasant hotness.

*Out of season ingredients: Be aware that corn in the winter isn't going to be as sweet as fresh corn in summer, so it's going to affect your corn chowder. Asparagus isn't as flavorful, and artichokes aren't even available. Tomatoes can be found, but you have to be careful. Try to use in-season veggies for your seasonal soups. Ironically? For all the corn, tomato, and other vegetable soups we tried, we had very few if any squash, pumpkin, or zucchini-based soups.

*Canned ingredients, why? Why would you use canned anything in a soup for a competition? Tomatoes are mush, artichokes are too tangy, and beans are soft. Also, appearance matters. You're soup doesn't have to look like it was styled for Food and Wine, but it should be visually appealing. I should want to eat it! You'd be amazed at how many soups were just an unappetizing mess. Looks do matter!

*Additions: It's always great to add things to your soup but be aware of how they're cooked and how it will work with the flavors you already have. Meat and seafood should be cooked in such as way that it doesn't become tough. Pasta should be cooked then added (not cooked in the broth) and remember that how you deal with potatoes affects the amount of starch they release that can make your soup a sticky, gummy mess. If what you add, such as mushrooms or a cracker have flavor, make sure they compliment that of your soup. What that flavors blend, not clash.

*Soup is Not a Side Dish: It is also not a dip, gravy, or enchilada sauce. Your soup should be the consistency of soup, spoonable and liquid, even if it's a hearty dish like a chowder or baked potato soup. If it stays in the spoon when you try to put it in the bowl, it's technically not really a soup, no matter what you call it on the menu.

All these issues aside, we tasted an amazing number of soups from chefs all over the city and there were some stand-out stars from restaurants large and small. Thanks to all the hard working chefs who entered and thanks to the folks at Dine for asking me to judge. It was a real treat! (Although I'm glad I wasn't tapped to taste mashed potatoes or chicken wings.)