Well, there's no pretty way of saying it: I had an epic fail last night while attempting to perform my first ever soup operation.
Now let me give you some back-story.
I, Natalie Rans, am not the biggest soup fan. I was obliged to eat it far too often at home – but I'm not blaming you Mom, well, actually, I kind of am. You see, my mother is a wonderful cook, but boy does she love her soups. By the time I was old enough to start making alternative meals, I confidently assumed the role of "soup hater" and everyone knew it. I made a list of reasons to give my mom and others who thought I was crazy: never the right temperature, too hot, too cold, weird texture, too chunky, too stewy, too beany, too soupy. Believe it or not, my rant of ridiculous nonsense worked well in fending off my opposers.
Recently I was struck with an inward controversy. I have given myself the challenge of truly learning to cook by performing one new recipe a week. Next week we'll be camping so I decided on doing two this week to make up for it. Now, is there any recipe I could make ahead of time to be one of 8 dinners on the trip? Think. Think. Think. SOUP.
Soup, an easy meal to make that you can reheat as lunch, or dinner, the next day. Soup, a meal that David (regrettably) loved. Soup, a dish that so many friends exclaimed was their favorite meal to make from scratch. Soup was creeping its way into my mind, unwelcome, yet with so many defenders. I couldn't ignore it any longer; it was time to find my soup calling.
I went to Pinterest to look for recipes. Every-so-often I turn there for cooking inspiration. (The pictures are always so nice; which leads me to confess how I chose my soup.) As I scrolled down the page of hundreds of elegant soup recipes, a beautiful and bright vision struck my eyes – the perfect light, the white-washed background, the simple prints, the focus of a single bowl, the vibrant gold texture. A single image had caught my eye and I decided I was ready to go soup wild.
Sweet Potato, Kale & Corn Chowder
Found at ahouseinthehills.com
2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 shallots, diced
1 medium leek, cleaned and sliced (round)
1 bunch of curly kale, chopped
3 cups of frozen or fresh corn
3 cloves of garlic
3 cups of low sodium vegetable broth
3 cups of water (more to preference)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon coconut oil
The ingredients were minimal and the instructions seemed plain, fairly simple to understand. I scribbled the recipe on a scratch piece of paper, hopped in the car, and headed to the market. I went down the list, collecting everything I needed. Leeks? I've never cooked with those before, so why do I recognize the name? I scanned the produce wall and to my surprise a green vegetable lit up in my face. It looked sort of like abnormally large chives. All of a sudden it came to me. Aha! Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II, "There's a leek in the boat!" (That is truly the only reason why I was familiar with the name. ) There was just one other thing I didn't recognize, but had heard of before, shallots. I can't even describe what I pictured them to look like in my head, but I can tell you that I definitely didn't picture them to look like reddish-brown garlic heads. (I was even more surprised to find that beneath the outer skins were bulbs resembling miniature onions.) I gathered the items, checked out, and zipped back home.
I arrived in my kitchen feeling I was about to unveil a whole new side of Natalie Rans. I grabbed the largest pot I had– which wasn't very big – and dove right in!
- In large, heavy bottomed soup pan sauté diced shallots and coconut oil over medium/low heat until softened.
- Add garlic, sweet potatoes, sea salt, pepper, cinnamon and sauté an additional minute.
- Add vegetable broth and water, cook until potatoes are easily pierced with a fork. Add leeks and cook an additional two minute
- Use an immersion blender (or transfer to a standing blender) to rough puree the soup.
- Add kale, corn and cook until kale is softened. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve hot!
I looked up how to dice a shallot and found a very helpful video. After successfully chopping the onions, (with only minimal eye damage) I turned on the heat, put the coconut oil at the bottom of the pan, and and began sautéing the first two ingredients. The smells wafting from the pot were glorious and I was feeling pretty dang good about myself.
Very quickly I realized a mistake I had made. It doesn't mention this in the recipe (probably because it's obvious to most people), but before beginning the sautéing process, it's vital that you prep all your ingredients so they're ready to be tossed in at any moment. I contemplated doing this at first, but then decided I would chop as I went, to pass the time (bad move). The shallots cooked (burnt) much faster than I expected and I wasn't able to chop the potatoes quick enough. I continued in hopes that the overcooked shallots would add a smokey flavor to the soup (you have to tell yourself something to keep you motivated). My feelings of elation had vanished and were replaced with a frantic unease as I proceeded to add the spices.
I was glad to find the next steps to be fairly easy. There was only one I didn't quite understand. I again referred to youtube to learn how to "clean and dice" a leek. This was, yet again, a very helpful video.
The sun was going down and I thought the sweet potatoes weren't going to cook fast enough for me to finish the soup before David got home. After adding the water and broth, I popped the lid on to get a good boil going. I'm almost positive I over-cooked them because the potatoes began to break apart when I put a fork to them (not quite what the recipe was asking for.)
I poured the contents of the pot into the blender (messy business) and pressed pulse. After a few goes I returned the soup to the pot and was disturbed to see a strange texture staring up at me. It wasn't mushy as I was expecting, but instead, a mucky swamp of mashed potatoes floating in broth. This was disconcerting to the utmost. Dipping a spoon into the muck, I nervously tasted the "chowder" and, to top it all off, found it to be pretty bland, except for a stark cinnamon flavor.
The pot was about full but I still needed to add the corn and kale. There was no going back, so I introduced them to the pot in hopes that it wouldn't overflow. I was in luck. I had about half an inch of extra room after the fact. After a few good stirs my soup began to look like a corn frenzy. It didn't resemble the beautiful pictures from Pinterest in any way. I took one last taste – still the same bland flavor with bursts of corn.
Shocked and disappointed I searched my kitchen for ingredients to make it taste better since everyone says, "You can't mess up soup; there's always a way to fix it." I was about to prove them all wrong! I squeezed in some lemon juice in hopes of bringing out any hidden flavors. I also added paprika and chili powder to contrast the sweetness of the cinnamon flavor. Finally the soup was acquiring a taste, but still, the texture was not cutting it. I tossed it all back into the blender and pureed until I got the mush I was looking for.
David walked in right as I was about to try the final product. I looked at him and said, with guilty eyes, "I'm sorry". I knew he wasn't a fan of sweet potatoes, but I tried the recipe anyway, and then it turned out I didn't even like the soup. He smiled and bravely said he would try it. I served up two (small) bowls. We sat down and looked at each other from across our tiny table, spooning a bite and guiding them into our hungry mouths. I couldn't quite read the look on his face as he swallowed. He didn't hate it; he didn't like it; and he was nice enough to eat every last bite of it. Man, do I love my husband.
As I washed the dishes that night I was reminded of the scene from Julie and Julia where Julie has a meltdown on the kitchen floor after messing up yet another recipe. I thought about the rest of the movie, how much she grew and learned, how imperfect, yet wonderful, her journey was. I resolved that it had to be a good thing to not succeed at every recipe I tackled in these first few months of learning. I felt humbled as I accepted my defeat.
Things I learned:
- how to properly clean and cut a leek
- how to chop a shallot
- what a shallot is (in the first place)
- prep (measure, chop, etc.) all ingredients ahead of time
- soup is harder to make than one might think (for amateurs at least)
- sweet potatoes are best on Thanksgiving, mashed up, and with lots of brown sugar (or as an alternative to french fries)
- a little bit of cinnamon goes a long way
- believe your husband when he says he doesn't like something
- sweet soup isn't my favorite
It's not the end though. You win some, you lose some. This was a fail, but tomorrow I will try again, no sweet potatoes this time.
Happy Soup Making!