barry_king (barry_king) wrote,

Le potage est une nourriture saine, légère, nourrissante, et qui convient à tout le monde

"If you write, you need to know how to cook, because being poor is bad enough without balogna sandwiches."

I don't know who said that, but it's true. I don't have any suggestions on how to write, because as far as I can tell, everyone has their own method once you get past the basics, and the basics are covered better by a whole lot of other people who are better at it than me. So let me tell you about something I do know, which is how to eat well for cheap.

Here's how to make soup like the Soup Nazi does, using a piece of meat called mutton breast.

Mutton breast sells for less per pound than most bits of lamb out there. Around here, mutton is on the scale of dog food, and the breast is generally not used, because it is "like eating a corset made of rubber bands." I wish I knew who said that, as well, because it's also true. But it's one of the tastiest cuts if you do it right.

This is 1/2 a mutton breast:

If you're lucky, a butcher will give it to you, or sell it to you for a pittance. This one was tossed in with a all the rest of the cuts of a butchered mutton, and it was a part people don't normally ask for when they buy a whole animal. So, altogether, I'd say it was worth about $2.

Browning gives meat its flavour, and in the case of the corset of rubber bands, is breaks down the meat to the point where it can be processed. In this case, I browned the breast for 2 hours in a medium-heat oven (350°). It's in a heavy iron casserole. A quick digression: That's another thing that you need to get hold of at some time in your life. Only once, mind. This one was bought by my parents in France in the mid-sixties. It will still be in use on my dying day, I have no doubt. But another insult of being poor is thin-bottomed pots. They are cheap, sure, but they burn EVERYTHING you put in them. However you can, get hold of heavy cookware. Used, preferably. Something you won't worry about scratching, staining, or whatever. Flea markets, charity stores, garage sales... find some.

As you can see, the breast is basically a sheet of parchment-like tissue, with a thin layer of meat, glued to the ribs by some of the toughest material the body can produce. Once the breast is cooked, you can slice it away with a filleting knife. I found this one at the back of a drawer in 1989, and it's been with me since. It's great. It gets the pits out of mangoes, watermelon into chunks in its rind, and meat off of animal parts. I've never actually used it on a fish.

Once you've cut it off, and broken up the ribs and picked out the meat from those (I kind of overcooked this one, so there was a lot of crunchy inter-rib tissue), you can put the ribs into a pot, because you'll need stock for the soup. I also pour off the fat to process separately. I use it for yorkshire puddings, which need a little suet in the pan. I render it by boiling it with water a couple of times, skimming off the foam, and running it through a coffee filter to remove the BCBs*. I let it cool after the final boil, and separate the hardened fat from the water, melt it again, and store it in a sealed jar in the fridge until needed.

Meanwhile, I throw into the pot with the ribs a couple of handfuls of mirepois, which is a fancy way of saying small-diced carrot, celery, and onion. When the celeriac comes in in late summer, the tops are virtually inedible, but they have a very intense celery flavour, so I dice them up with the carrots and onions that also come into season (all of this stuff is at its cheapest at that time), and freeze ziploc bags of the stuff for adding to stock, putting under roasts to enhance the gravy, and so on.

The casserole, meanwhile, has lots of dripping (basically roast blood) at the bottom, which is full of caramelized meat flavour, so rather than putting water directly on the ribs to make the stock, I first clean the casserole with water, heated on the range, to get all that flavour into the water before pouring it over the ribs. Here's the stock, the fat, and the casserole full of weak broth:

Next, the parchment exterior of the meat needs to be separated from the soft, tasty bits. I throw that part in with the ribs.

And then chop up the meat into small pieces for the soup. There's some hours ahead here, so I put it in the fridge, once chopped.

The stock takes about three hours on a very low simmer to be ready. You'll know by the smell permeating the house that it's done. Don't let it boil, because then it gets the nasty gluey flavour out of the bones, and the stock becomes cloudy. A very light simmer, is all you need. For me, that means leaving it on "3" on the range. YRMV.

So, when the stock is nearly done, start prepping the vegetables that need prepping. In this case, I'm using up my last three onions from last year, and some carrots, and three cloves of garlic smashed with the flat of the knife and with the green garlic embryo torn out, because it's bitter and acrid, and doesn't add the nice part of garlic to the soup. For spices, I'm using rosemary, ten small cloves, and three bay leaves.

Dice the onions, mince the garlic, and fry it all up with some fat, butter, or olive oil. I used olive oil with this one, but some kind of fat is essential, because...

when the onions are translucent, you throw in some flour, and swish it all around until the fat cooks the flour slightly. This is where a heavy pot helps, because a thin one will just make the flour stick, then burn, and you'll have a taste kind of like toast, kind of like sawdust, and not at all nice. I use "5" on the range, and cook it only until it's tan in colour.

Then, with a strainer to take out all the bones and mirepois, pour the stock directly onto the onions, stirring with a flat scraper to get any flour stuck to the bottom into the soup, where it acts as a thickener.

The rest of the cooking is casual. I keep it at 3 or 4 on the range after tossing in the spices, pouring in one quart-can of chopped tomatoes, a couple of cups of lentils or beans (lentils are best with lamb, but in this case I only had small navy beans, but some kind of hearty pulse is always really good in a lamb soup). I also tossed in some frozen spinach from last year's garden, and a good portion of salt (1 tablespoon or more), several grinds of pepper, and enough water to fill the pot.

After three hours (lentils take only an hour and a half), the soup is ready:

By my calculations, that's about eight large bowls of soup for around $5, and it's a hell of a lot tastier than anything that comes in a can for $2.50.

*Burnt crunchy bits.

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