CARAMELIZED CARROT SOUP

Emeril Lagasse had his trademark “BAM!”  Rachael Ray goes with “Yumm-o,”  and Anne Burrell chimes in again and again:  “Brown food tastes good!”   When they are overused these expressions get on my nerves, but I can’t argue with the importance of browning  your food to pump up its flavor.  So, what is happening to the food?  It all reduces to a series of chemical events known as the  “Maillard reactions,”named after the French chemist who discovered them, Louis-Camille Maillard (pronounced “mah-yar”).
Maillard reactions involve proteins and sugars.  These molecules may react with each other if they contain atoms on their surfaces with a net positive or negative charge.  Proteins consist of tens or hundreds of  amino acids linked together, but the constituent amino acids of a native  protein are not very reactive, because they fold into a  stable 3-dimensional structure.  However, subjecting the protein to high energy (heat) or a basic (high pH) environment destabilizes its structure, exposing the charges of many of its amino acids.  If present, a sugar will react with the charged amino acids  to produce all sorts of different compounds, many of which taste great!  Note that boiling water won’t do the trick: the Maillard reactions need much higher heat, like in a skillet with hot oil, or on a grill.  As we all know, these are the best approaches to browning foods.
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Caramelization and Maillard reactions are often used interchangeably, but this is wrong because the former refer to what happens to a sugar alone upon heating, whereas Maillard reactions always involve proteins and sugars.  The two processes are cosmetically and conceptually similar, in that both produce a brown color, but they arise from different chemistry.
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and… brown food DOES tastes good!  😉
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That brings me to a recipe for caramelized carrot soup, in which just a few simple ingredients….
… come together to create an incredible depth of flavor.  Here increasing both the heat (a pressure cooker works its magic), and the pH (baking soda to the rescue) optimizes the Maillard reactions.  Chemistry never tasted so good!
CARAMELIZED CARROT SOUP (adapted from Food and Wine magazine)
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1/3 cup low fat yogurt
1 teaspoon chopped tarragon
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds, chopped
salt and pepper
6 tTbs unsalted butter (divided in 4 + 2 Tbs)
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups fresh carrot juice (see notes)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
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In a small bowl, mix the yogurt with tarragon, caraway seeds, a touch of salt and pepper, and reserve.  In a pressure cooker, combine 4 tablespoons of the butter with the carrots and cook uncovered until the butter is melted. Stir in the salt and baking soda, cover and cook at full pressure  for 10 minutes.Carefully move the pressure cooker to the sink and run cold water over the lid until the temperature drops down and the pressure is equalized  (one minute under cold water will definitely be enough). Open the pressure cooker, add the carrot juice (or a mixture of carrot juice + water), and stir to release caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
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Transfer the contents of the pan to a blender or food processor, add the ginger, the remaining 2 Tbs of butter, and puree until smooth.   Season the soup with pepper and pour into bowls.  Garnish with a small dollop of the reserved yogurt, sprinkle some fresh tarragon, and serve.
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ENJOY!
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to print the recipe, click here
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Comments:  Don’t be alarmed by the look of the carrot/butter mixture once you open the pressure cooker.  The brown bits stuck to the pan will dissolve easily and they give this soup the most intense carrot flavor ever!
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The box of carrot juice I used had a little less than 2 cups so I completed the volume with water. If you have some V8 juice around the pantry, it could be a nice addition.  This technique won me over, I wonder if other soups could benefit from this treatment. Caramelized broccoli?   Butternut squash?  Only future experiments will tell…  😉  At any rate, this will be my favorite soup recipe for the year 2011.  Hands down!
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ONE YEAR AGO: Miso-Grilled Shrimp
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CARROT AND LEEK SOUP

Here in California the warm weather hangs around,  making me almost forget that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.  But when the latest issue of Fine Cooking was delivered in the mail, the gorgeous cover showing a croquembuche in all its glory was a clear reminder:  the holidays will soon be here, it’s time for comfort food.  Lots of things I want to cook right away from the magazine, but I started with a carrot and leek soup that turned out light and satisfying at the same time.

CARROT AND LEEK SOUP
(adapted from Fine Cooking)

1 T olive oil
1/2 T butter
1 medium-size leek, white and light green part only, thinly sliced
1 shallot, diced
1/2 pound carrots, sliced (about 6, medium)
2 cups water (or chicken stock)
salt and pepper
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup low fat yogurt
2-3 T fresh orange juice

Melt the olive oil and butter in a medium-sized pan, cook the shallots and leeks until soft but not brown,  seasoning lightly with salt and pepper.   Add the sliced carrots, water (or stock),  thyme leaves,  bring to a boil, cover the pan and reduce the heat.   Cook until the carrots are soft, about 15 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, puree the soup to the consistency you enjoy (we prefer it with a little body, not fully smooth).  Alternatively, you can use a blender or food processor (be careful when blending hot liquids).   Bring the pureed soup back to the stove, add the yogurt and orange juice, heat very gently.   Taste, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.   Serve with croutons and minced chives.

ENJOY!

to print the recipe, click here

Comments: I changed the recipe quite a bit, so if you want to make their original version (that includes fancy homemade herb croutons and a few more bells and whistles), buy the magazine. You won’t be disappointed:  the cookies section alone and the step-by-step recipe for Beef Wellington are well worth the small investment… 😉

Yogurt is a perfect addition for certain soups, when a hint of richness is welcome, but you don’t want to go overboard. This recipe is similar to the creamy broccoli soup I recently blogged about, and the same basic method might be used for other veggies: butternut squash, cauliflower, even asparagus, although I haven’t quite optimized a method to get a nice, smooth texture when pureeing asparagus.  Just another little item to add to my list of culinary challenges…  😉

Note to self:  Make soup more often.

ONE YEAR AGO: Chicken Parmiggiana 101


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