Monday, August 25, 2008

Waiting, with Carrot Soup for Company

I love this time of year. Technically it’s still summer, and thank goodness for that. I’ve got picnics to pack, skimpy shirts to wear, and peaches to eat. But fall—a tiny hint of it, just barely perceptible as the sun sets a little earlier each day—has nudged its way into my mind, and all I can think about is the color orange.

Orange is THE color of fall, and a beautiful one at that. Orange is a happy color, a color that radiates joy and boldness. Orange shouts immoderately, “Look at me! I’m ORANGE!” It can be a little overwhelming, but immoderate amounts of joy will do that to a person. Contrary to what might be the popular opinion, I think orange looks great on many people: it brightens the face and flatters the complexion, making its wearer appear youthful and perky. Even almost-redheads like me can get away with wearing orange—or so I tell myself every time I walk out of a store with another orange shirt.

With fall and orange in mind, I’ve been fantasizing about pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin scones, pumpkin soup and pumpkin quiche. As Matt said, though, about something entirely different, “You gotta wait wait wait wait wait.” So no pumpkins yet, dear reader. Instead, my belly and I turned our attention to a different orange, one that works perfectly in summer or fall, served cold or hot, with bread and cheese or maybe with a tangy little salad: the perfect carrot soup. I have found it, and I humbly (or not so humbly, given that I am calling it “THE perfect”) present it to you for your culinary scrutiny.

I’m not shy about using cream and creamy things when I think it lets a tasty dish soar to new heights. Cream is delicious! To my mind, it works best when you know how to make it work for you. It is a soothing ingredient, an indulgence best reserved for special meals and the occasional splash into morning coffee. Cream takes the edge off searing spices and caresses tart-sweet tomatoes. It adds welcome richness to my sister-in-law’s frittatas and crustless pumpkin pies. I like the mouth-feel of cream in carrot soups, but I have found that too much dairy fat dulls the sweet, delicate flavors, making one regret the wasted calories and mediocre soup.

What carrot soup needs is just a hint of dairy fat, in the form of butter, to amp up the flavor of an aromatic onion saute. From there, we bring on the carrots, soup stock, and a handful of rice for luscious texture. Finish with a sprinkle of orange zest, a generous pour of fresh orange juice, and a splash of white wine, and there you have it: the perfect carrot soup and not a drop of cream in sight. But don’t skip the butter: it provides just the right amount of richness at a bargain price for your wallet and your waistline. For those of you who are math- or calorie-counting-inclined, each big bowl of soup (with my ladling, I get four servings) has just under three grams of fat from the butter. Like I said, bargain! Especially for a soup this tasty.

And so I wait, with carrot soup for company, until pumpkins make their bright debut. At least I know I’ll be well-fed. Maybe this waiting business isn’t so bad after all.

The Perfect Carrot Soup
Adapted loosely from “Carrot-Orange Soup with a Toasted Cashew Garnish” in Soup and Bread by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes 4 large bowls of soup

Oh, how many hours have I spent with Soup and Bread, lounging on the couch reading from it or scurrying around the kitchen cooking from it! It is one of the best cooking investments I have made. Have you picked up your copy yet?

But I must confess: I never did make this soup’s predecessor as Crescent instructs. Why not? I suppose it’s because when I first found the recipe, I feared heavy cream would make me plump. Now, five years into graduate school, a little plumping might do me some good, but it’s too late: I like my version of this soup, which is similar to the original, ingredient-wise, but nonetheless has deviated quite a bit. The harmony of subtle flavors here is truly wonderful. This soup is delicious hot or cold and I think it would be a lovely picnic soup—perhaps a good choice for an Equinox evening outside?

1 tbsp. butter
1 large onion, chopped
6-7 medium to large carrots, ends chopped off, peeled, and chopped into rounds or “coins” (you’ll want about 3 cups of carrot coins)
2 tbsp. white rice (I use jasmine rice)
3-4 cups* mild, very tasty vegetable stock**
1 generous tsp. freshly grated orange zest
Juice of one orange (about 1/2 cup)
2 tbsp. dry white wine
Salt to taste

1) Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saute for several minutes until it starts to soften and become very fragrant.
2) Transfer the buttery onions to a soup pot. Add the chopped carrots and rice. Use a ladle or two of the vegetable stock to deglaze the onion skillet, pouring the deglazing stock into the soup pot along with the remaining stock. Bring the contents of the soup pot to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Cover the pot and let everything simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is very tender.
3) At this point, you can either finish the soup or allow it to cool for a while if you like. When you are ready to finish the soup, add the orange zest and orange juice. Working in batches, transfer the pot’s contents to a blender and blend to smoothness. You may need to do this in several batches; I do it in 2-3 batches.
4) Transfer the pureed soup back into the soup pot. Add the wine and taste. You may want to add salt or some water or stock if the soup is too thick, so adjust as needed.
5) Serve the soup hot or cold as desired.

*I offer a range of volumes for the stock because you can choose to make the soup thicker or thinner as you prefer.
**Note that the stock will play an important role in determining the soup’s flavor, so be sure to pick a mild but good-tasting stock. You don’t want, for example, a mushroom stock here because the flavor will overpower the rest of the soup.


Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

Great post. I was thrilled---positively thrilled---when the first acorn squash of the season hit the farmer's market last weekend.

Rosiecat said...

Thank you, Sally. And acorn squash at your market--how exciting!