Monday, September 17, 2012

Baked Leek Soup w/ Crouton and Strong Cheddar

I have spent the last few months working on a menu and sometimes I get a chance to take the recipe to the final stage, that is, the actual 'test cooking'. This dish is just such a recipe. My inspiration is the classic French onion soup, but I wanted to 'anglo-fy' it somewhat and this was the result. I don't intend to use a ramekin to plate this, but it was all I had. The ideal vessel would be the classic French soup terrine for which it is much easier to get the melting, bubbling cheese and toast to cooperate due to the smaller opening. 

Either way, this dish delivered on flavour beyond my expectations. As I've discussed before in past blogs, my food memories are a little sparse and not necessarily of the highest quality. However, there are some flavour profiles that offer up a ghost of a memory. Perhaps not even a ghost, but a glimpse of a ghost. I'm sure this has happened to you before; you taste something that you don't recall ever eating, but there is an instant recognition---something deep in the olfactory part of your brain stirs and opens an eye. What is this? Do we have food memories that are stored in our DNA, harking back, deep into the ancient culture from which we originate? For me, leeks are a gift in this sense. There is something lurking in my memory for which a softened and buttery leek awakens. I'm not sure what it is...I know my Dad cooked leek soup when I was young, but I feel this goes beyond that. In any event, I will explore this slightly esoteric subject matter another time. On to the recipe itself...

I started by making a batch of relatively strong chicken stock the previous evening. The following day, I skimmed the fat off the cooled stock and then got it on the heat with the green trimmings from about five leeks (thoroughly washed of course) to infuse the stock. The thick, dark green end of the leek is a bit too tough to include in the finished dish (it can also upset the tummy), but they have plenty of flavour that can be extracted when steeped in hot stock. Then I slowly cooked down about four or five thinly sliced leeks (the white part and a small amount of the tenderest green part)in butter with a pinch of both salt and sugar . Leeks do not caramelized quite the same way that onions do, so there will actually be a bit of green going on--picture braised celery. After about 45 minutes, the leeks are about as soft as they are going to get and then I strain the large green stalks out of the chicken broth and combine the broth with the leeks. The soup now can cook gently for a while to further enhance the leek flavour. 

In the mean time, I took a day-old baguette that I picked up from the bakery for next to nothing (quite a bargain). My local baker makes bread that is so wonderfully yeasty and chewy that it simply exceeds anything else I've tasted, including the ever popular Ace Bread I might add. It is not French bread in the strictest sense because the crust is much more yielding than the classic crunch of a proper French baguette. However, this bread offers a different experience that seems to fit perfectly with the kind of Ontario terroir that I tend to cook within. Let's face it, we're not in France, so why try to mimic their bread? Okay, enough of the digression on bread. I cut this loaf up into very chunky croutons and then tossed them in a bit of melted butter, Maldon salt and a crank on the pepper mill. Into a 375 degree oven on a baker's rack for about 20 minutes and you have croutons that are good enough to eat as snack out of a paper bag. The classic French onion soup uses whole slices of toasted baguette, which while authentic, I find it is actually difficult to eat. My take allows for the spoon to easily penetrate through an island of croutons that are held together by nothing but melted cheese. What's not to like? 

To assemble: ladle your soup into an appropriately shaped bowl, right up to the top. Then load up the top with your croutons. Then grate over cheese, drop a few oiled sage leaves on top and get under a hot broiler. A blow torch could work as well. (A note on the cheese - I liked the idea of pairing a strong Welsh cheddar such as Colliers with the leek soup. Leeks are a very Welsh ingredient, so the match seemed logical. However, I want this to be a Canadian soup - not a Welsh soup. So I purchased a very old and very salty Canadian cheddar that was spot on. I can't recall the name, but it was certainly an artisanal dairy.) 

So in the end, I was happy with the flavours. The presentation needs work as I wasn't happy with the cheese's colour in the end. I may tinker with this a bit and create a cheese concoction that is reminiscent of a rarebit. This would guarantee a beautiful, bubbly brown top. One more test run and it should be perfect.


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